I can’t think of any dish more satisfying than a steaming bowl of earthy chili when winter’s grip bears down in earnest. Not that that happens here in Thailand, but vivid memories of winter’s bite are forever embedded in my psyche none the less. Chili’s colorful cultural past adds an almost palatable celebratory air that makes it an ideal choice for those informal holidays meals that lie ahead. Chili does freeze beautifully so why not get a head start and have chili essentially ready on demand.
Whenever I sit down to write about chiles there is that lingering conundrum about spelling and usage of the words that always comes to mind. When to use Chile and when to use Chili? Having lived among both Spanish and Mexican communities in the American Southwest and in Los Angeles for some time I have have sorted out the usage, but there are still ongoing heated debates about the correct spelling, definition, and usage of the words chile and chili.
In short chile is the Spanish word for all varieties of peppers (capsicums) that they discovered when they arrived in the new world. In Mexico however the word chili stems from the Nahuatl/ Aztec language dating back to at least the 7th century which describes the plants that produce all varieties chilis (capsicums).
Of course today both words have garnered various meanings not only for the peppers themselves but also for dishes that are made with them.
For example, in the North American southwest the word chile is used to describe varieties of capsicums associated with various levels of scoville heat as well as dishes made with the them. In the rest of North America the word chili (chili con carne) describes the popular spicy Tex Mex stew like dish that contains ground meat in a chile and tomato based sauce that often includes beans. South of the border chili con Carne is a chunky meat stew in a spicy chili based sauce without the addition of beans.
Confused? Just to make the differentiation even a little more complicated the Nahuatl language is still widely used in rural central Mexico as is the word chili. So in Mexican communities living on both sides of the border use both words interchangeably.
Generally speaking, it is safe to say that chile is the appropriate word to reference all varieties of capsicums with heat. Chili is reserved for describing the popular dish chili con carne as well as the seasoning mixture of ground dried chile powder mixed with other seasoning spices. Pure ground chiles without other seasonings would be called chile powder.
For more tasty information on this spicy subject (click here) for Chili (Basics).
The recipe that follows more closely follows a Mexican chili con carne that includes dried chiles to deeply flavor the sauce. However I have used ground beef instead of chunks of beef, and included beans in the chili which are served separately in Mexico. For me, including the beans in the chili makes a more complex and richly flavorsome Mexican meal in a single bowl. But maybe I’m just biased having grown up eating Tex Mex chile.
Chili con Carne serves 6
- 12 dried guajillo chiles, split lengthwise, seeds removed
- 1 or 2 dried chipotle chiles (or canned chipotles in adobo)
- 6 garlic cloves, skin on
- 3 tablespoons lard or cold pressed peanut oil
- 2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons toasted cumin seeds, ground
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano (Mexican if available)
- 4 vine ripe tomatoes (or canned Italian plum tomatoes)
- 2 pounds ground beef
- ¼ teaspoon ground clove
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
- 1 tablespoon pure ground red chile powder
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt + more to taste
- 1 quart beef or chicken stock + more as needed, preheated
- 2 cups cooked beans (pinto, kidney, or black)
- salsa fresca
- crema or sour cream
- warm corn and flour tortillas
Warm a heavy bottom skillet over medium heat. Place the guahillo chiles in the skillet. Using a spatula press the chiles against the bottom of he pan. Let them toast for a minute or so and then flip them over, again pressing them against the bottom of the skillet and toasting another minute. Remove them and set them aside to cool briefly. Then remove the stems, tear the chiles into pieces, and place them in a sauce pan. Add the whole dried chipotle chiles and add just enough water to cover all the chiles and place the pan over low heat. Bring to a low simmer and cook until the chiles are soft and pliable, about 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool. Remove the stems from the chipotle chiles and transfer all the chiles to a blender jar and add enough cooking liquid to cover. Reserve the remaining cooking liquid to use later as needed,
Using the same skillet toast the unpeeled garlic cloves until they are lightly colored on all sides. Remove them and set them aside to cool. Then peel off the skin, mince the garlic, and set aside.
Add 1 tablespoons lard or oil to the skillet. When the oil is hot add the onions and saute until they are soft and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the chopped garlic, ground cumin, and oregano and saute another couple of minute. Then transfer the contents of the pan to the blender jar.
Add 1 tablespoons of the lard or oil to the same skillet set over medium heat. When hot add the tomatoes (fresh or canned) and fry them until they are soft and lightly caramelized. Break them up and continue to cook until very soft. Then transfer them to the blender jar including the juices.
Add enough reserved chile liquid to to fill the blender jar to about half full. Begin pulsing until the ingredients are broken down and then increase the speed to high until the mixture is very smooth. If it is very thick thin with the remaining reserved chile liquid or stock.
Heat the remaining tablespoon of lard or oil in a soup or stock pot set over medium heat. When hot add the ground beef and cook until the meat is evenly browned, stirring from time to time. Add the clove, bay leaves, cocoa powder, red chile powder, and salt. Stir until well combined. Then pour in the hot stock and stir. When the contents reach a boil, lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes.
Add the beans and continue to cook another 30 minutes. The consistency of the chili should be very thick, but add a little stock to thin it out a bit if needed. Taste and add additional salt to taste. Skim off excess fat floating on the surface of the chili and discard.
At this point the chili is ready to serve. Otherwise transferred the chili to containers and cool to room temperature before covering and refrigerating or freezing.
This chili is so rich and flavorsome it needs very little embellishment other than a dollop of sala fresca and a swirl of sour cream or crema with each serving. Be sure to have a basket full of warm corn and flour tortillas and a bowl of salasa fresca placed on the table.
Crema is a Mexican sour cream that you can make by simply stirring a small amount of whole milk into a bowl of sour cream.
As a follow up to my last post on Roasted Kabocha Squash, here is a quick and easy Mexican calabaza (pumpkin) soup you can make from scratch or with any remaining roasted squash you may have on hand.
The smoky sweet flavor and deep rounded heat of dried chipotle chiles pairs beautifully with roasted squash and gives this robust rustic soup an authenticity you might find in a villages in northern Mexico, the central highlands, Veracruz on the Gulf coast, or in Oaxaca in the south eastern Mexico.
Chipotle chiles are made with fully ripened red jalapeno chiles that are then smoked and dried over smoldering pecan wood embers. The pecan tree is indigenous to Mexico and is the wood of choice for drying chipotles. Chipotle varieties are readily available all over Mexico, and in Mexican or Latin markets north of the border. Canned chipotles packed in red adobo sauce are more readily available both in the US and abroad and they can be substituted in the following recipe if rinsed before using.
Smoky Mexican Roasted Pumpkin Soup Serves 6
- 1 small pumpkin or squash roasted
- 1 dried chipotle chile, re hydrated, seeded, and finely minced
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 onion, peeled, and finely diced
- 3 cloves garlic peeled and finely minced
- 1 ½ cups finely minced celery with leaves
- 1 ½ quarts hot stock or water plus more as needed
- 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt+ more to taste
- corn tortilla chips of choice (Garden of Eten’ is my favorite store bought brand)
- Mexican cotija cheese or feta as a substitute.
Follow the recipe instructions for roasting squash including optional seasonings. (click here for recipe)
To rehydrate the chipotle chile place it in a small pan with just enough water to cover. Simmer over very low heat for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the chipotle and set aside to cool. Reserve the cooking liquid to use later. When the chipotle is cool, slit it open lengthwise and remove the seeds and discard them. Mince the chile and set aside.
Place a soup pot over a medium low flame and when hot add the oil. Once the oil is hot add the onions and saute, stirring from time to time, until they are soft and translucent. Add the garlic and saute 1 minute. Add the minced chipotle and stir to combine. Then stir in the celery and saute for another 5 minutes.
Once the celery is very soft add the roasted pumpkin, the hot stock or water, and the reserved chipotle cooking water to the pot and stir. Once the soup returns to a boil lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes. Top up with additional stock or water as needed.
Remove the pot from the heat and using an immersion blender, or blender, blend until the soup is very smooth. Add salt and blend again. Taste and adjust the salt to your own taste. The soup should be quite thick, but you can thin it down with addition hot stock or water if you wish.
Cotija is a hard cows milk cheese from Michoacan in the central highlands of Mexico. Available in some Mexican markets or online. Otherwise I find Feta is an excellent substitute.
Ladle the soup into individual bowls, Push 6 or 8 corn tortilla chips in the center of the soup and scatter crumbled cotija (or feta) over the soup and serve.
Kabocha squash may not be as familiar as other varieties of squash, but well worth trying if they are available where you live. They are plentiful here in Asia where they are known as Japanese winter squash variety. Kabocha squash was brought into Japan from Cambodia by Portuguese sailors in the mid 1500’s. Kabocha squash is now widely available here in South East Asia as well as New Zealand, Hawaii, parts of the US, Jamaica, Mexico, and Chile.
Kabocha squash has a thick deep bluish green knobbly skin with celadon streaks. The flesh is a brilliant yellow orange with a pronounced sweet flavor, not unlike the sweet potatoes, when roasted. Kabocha squash is rich in beta carotene, iron, vitamins B and C, potassium, calcium, and folic acid.
kabocha squash’s appearance might be perceived as unattractive, but you can’t always judge a book by its cover. The shape and color of a kabocha squash reminds me a bit of the Japanese Mingei style in pottery that emerged in Japan in the 1920’s. The uneven surface and muddled coloration of a kabocha squash is not unlike the shapes of pots and the color palettes for glazes favored by potters at the time. The Mingei movement was based on bringing common, imperfect, and utilitarian objects into the realm of what was considered art. The idea that ordinary and utilitarian objects existed beyond a realm of beauty or ugliness was a radical idea that redefined what was art in a rapidly evolving modern Japan.
That said,the inner beauty of this squash is ravishingly revealed in the kitchen! Roasting squash is so easy it almost makes itself and the results are brilliantly colorful, comfortingly flavorful, and abundantly healthful to boot!
I particularly like to enlist roasted squash as as an alternative for sweet potatoes for holiday meals. The brilliant color alone should be persuasive enough for you to give it a try. A flourish of pomegranate syrup drizzled over the squash makes this a spectacular side dish for any holiday spread. I like to serve the squash with a lemony tabbouleh which compliments the sweetness of the squash beautifully.
Roasting Pumpkin and Squash: For recipe (click Here)
As mentioned, drizzling the roasted squash with pomegranate syrup adds a lovely sweet sour note to the squash. Pomegranate syrup is available at Greek and Middle Eastern shops and online.
Or make your own Pomegranate syrup. Simply slowly boil pomegranate juice in a non-reactive saucepan until reduced to a syrup. Be careful towards the end of the reduction. Once the syrup begins to bubble up begin swirling the pan. You do not want to syrup to caramelize which would make it bitter rather than tart and crisp.
When the squash is a beautiful golden color remove from the oven and transfer to a serving platter. Drizzle with Pomegranate syrup and serve along with a small bowl of the syrup placed on the table.
Tabbouleh: For recipe (click here)
Calabacitas is a traditional native squash dish that has been prepared throughout Central America and the American Southwest since ancient times. Today there are many regional variations, but the essential native ingredients that date back to pre-Columbian times include calabaza (pumpkin or squash), elote (corn), and chilies. Following the arrival of the Spanish in the 1400’s cows, sheep, and goats were imported from the old world and calabacitas evolved with the introduction of dairy by-products, including cream (crema) and cheeses.
Interestingly, Mennonite farmers who settled in Chihuahua in the late 1800’s, began producing semi soft cows milk cheeses known as queso Mennonita, which is officially recognized as an authentic Mexican cheese, and often tops calabacitas beautifully to this day.
The recipe that follows reflects various New Mexican and Mexican calabacitas I have encountered while living in Santa Fe and on frequent forays into Mexico over the years. As Mexican cheeses are not generally available outside of Mexico, alternative cheeses include a mild hard or soft goat cheese or fresh or soft mozzarella.
Calabacitas is a beautiful dish to consider for a truly traditional American holiday meal. Or, do as they do in Mexico, a calabacitas con pavo and transform your leftover turkey into a comida a la Mexicana.
Calabacitas: serves 4
- 3 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
- 3 teaspoons butter
- 1 bunch fresh sage leaves, leaves only
- 3 medium size zucchini, ends trimmed, cut into ½ inch cubes
- 3 ears fresh sweet corn, kernels cut off the cob, cob scraped to extract the milk
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 2 onions, peeled, quartered, and thinly sliced
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 3-4 flame roasted jalapeno chilies, skin and seeds removed, cut into thin rajas (strips)
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano leaves
- ¼ cup stock as needed
- 3 ½ oz sour cream
- pinch of cinnamon
- flaked sea salt to taste
- 1/2 cup fresh Mexican cheese (or optional cheeses mentioned above)
- poached chicken or leftover turkey (optional)
Ideally I like to use a cast iron iron skillet for even browning of the vegetables, but a large heavy bottomed frying pan should work equally well.
Place the skillet on the stove top over medium flame. When the pan is hot add a tablespoon of oil and a teaspoon of butter. When melted add the sage leaves and fry until crisp, 30 to 45 seconds should do it. Transfer the fried leaves to a plate and set aside to use later.
Promptly add cubed zucchini to the pan with out crowding. You may have to brown the zucchini in several batches. Turn the zucchini to be sure it browns on all sides, about 5 or 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate to use later. Continue, browning the remaining zucchini and set aside.
Add another tablespoon of oil and teaspoon butter to the pan and, when hot, add the whole corn kernels. Brown the corn on all sides, again about 5 or 6 minutes. Then transfer to another plate and set aside to use later
Once again, add 1 tablespoon oil and 1 teaspoon butter to the pan. When melted add the onions and saute until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to saute until the onions just begin to color, about 4 minutes.
Meanwhile place the milk in a small sauce pan and add the scrapped corn with its milk. Place the pan over low heat and warm to nearly simmering. Stir in the pinch of cinnamon and turn off the heat.
When the onions are nicely colored add the browned zucchini, browned corn, and the roasted jalapeno strips to the skillet. Add the marjoram or oregano, and half of the sage leaves, crumbled over the other ingredients. Stir all the ingredients together and add just enough stock to moisten the calabacitas, about ¼ cup at the most should do it. Heat to a mere simmer, taste, and add sea salt to your liking. Simmer for about 5 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 325 F/170 c (if using)
Meanwhile stir the sour cream into the warm milk mixture with corn scrapings until well combined,
At this point you can place the skillet of calabacitas over very low heat on the stove top. Stir in the sour cream milk mixture, top with grated cheese if using, cover lightly with foil and warm for several minutes. Then turn off the heat and set aside.
Alternately you can transfer the calabacitas to baking dish, scatter grated cheeses over the surface if using, and place in the preheated oven to warm for about 15 minutes.
You can serve the calabacitas on the stove top in the skillet, or transfer to a serving bowl, top with the remaining fried sage leaves and serve.
Or, serve the calabacitas directly out of the oven garnished with the fried sage leaves.