So, let's back this up a bit. Anyone who lived in the Triad of North Carolina in the late eighties and early nineties knows that being a vegetarian in that time and place was not an easy task. We had the Fresh Market and one natural foods store and both were SMALL. And let me assure you that there was very little vegetarian fare on any menu other than that of the Rainbow News and Cafe, and even there, it was bound to be smothered in cheese. The one vegetarian item on most menus? Vegetarian Chili. I ate so many darn salads with veggie chili, I am literally nauseated just thinking about it. Most of it wasn't even GOOD veggie chili. Very seldom was it stewed long and slow to make a nice, richly-flavored stew. Nope. Most of the time, it was thrown together so that you could still taste the metal from the bean cans. So, after a seven-year slog through what I considered Vegetarian Hell, I can confidently say one thing: I HATE VEGGIE CHILI. In fact, for several years, I hated ALL chili, but my love of Mexican food finally won out and I started making chili again. BEEF CHILI with BEANS. No vegetables, other than the necessary onions and peppers to season it, and some cilantro and lime to give it tang. Even those were cooked into submission so that you really couldn't find them among the crumbled beef and the shiny beans. And I still don't make chili often: Game day, or when Tim begs for it, or when we are in need of a quick, hot and filling meal and ground beef is on sale. Occasionally, I will try something new: Turkey and Black Bean chili, or some other variation, but the one rule stands: NO VEGETABLES.
So, yesterday, when asked to make a chili, I thought about what was already in my freezer: Kroger had a sale on low-fat ground turkey last week and I had a few packages of it stashed. I had a couple of onions and one can of cannelini beans. Not much, you see. So, since I had errands to run and a happy baby in tow, I actually used my phone to google a recipe for Turkey and White Bean Chili and came up with a 5-star rated Turkey and White Bean Chili by Emeril Lagasse. (Good news, Valerie: I didn't accidentally text you!) Off to Whole Foods I went, in search of dried navy beans, another yellow onion, a good selection of peppers, and some cilantro.
Now, I know some people think Emeril's recipes are too hard and some say his mix of spices is annoying or overly complicated. But I like Emeril, and I think that he, like so many other celebrity chefs (NOT Rachel Ray, thankyouverymuch, but ACTUAL chefs) make great food accessible to us mere cooking mortals. I was surprised to find that not only did so many reviewers love the recipe, but, more importantly, none of them had actually followed the recipe exactly as written. Everyone fudged something, giving the chili a little personality of its own. Daring to defy the master, I grabbed a bottle of chipotle (not in the recipe) and a serrano pepper (also not in the recipe) and dashed to the check-out before any Food Network spies checked my cart. (I also had to grab a block of that super-yummy white cheddar they were sampling, but that's another story.)
It turns out, I didn't quite have what I needed to double the recipe. I only had three packages of turkey instead of four. But I am working on the chili now and have tweaked and tasted along the way, and it's pretty darn good. It's also the first time in probably 15 years I've used dried beans, and I realize that I miss them. They require patience and planning, but I think they are well worth the effort and time. Some might think I am crazy for entering a chili cookoff with a untried chili recipe, but I disagree: Millions of fans can't be wrong. And even Emeril knows that chili really is fool-proof. In fact, I am surprised he even wrote down his recipe, because chili seems to be the one dish in everyone's house that is forever changing and always open to suggestions. My nephew's wife commented on my "Leap..." post that his chili was awesome and never the same twice. My own chili, the one I make when I am whipping up a batch, has three key ingredients, and always in some variation: Chipotle, at least two other types of peppers, and at least two types of beans. The amounts vary, the cooking time varies, but I always include those three things to give it texture and depth. (Oh, and, of course, a bay leaf or two!!)
Besides, is an office chili cookoff something to win, or just another excuse to share food and tales with friends and colleagues? Apparently, Tim is a judge for the cookoff, and this was of some concern to the organizers. What they don't understand is that, after 16 years together, I expect Tim to tell me the truth about my cooking. And Tim is too much of a team player to vote for his own wife's chili. He'll vote to make sure that the nurses and staff know how much he appreciates them, and he'll thank me for being a part of it when he gets home, which is good enough for me. (What can I say? I like to see him happy.)
So, go cook your own chili, but if you want some inspiration, take a few hints from my friend (and yours), Emeril:
And don't forget to grab your secret ingredients.