chile con carne



once upon a time, in the annals of my life as a cook, i so happened to live in santa cruz. oh, you'll say, why santa cruz? i'd say why not, but in reality it was for the infamous 'cherchez la femme'. the woman, a girl really, lived there. with me on her side she matriculated graciously in the finer arts of anthropology and environmental studies from ucsc.

there was really not all that much to do in town, aside from sitting in a coffee house garden and hearing the guy with the guitar thrashing 'for ever young'. but i was so much older then, and decided to enter a cook-off. the cook-off called for chili, though not what kind, just chili, or as the man said 'jazzchillie'. he was rumored to run for mayor early fall, hence it could be beef, chorizo, chicken, vegetarian, a combo of all, as long as it reached a volcano's heat. being german i like heat in a moderate way, hot alone just won't do. it's got to have flavor and texture first, beyond the heat of the texas dry wind.

now, you know, a real chili, even in texas embodies no beans. this has brought much affront for me, in texas and elsewhere. beans are a means simply to stretch what could otherwise turn a very fine meal. my chili doesn't go near legumes on that account. so i set out about chopping beef, a slab of three pounds choice top round, nicely marbled. this brings about another debate: beef, budget or lavish. most folk set out to make chili on the cheap. why is that? they would no more drink 'millers' if they could get their hands on a 'lagunitas'. as i said, i cut my meat and did my onions, each in about the same size. it was late summer and the market sold darkly flavored roma tomatoes. just to continue the sequential of the recipe list, i had me two tubes of double concentrate paste, yes, from italy. a head of garlic, mashed. my very own chili sauce, as in 'tomatoes, chipotles, onions, salt, crushed celery, finely ground black mustard seed, sugar, anise and white vinegar'. the list of ingredients for that chili went on to include a blend of cumin, cayenne and coriander. i don't like cloves, so none of those, but astrong, freshly brewed coffee, beef broth and beer, yes, the latter both for the sauce and the cook. that cinnamon scented mexican chocolate goes in at the end.

i began by flaming the raw, but well peppered beef in mezcal. adding this to the slow roasting onions, those chopped roma tomatoes, a little beer now and then to maintain a liquid of course, tomato paste, garlic, my chili sauce, then cumin, cayenne and coriander. softly fresh chillis from the farm stand, like ancho, pasilla, mulato and chipotle, seeds out, flame-roasted skin off, chopped just a little, then beef broth and more beer. this got to cook for a time, serenely reducing, with the occasional beer to maintain some level of liquid. slow hours later and along-the-way tastings, for salt and gruffly crushed pepper, it was a measure of sweet paprika toward the end achieving that aimed for consistency. and every-now-and-then a drop of mezcal for pot and the poet. finally, two dark pucks of that mexican chocolate, deeply melting into the shiny black quivering mess.

set aside over night covered at first in the fridge, then in the morning warming, back on the range to further develop the deep flavor i wanted. by noon i was ready to carry my chili down to the cook-off. my pot got a number, for tasting i insisted on using plain metal five'n dime spoons, there were to be no skinny little white plastics for me. it made an impression. my chili got sampled by a variety of virtuosi, though local, aficionados fancily tasting, comparing and judging and noting (no beans, eh?) eventually returning for another taste, and yet another. the heat in the end was between my fancy contrivance and one, in some ways, quite a bit down the lane, done up by the owner of an establishment famously known in town as 'the yellow rose'. my friend took antacids, weary and woozy from tasting most all our rivals, some twenty-one chilis in all. even though, she kept herself upright and voted for mine as the best.

not so fast, said the man, you'll be cummin' in second and be lucky at that, he winked at me, at the time i had no idea why, though i oughter have known that the 'local establishment' would take the win. next day that winning chile figured bright on their menu. and i won a prize after all, you guessed it: dinner for two at the yellow rose. infidel burgers and chips, a beer each, and a hand written note, fat pencilled on parchment, graciously, from the owner: you was robbed, it said.