A couple of months ago, my friend Julian Olf, a playwright, actor, director and former head of the Theater dept at UMass Amherst, stopped by to read me a monologue he was planning to act. An old man gives the recipe for his wife’s chili, which is really an expression of their love for each other. A non-cook, Julian wanted to know whether the recipe made any sense.
“Yeah, it’s real Texas-style chili con carne,” I told him. “In fact, I’d love to cook it, maybe write it up.” The idea quickly expanded to include the author and director and their partners. The monologue is part of Gone, a Play on Words produced by the August-Company (august-company.com) with performances at 7 PM and 9 PM on May 28 and 29 at North Star, 135 Russell Street in Hadley. Julian’s part, “Chili con Carne,” was written by Dennis Quinn and directed by Liesel de Boor.
Dennis gave me permission to rewrite the monologue as a recipe. He told me that it was based on the recipe his father used to enter into chili cook-offs. The recipe is listed below.
I’ve always loved the bowl of red. This is Texas-style: it is various chili peppers-the chili– with beef –the con carne. No beans. No chicken. No pork. No corn kernels or frozen mixed vegetables. No tomato sauce. Nothing nouveau or dietetic about it.
Turning the monologue into a recipe was an interesting exercise. Usually, I am the one adding poetry for someone else to edit out. This time, my job was to take Dennis’ monologue, which is a tender and personal piece told in a strong and personal voice, and turn it into tablespoons and cups. Since the character is not a cook, at least there is some justification on my part.
Although I have done violence to Dennis’ prose, I have honored it in the making with one exception. The narrator calls for two cast iron pots—a frying pan to brown the meat in and a large one in which to simmer the chili. The frying pan was no problem, but the cast iron Dutch oven just didn’t work out. So I used a heavy steel pot.
The narrator’s wife’s first name is Ximena, though he calls her Jimmy. Jimmy’s measurements are the time honored handfuls of this and pinches of that. To arrive at the measurements, I measured both my wife’s and my handfuls and rounded off. These measurements are starting points anyway; most cooks will either eyeball it or keep adding as they go to correct the seasoning.
“Now make a fist with your left hand over the pot. Pour salt on the top of your fist in a little pile. When the grains start to spill off, stop pouring and dump that salt in the pot.”
Although my wife pointed out that Jimmy probably uses table salt, I used sea salt. The crystals are larger so the measurements might be off somewhat for table salt. However, sea salt has a better flavor, it isn’t as “salty” since the larger grains mean you use less salt per teaspoon, and it does not have the anti-caking additives that make table salt the white bread of salts.
Jimmy adds 3/4 of a bottle of Shiner Bock beer to her chili. Shiner Bock might be available all over Texas, but not so much in Western Massachusetts. In fact, to quote the beer guy at my local favorite, Spirit Haus, “We used to get it but about 10 years ago they stopped shipping it up here.” So, in true locavore style, I found that Paper City Brewery in Holyoke has a seasonal Bock. That, too, proved elusive. So I went for another local beer, although from a different locale, San Fransisco’s Anchor Steam Bock.
What’s the point with bock beer anyway? I’ve made chili with beer that turned extremely bitter. Bock beer is a malty, low hop style of lager beer. The malt makes it slightly sweet and “hoppy” means “bitter” in beer-speak. So, a slightly sweet, less bitter beer sounded perfect. I love pale ales, but in cooking they turn bitter and no amount of sweetening is going to help.
Jimmy simmers the spices in the water she adds to the chili. A nice touch, like making a flavored tea. The narrator says to take out the chili skins and stems and add it all to the meat. In my case, the chilis remained whole, so I blended them, like in other recipes I have, and added the brown paste to taste. The narrator says that a little sweat is a good thing and I agree. However, the three moritas are going to give you one hot chili, so I’ve advised on moderating the spice.
At the end, Jimmy adds a tablespoon of cider vinegar. A lot of Portuguese soups use the touch of vinegar to brighten the flavors and add a touch of sharpness. Salsa producers often add vinegar as a way of making something taste hot and spicy without red pepper.
So, I served it to Julian, Dennis, Liesel and their significant others on Monday night. Sarah made corn bread and sweet tea and set the usual lovely table, the brown trim on the plates complementing the rich red-brown of the chili. Dennis’ verdict? “I haven’t had chili that tasted like this since I left Texas,” he said. He and I added some more of the chili paste, but everyone else, who were worried about the spice level, found it just right. In the chili cook-offs he’d been to in Texas, Dennis noted, “they push it. There was always a little pain involved.”
It’s a good recipe.