I felt peculiar the other day as I added roasted butternut squash and dark chocolate to the same dish. And yet, there I was, putting this very unlikely couple into this steak chili with butternut squash & dark chocolate and feeling a whole lot of dissonance. It reminded me of how I felt the time I passed a young man driving a souped-up Mustang on the highway when I wasn’t even speeding. Strange indeed.
You wouldn’t think chili or, more properly, chili con carne could create any awkward emotions. It’s just chili…a spicy stew that contains some sort of meat, chili peppers, beans (unless you’re from Texas) and whatever else the cook fancies, right?
Nay nay, as the late comedian John Pinette would say. While this iconic Southwestern ‘Texican’ dish may not necessarily elicit dissonance in most folks, it does bring forth ample amounts of pride and competitiveness.
Proof is in the existence of chili’s very own organization, the International Chili Society (ICS), which is dedicated to ‘promoting, developing and improving the preparation and appreciation of true chili.’ In the process, they sanction over 200 chili cookoffs per year throughout the U.S. and in Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom. Apparently it’s not enough just to eat great-tasting chili, for many people theirs has to be the very best. As passionate as I am about all things food-related, I love the enthusiasm.
It can’t be easy to identify the absolute ‘best’ pot o’ red, as chili is also known. Even to the ICS, which posts the following comment on its website: “Every state lays claim to the title [of being the best], and certainly no Texan worth his cumin would think, even for a moment, that it rests anywhere else but in the Lone Star State – and probably right in his own blackened and battered chili pot.” It must get rather tense in the judges’ booth when decision time comes around.
I perused the list of ICS World Chili Championship winners, which dates back to 1967. I clicked on the 2013 World Chili winner. It was a gentleman named Bob Plager from Littleton, Colorado. He looked quite pleased holding his commemorative chili pot trophy and his $25,000 check. I would be too.
Best of all, he shared his winning recipe. To a chili novice such as myself, I found it contained some rather esoteric ingredients. Topping the list were Crisco shortening, chicken granules and pitted prunes, the last of which Mr. Plager adds for a hint of sweetness and to give the gravy a beautiful gloss. The recipe even specified the type of water he used in his chili, which came from Farmers Branch, Texas. Now THAT’s precision! On a comedic note, despite his use of seven different ground chili peppers and chili powders, Mr. Plager nevertheless added Tabasco sauce to the mix with the instructions “as needed for heat.” Now this is a man who takes his chili very, very seriously, and with fabulous results.
I wilt in the shadow of this chili-making behemoth.
Until recently, I made what might be considered a bare-boned version. Made with ground beef, canned tomatoes, kidney beans and parsimonious amounts of chili powder and other spices, in deference to my young ones, it certainly hit the spot on many a cold nights.
I probably would have continued to prepare this simple and satisfying chili indefinitely had my eyes not wondered on a recipe that contained both chocolate and roasted butternut squash. It has got to be remarkable, I reasoned, feeling compelled to make it despite its monstrously long list of 27 ingredients. Any list with more than 17 items makes my eyes glaze over, you see, which could explain why my to-do list never seems to get shorter. But I made it the very next day, managing to pare the number of ingredients some.
The resulting chili was sublime. I still dream about it. My girls loved it. My husband made guttural noises as he ate. I knew I had my very own winner when my husband looked panicked that there might not be any left once he returned from his 2-day business trip.
Now I just need a commemorative chili pot trophy and $25,000 and I’ll be all set.
So let’s begin!
By the way…this recipe is an adapted adaptation of an Emeril Lagasse dish. It’s so far removed, in fact, that I could be accused of merely name-dropping for the attention this beloved celebrity chef generates. Now, it contains more ingredients than I usually humor, but is worth the extra effort of gathering them together. Be warned: there is no turning back once you eat this rich, decadent version.
making steak chili with butternut squash & dark chocolate
Place 2 ½ tablespoons chili powder, ¾ tablespoon ground cumin or cumin seeds, ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon, 3 bay leaves, and 2 teaspoons brown sugar in a small bowl and mix well with a spoon.
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium- high heat. As the oil is heating, prep 2 ½ pounds of steak or stew meat.
Wrap about 1/4 of the beef in a few paper towels to absorb any moisture on the meat. This will help the meat to brown better, adding even more flavor to your chili. (Do this with all 4 batches.) Add the cubes – in batches! – to the now hot pan.
Generously add Kosher or sea salt and freshly-cracked pepper the meat as soon as you add it to the pan. Cook they cubes until they are nice and browned on all sides, and then transfer into a 6-quart slow cooker. Repeat with remaining beef.
When finished browning the beef, add 2 large yellow onions and 6 celery ribs, both chopped.
Add several pinches of Kosher or sea salt to the skillet and cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften, about 10 minutes. Now add 2 jalapenos chiles, seeded and roughly chopped, 6 cloves of garlic, also chopped, and the spice mixture and cook for another minute or so.
Add the cooked vegetables to the crock-pot.
Pour in 2 cups stock of beef stock (chicken stock will do) along with 1 14-oz. can of rinsed red kidney beans, 1 6-oz can of tomato paste, and 1 28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes.
Mix well. Stir in 5 oz. of dark chocolate (I used 50%) and the optional 2 cups of roasted butternut squash and mix again.
Cover and cook on high for 6 hours, occasionally stirring. Serve, removing the bay leaves as you find them. Top with the garnishes of your choice…chopped green onions, sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese will all do! Makes 12 servings.