Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chili on the Cheap




Last Sunday, we had the family over to celebrate my youngest's first birthday. The timing of the day was such that I needed to come up with a lunch that could be ready to serve the moment we walked in the door from church. I came up with the idea of chili and cornbread because both could be made ahead. I took the chili out of the refrigerator and put it in the crockpot before we left for church in the morning and I made the cornbread the night before and quickly reheated it in the oven when it was time to eat.

The chili must have been ok because I had virtually no leftovers from my big pot of it. Even my brother-in-law who has proclaimed that he “Does not like chili” had two bowls. Because of this, my sister-in-law has asked for the recipe. Here is my dilemma...I didn't use one. You see, lately I have been on a quest to slash our grocery expenses drastically. I have discovered I can cook the cheapest when I don't follow recipes to a tee, but instead use what I have on hand or can purchase at a bargain.

With the exception of baking which is a bit of an exact science to make things rise properly, most cooking has a lot of play in it. I tend to read tons of recipes that I never actually use. I read them to try and understand the common threads that make up a particular dish. For example, when I wanted to make chili, I went to my favorite recipe site, All Recipes, and did a search on “chili”. Then I sorted these by rating so that I could look at the most tried and true and loved recipes. The recipes are quite varied, but if you look closely at what makes up the bulk of each recipe, you will notice that there are some trends. Most recipes are based on many of the same ingredients or at least the same types of ingredients. I noticed that chili tends to be made up of some sort of tomato base (whole canned tomatoes, tomato juice, etc.), chili powder, beans of some type, meat of some type, and then there are various extras that give each chili its unique flavor.

Now, if I just picked a chili recipe and then proceeded to go out and purchase all of the ingredients that I needed for it, it may not end up being any bargain. So, I looked at what I had on hand first and created my own recipe based on those things.
So here is my recipe:

TOMATOES:
These make up the base of the chili. I used a large (28 oz) can of whole tomatoes, a large can of crushed tomatoes and a (14oz) can of diced tomatoes. I did not drain any of them.

MEAT:
Most recipes have some sort of beef (ground, roast, etc) although I found several that also included some type of sausage. Since I didn't have anything on hand in this department I bought a couple of pounds of ground beef because it seemed to be the best deal and I know we love that in chili.

BEANS:
Most recipes call for kidney beans or chili beans which are already seasoned. My family members are not big bean fans even though I am trying to train them to be for the sake of saving money and eating healthy. I ended up using a can of black beans and a can of pinto beans because that is what I had on hand. I did use a little trick my friend, Angela, told me. After draining the beans, I put over half of them into my food processor and ground them up. This gives you the nice bean flavor in your chili without so many whole (obvious) beans themselves.

SPICE/HEAT:
I used chili powder which is what gives most recipes their standard chili flavor. I think I used about ¼ cup. I also added one fresh jalapeƱo, because I had them on hand to make pico de gallo. How much spice you use is up to you and your family's personal taste. I added some and then tasted. I have found that bottled hot sauce is really yummy, too, but I was about out of it last weekend.

THE EXTRAS:
There's quite a few extras that can go into chili. I read through several recipes, taking note of what I had on hand and what I thought would blend together without a clashing of flavors. I keep a fairly well stocked pantry and spice cabinet so I had quite a few things available to add to my chili.

Here is the list of what I threw in:

Onions! We LOVE onions around here, so I think I added two chopped yellow onions.

Garlic. We also love garlic and it can add a little kick so I think I used 4-5 fresh cloves, minced.

Cumin. 1-2 tsp.

Beef Bouillon. I actually used beef soup base, but 3-4 bouillon cubes would be equivalent.

Beer. It adds a really nice flavor to chili. I used a bottle of Budweiser that was hiding in the basement from who-knows-when.

Worcestershire sauce. I splashed some in. It was perhaps a tablespoon.

Brown sugar. I used a loose ¼ cup.

Apple Cider Vinegar. I used a splash – a tablespoon or two.

Cinnamon. I just shook some in. It was perhaps a teaspoon.

Fresh cilantro. I only added this because I had it on hand. It tastes wonderful and added pretty flecks of green into the chili. I used about ½ a bunch, chopped.

Salt. Add it to taste.

Black pepper.

THE PROCESS:
I browned the ground beef along with the onions in the bottom of the pot and then drained off the grease. Then I started adding in the rest starting with the tomatoes and working down the list here. I taste tested often along the way to make sure I was happy with the flavor. It is better to add too little of an ingredient if in doubt about it because that can be fixed.

After all the ingredients are in, it is important to let this simmer a bit for the flavors to blend together. In my case here, I let it simmer for an hour and then let it cool and placed it in the fridge. Then it had about 4 or so hours in the crockpot the next day. This made a good sized pot of chili.

I served it with fresh pico de gallo (which is something that my family has learned to crave), fritos, sour cream, and sharp cheddar cheese.

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