A few years ago while I was still in college, I decided to cook dinner for my friends on my birthday. I spent all afternoon in the kitchen making eggplant Parmesan, I got bread, I fixed a fresh salad, and made a pineapple upside down cake. At around six my friends arrived. School had just started, so we all sat down, talking about how out summer had been. One of my friends had just got back from the Middle East. I brought something we could try tonight. he said, and pulled out a little bag of dark green herbs.
No, it wasnt drugs, unfortunately. It was a dried herb concoction that was supposed to be added to oil so that you could dip your bread in it. I brought out a dish of olive oil and we all tried the herbs, which were good, but not, say, noticeably different from the herbs that come with oil in Natashas Café on Main Street. But my friends were awe-struck. They loved the herbs. They went on and on about how good they were. Eventually they ate the entire loaf of bread, and declaring themselves stuffed. For such a special treat they wandered off, leaving me with an untouched salad, eggplant parmesan for six, and an entire pineapple upside down cake. I plowed through it all doggedly for the next week, but most of it ended up in the trash anyway. Thats when I cut open my hand and swore on my own blood that I would never hold a dinner party again. Well, not really, I was sort of heading in the non-cooking direction anyway. Like most lazy people I have discovered that on balance not doing something is easier than doing it. And it isnt like that little birthday party gave me much incentive to change my mind.
But on the other hand sometimes you get caught up in your own little fall fantasies, which is why, a few days ago I broke my blood oath and invited some friends over for a post-Keeneland chili dinner.
Although chili is probably one of the easiest things in the world to make, there is something vaguely intimidating about it. Its impossible to relax while making any food that has competitions based around it. Imagine serving a pie to the director of the state fair.
So I called up my dad, who is a fountain of helpful (and occasionally unhelpful) information. The most important thing about chili, he said, is you dont want to run out. About 3/4 of a pound of meat per-person is a good base.
Saute an onion with a few cloves of finally chopped garlic. When the onions beginning to turn soft add the hamburger. If you use Lauras Lean Beef, you wont have to drain the fat off later. Brown the hamburger, then add the beans and tomatoes. Many people suggest using real beans and soaking them overnight, then cooking them separately, etc., but I have another idea: Go to the canned food section of the grocery store. There you will find cans upon cans labeled chili beans. (I like the kind that are spicy.) This will cut down on you work by about 50% and as we all know, less work is good. In addition they will give your guest less gas. This is also good.
In terms of tomatoes, I think pre-spiced is also a good idea. You can buy the whole stewed tomatoes, which is what I do, or ones that are cut into smaller pieces, in case you are one of those people who dont like enormous hunks of tomato floating in their chili.
Add one can of each tomatoes and beans per pound of meant, more or less. Basically just keep adding until it looks like chili should. Then start adding spices, Chili powder and paprika if you want it hot, or all-spice and cinnamon for Cincinnati chili. The important thing is not to add too much spice. You wan to bring out the flavor of the chili, not smoke your guests out of the house (although, admittedly that could have benefits too).
So thats it. It might not be the greatest chili recipe in the world, but its the one I used for my reluctant re-entry into the world of cooking for other people. The people who came over were perfect guest. They didnt pull out weird bags of herbs to eat, they didnt say they were too full. They even said nice things about the chili.
And they ate every bite. n