How to Make Bluegrass Bourbon Chili
by Tom Yates
Everybody loves chili.
Whether filled with ground beef and beans (sacrilege in some parts), strictly vegetarian or vegan, lightened up with chicken, or loaded with long braised meats, a hearty bowl of chili hits the spot when cooler weather slowly sets in. For some folks, there are hard and fast rules for chili based on history and tradition. I get it. That said, I’m a rule breaker.
With all due respect to the iconic Bowls of Red from Texas, the pasta-based Cincinnati 2-3-4-5-Ways, or the fresh green chile stews of New Mexico, there’s still room in the chili world for other regional riffs on chili. Spiked with Kentucky bourbon, filled with local vegetables, packed with local grass-fed beef, and kicked-up with dried chile peppers, boozy Bluegrass chili might give the big boys a run for their money.
I’ve done my share of cooking with bourbon. Heading up the Culinary Art: Bourbon-Style Cooking School (four bourbon-infused courses prepared and demoed for hundreds of people) at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival for a couple of years gave me lots of time to play with bourbon and food. The pairing is fantastic.
Whether applied in sweet or savory preparations, the inherent undertones of smoke, vanilla, caramel, honey, and oaky spice can lace food with complex layers of flavor. Yep. All of that. And…it’s just downright fun.
Stand down, chili police.
Bluegrass Bourbon Chili.
Braised chili takes time. While there’s nothing really complicated about the process, a little organization and mise en place goes a long way before kicking back with a shot of bourbon and letting the chili cook itself.
The building blocks.
After toasting 3 dried Ancho chile peppers, 2 dried Guajilla chile peppers, and 1 dried
Pasilla chile pepper in a dry cast iron skillet, I scooped them into bowl, poured 2 cups boiling water over the peppers, and set them aside for 30 minutes to soften. When the peppers were pliable, I pulled off the stems, removed the seeds, and dropped them into a blender. I strained any seed stragglers from the soaking liquid, poured the liquid into the blender, added 1 cup Maker’s Mark Bourbon, blitzed the peppers into a fine puree, strained the puree into a bowl, and set it aside.
While any good quality canned tomatoes would have been great, I took advantage of our late season farmers market tomatoes. I peeled 1 1/2 pounds Pulaski County Yellow Giant, red Mule Team, and purple Cherokee heirloom tomatoes. Because there were so few seeds to fret over, I simply chopped the tomatoes into large chunks, tumbled them (with juices) into the pepper stained blender, pureed them until they were velvety smooth, and set them aside.
Fresh peppers and the other stuff.
Smitten with the gorgeous array of Casey County market peppers, I went on pepper overdrive. I seeded and diced 1 yellow bell pepper, 1 red bell pepper, 1 green bell pepper, 2 red sweet banana peppers, I hot banana pepper, and 3 green chili peppers. After chopping 2 medium sized Lincoln County candy onions into a large dice, I tossed them into the pepper pile before peeling, seeding, and dicing a smallish Casey County butternut squash.
Where’s the beef?
Marksbury Farm grass-fed shoulder chuck roast. After slicing the 2 pound roast into 1 1/2″ cubes, I dusted the meat with ground ancho powder, ground cumin, ground coriander, salt, pepper, and flour. I gave the pieces of meat a quick toss and set them aside.
The fun part.
After cranking a flame to medium high under a 3 quart dutch oven, I drizzled the pot with vegetable oil, browned the meat in batches, and removed the pieces to a side plate before tumbling the fresh peppers and onions into the sizzling oil. As the vegetables started to sweat, I added 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons tomato paste, 2 tablespoons cumin, 2 tablespoons ground ancho, 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, salt, and cracked black pepper. When the tomato paste caramelized around the sauteed vegetables, I carefully deglazed the pot with 1/2 cup Maker’s Mark bourbon, let the bourbon reduce by half, scraped up the fabulous sticky bits, and poured the spiked pepper puree into the incredibly hot pot.
As the splattering molten puree calmed to a gentle ripple, I added 2 cups of the reserved fresh tomato puree, 2 tablespoons Oberholtzer’s Organic Sorghum, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar,1 cup beef stock, and 2 cups chicken stock. I brought the liquid to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, tumbled the meat (with their juices) back into the pot, covered the chili, and slid it into a 350 degree oven.
After 2 1/2 hours, I added the cubed butternut squash and a bit more stock to loosen the chili before returning it to the oven for another hour. During the last 15 minutes, I mixed 2 tablespoons Weisenberger white corn meal with 4 tablespoons of the hot chili broth and swirled it into the chili as a slight thickener.
After pulling the chili from the oven, I splashed it with a shot of bourbon and let it rest for a few minutes before finishing with fresh parsley, slivered scallions, and sliced Casey County jalapenos.
Broken down by the long cook, the tender meat simply melted into the chili. Tempered by the tomatoes, peppers, onions, and butternut squash, the bourbon added subtle caramel notes that played nice with the soft smoky sweetness of the sorghum and the tingly creeping heat of the dried chiles. While the scallions and parsley brought fresh onion grassiness to the party, the sliced jalapenos provided biting fiery crunch.
Bluegrass Bourbon Chili.
Kick back and give it a shot.
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