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Winter warmups: Chili is a versatile, spicy stew

Yummy chili makes you want to dig right in. (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

You may have heard that this was the warmest January in recorded history and that the temperature in Antarctica reached a record 67 degrees. It is true. Winters are not as cold as they used to be. We have not had 40 below for many years. But in the past few weeks, temps have dipped below zero at night and reached only single digits on several days — and that still feels mighty cold.

So what can you do to warm up on a cold Adirondack day? There’s steaming hot chocolate. There’s a warm, comforting bowl of soup. And there’s hot, spicy chili. Yes, chili is a winter comfort food that will warm you from the inside out on those cold wintry days.

The spicy stew is versatile. There are many ways to make it. It can be vegan or meaty; spicy or less so. The meatless version is great for Lenten suppers and for those trying to cut back on meat consumption in order to cut their carbon footprint. The only thing that ties it together is the presence of the chile pepper, capsicum, which gives flavor to the chili. A little gives a mildly spicy flavor; a lot, and it will be hot.

Chili’s main ingredients are beans, peppers and tomatoes — all “new world” foods. Yes, chili is an ancient stew, dating back to the Aztec and Mayan cultures in what today is Mexico. The stew remains important to modern Mexican cuisine. Texas Red, a meaty stew seasoned with hot chile peppers and tomatoes but without beans, is the state dish of Texas. It was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s favorite dish. He said, “One of the first things I do when I get home to Texas is to have a bowl of red. There is simply nothing better.”

The chile pepper, or capsicum, grows wild in South America. It is one of many varieties of spicy and sweet peppers that have been cultivated for more than 7,000 years in Central and South America. Columbus brought them from the New World to Spain, and Spanish and Portuguese traders carried them to the rest of the world. Soon, the spicy pepper became popular in many Asian cuisines.

Chile peppers have many health benefits. The phytochemical capsaicin that gives the peppers their hot flavor has many medicinal uses. It is a known painkiller used in ointments for external skin irritations, sore muscles and arthritis. When ingested, capsaicin releases endorphins that stimulate a natural feeling of well-being. In ancient times, Aztecs used hot peppers to relieve toothaches, while the Mayas treated respiratory ailments with chiles.

The sharpness of peppers depends on variety as well as soil, weather, and other factors that make it difficult to produce a standard chile pepper. As the fruit ripens from green to red, higher sugar content lessens the sting. Generally, the longer the pepper, the milder it is; but there are differences in flavor even in two peppers from the same plant.

Be very careful when handling fresh chiles; they can burn and blister the skin. Wear rubber gloves, and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. If you get burned, run it under cool water and treat it as you would any other burn. To cool your mouth after eating hot chiles, eat yogurt, cheese or other dairy products; the casein helps disrupt the chemical reaction. Lemon or lime juice also soothes the burn by cutting the fiery oil in the peppers, so drink a glass of lemonade.

Although the most common bean used in chili is kidney, there are many other beans you can use: black, pinto, navy. There are hundreds of varieties; even lentils or split peas are considered beans.

All beans are good, inexpensive sources of protein, fiber and complex carbohydrates with little fat. Beans contain important minerals like iron and potassium, and B vitamins like thiamine, B6, and folic acid. A diet rich in beans can improve glucose control in diabetics, and the antioxidants in beans help fight chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, phytochemicals in beans, along with folic acid and fiber, help reduce cancer risk and may even inhibit tumor growth.

A pot of chili that warms you up on a cold winter day is delicious and easy to prepare. Simply cook the beans (or use canned beans), saute the veggies (either with meat or in a little oil), then mix it all together with spices and seasonings and simmer about 30 minutes. Make lots — it’s always better the second day, after the flavors have melded together.

Here are a couple recipes to get you started.

Simply Chili

Ingredients:

1 cup dry beans or 2 15 oz. cans

1 pound ground beef

1 onion

1 carrot (optional)

1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

2 teaspoons chili powder

28-ounce can diced tomatoes

Directions:

To prepare beans: Soak beans overnight. You can also bring them to a boil, cook 5 minutes, remove from heat and let sit, covered, for an hour or two. After they have soaked, drain, rinse, refill with water, bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer until tender; the amount of time depends on the type of bean you use. Red kidney beans will take a little over an hour to cook, while black beans or adzuki beans will take half that time.

While the beans are cooking in a Dutch oven or large pan, brown the meat. Peel and dice the onion, and add along with salt and chili powder. If using, scrub and dice the carrot and add the with the onion.

Add tomatoes and cooked beans.

Heat thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Serves 6 to 8.

Option: To simplify even more, substitute 2 (15- ounce) cans of beans, drained and rinsed. Add these at the end with the tomatoes. You can also add a can of corn to sweeten the dish.

Option: For a vegetarian version, omit meat and add 8 ounces chopped mushrooms along with the onion and carrot.

Flavor options: Make it mild, and serve with a bottle of hot sauce for those who like it spicier. Or, offer Greek yogurt and corn chips for topping – this helps mellow the spicy flavor.

Easy Crockpot

Turkey Chili

Ingredients:

1 cup dry red or black beans

1 lb. ground turkey or chicken

1 onion

1 clove garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 28 oz. can crushed or diced tomatoes

Chili powder to taste (1 – 3 Tablespoons)

Cumin to taste (optional)

Directions:

Soak the beans overnight. Drain and pour into slow cooker.

Brown the meat in one of two ways:

Oven method — Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Cover a baking pan with parchment paper. Layer on the meat. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until no longer pink, stirring every 8 to 10 minutes.

Nonstick Skillet method — Spray a nonstick skillet with cooking spray. Add meat and peeled, chopped onion and garlic. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally and breaking up large pieces, until brown, about 10 minutes.

When meat is brown, add it to the slow cooker.

If you didn’t brown onions and garlic with the meat (oven method), add to slow cooker, along with the crushed tomatoes and seasonings.

Stir. Cover and cook on low for 6 hours or on high for 4 hours.

Taste and adjust seasonings before serving.

If desired, serve with toppings — fresh parsley or cilantro; or a dollop of Greek yogurt.

Serves about 6.

If you wish to freeze your chili, divide into portions and store in airtight containers. Store in the freezer for up to 6 months

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.

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