For much of my adult life I have sought the El Dorado of venison chili recipes, the Bowl of Red where the emphasis was on its ease of preparation, its authenticity and its high degree of can’t miss. During this exaggerated period of dissatisfaction, I’ve eaten spoonfuls of really terrible chilies and I’ve gluttonized a handful of really spectacular ones. Until very recently, all of my personal attempts at the creation of chili had run the gamut of eatable: from rather putrid plops of over-spiced craziness to the margins of “no one was killed.”
Included there with my chili trail of tears were multiple “jackpots”—the word author Joe Back used to described the dangerous wrecks of load-bearing mountain ponies. These greatest of chili jackpots had been carefully prepared from the recipes of people who purported genuine expertise in the arts and sciences of chilies.
I was really beginning to question1) if the perfect chili recipe existed and 2) if personally crafting at least one magnificent chili was in my cards.
You see, slow cooking a stunning bowl of Texas Red is a treacherous proposition, generally cloaked in secrecy. Many of its ingredients are borderline combustible and, also, the chef goes into this business under enormous emotional pressures. In my experience, chilies have the propensity to completely destroy pounds of meat following rather arduous periods of fussing around in the kitchen. Although I am a great admirer of folks with culinary skills, I personally perceive an almost unnatural conflict in the use of “joy” and “cooking” within the same sentence, paragraph or novella.
Therefore it’s something of a public triumph to announce, officially, that I broke the complex code of chili just this past Sunday, November 18, 2007. Even better, I have decided that the entire world should have free and unfettered access to “my” chili recipe, starting with the Mossyoak.com audience. Why? Well, mainly, because I feel like it’s not really my recipe to sell. In fact, the structure of this terrific gastronomic theater has been properly credited to Frank Tolbert, whose work with meats and spices almost a half century ago in the West Texas ghost town of Terlingua went a long way in bringing chili, as well as the original World Championship Chili Cook-Off, to an international audience.
Now Mister Frank didn’t invent the chili making craft. The first chili was probably concocted tens of thousands of years ago by an ingenious Mexican Indian, who may well have served it in a bowl made from a horn tip once worn by a desert bighorn ram. One absolute certainty: the dish wasn’t the upshot of a family of non-hunters.
A word about meat selection and preparation, and of beans-versus-no-beans, before throwing the covers back from my Escudilla del Fuego, which loosely translated means bowl of fire. But even before that I must advise that we should not let the dramatic name of my chili alarm you: like all great chilies, the chemical temperature of this mixture is mild enough for nine-year-old-girls, who, upon tasting, will twitter with delight. Incrementally adding dashes of Tabasco to your own bowl is the only way to really master the pleasantness of an increasingly controlled burn.
Meat and beans: Rather than using the absolute fringe scrap, select-cut venison from the shoulders and hams sliced into small, thumb-tip-size mini chunks is, I believe, the critical centerpiece of an unequaled deer chili experience. Also, please be acutely aware that world-class Texas chili ethos calls for the cooking of it without beans. Period.
Separately mixing pre-cooked red or black beans into an individual bowl of Red is acceptable, but please don’t get confused and pull a Jim Zumbo here. This is not some sort of incidental gringo chili.
Without further ado, the “homemade ice cream of meat products,” the Escudilla del Fuego:
- Three pounds of choice-cut, bite-size, venison cubes. (Traditional bowhunters may substitute a lean beef)
- Three to four spoons of chili powder
- Four spoons of bacon grease
- One can of low-sodium beef stock
- One-third cup of diced garlic
- One yellow onion diced finely
- Two spoons of ground cumin
- One spoon of ground oregano
- Two spoons of salt
- One-half cup of paprika
- Four finely chopped cilantro sprigs or a half spoon of ground cilantro
- One-half can of tomato paste (with apologies to true Texas chili connoisseurs)
- One, maybe two spoons of masa harina (Mexican flour) or standard flour to thicken
- Four, skinned/cooked green chilies (Completely optional. Except for canned versions by Ortega, which I have yet to experiment with, the freshly processed green chilies I have used are rare beyond the borders of New Mexico.)
Fry four pieces of bacon in a large skillet and set the bacon aside. Fry half of the venison in the grease of the bacon (six to eight minutes, until the pink is gone) and transfer all contents of the skillet into a large pot, adding all of the chili powder. Set to simmer. Repeat this bacon-grease browning process with the remainder of the venison.
With all of the meat now in the pot simmering, add the can of beef stock and just enough water to cover the meat. Bring to boil. Reduce from boil to simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes (uncovered) before adding all of the rest of the ingredients: garlic, onion, cumin, oregano, salt, paprika, cilantro, green chilies (optional), tomato paste and crumbled bacon.
Simmer uncovered until the meat is tender, stirring occasionally to keep the bottom of the pot clear. Add very small amounts of masa harina or standard flour to thicken.
Fat on the surface will be minimal with select-cut venison, but skim out what little there is and continue to simmer for 30 minutes beyond the point of tender meat.
This serves about eight with shredded cheddar cheese atop. Save the saltines for your smoked oysters… the warm, buttered tortilla is where great chili and ecstasy collide. Frankly, side bowls of red beans just get in the way.