Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March Madness: Chili in All Seasons

Spring has officially arrived at our doorsteps, and the anticipated rain has come knocking. I can deal with wet, but it’s the promise of more snow that’s got me mad. I have no doubt that we will be sporting freshly painted toes and sipping on brown-bagged bottles of beer in the sunshine soon enough. City parks will come alive and city grub hubs will be buzzing as the sounds of lawn mowers once again mix among the smells of BBQ, but for now, we wait. We watch basketball, we eat chili, and we wait for the first wild ramps to cause a commotion at local farmers’ markets, announcing that spring has un-officially, and finally, sprung.

Well into March with no tulips yet in bloom, the only spring fashions being sported on the streets these days are college T-shirts and NCAA basketball brackets. Having gone to school in Manhattan, I never got the full crash course on college basketball. I’ve never been courtside or donned a jersey, face paint or a giant sponge finger. This is not to say that “the ladies” can’t enjoy a romping game of tossing around the b-ball; there are plenty of women out there that get into the action–and the food that goes along with it! One such fan is my bestie Erin.

Interestingly enough, Erin and I met at NYU and are similarly unschooled when it comes to college sports, but her man went to KU and is a huge fan. So naturally, come this time every year she hosts a March Madness Chili Pot Luck Party wherein she makes the meat and everyone brings toppings of their choice. Tonight I’m arriving at her Brooklyn bash with dark chocolate covered Thai chili peppers in tow! B-ball is just as good an excuse as any to dig into a warm bowl of steaming meat, beans, veggies and cheese, and as Mexican mole has proven, chocolate and chilies make perfect bedfellows for meat lovers’ looking to spice up their meal.

Chili is one of America’s oldest recipes and got an early start with the cowboys. Having to eat over a roaring fire in the middle of nowhere, cowboys would scrape together whatever they could hunt and gather, depending upon the season and the terrain. Planting different spices and herbs along their route ensured that they could add an extra kick to whatever chili combination they ended up with. They’d chop their ingredients into bite-size morsels to make a one-pot meal as forgiving as it is delicious. Today, chili competitions all across the country boast beef-centric chili con carne of every conceivable variation, but it’s chili’s seasonal malleability that attracts me to the bowl.

Taking my own culinary cues from the cowboy chefs of yesteryear, I’m a big fan of chili for all seasons. Universal in its appeal and endlessly adaptable, chili can be prepared year round with your choice of seasonally available produce and proteins. For March Madness, it’s all about using up the last of the winter pantry and throwing in as much dried pasta and beans, frozen bits of wild boar and bacon as I can scrounge up. Winter squash, root vegetables and kale also lend robust flavor for a hardy chili that’s sure to cure winter’s lingering chill.

Come spring, chili takes on a much lighter hue (think green, yellow or white) when the focus turns to newly budding vegetables, fresh herbs, French lentils, chicken, seafood and turkey. Combine your seasonal favorites with a dry white wine or a coat of creamy béchamel to usher in the vegetal flavors springing up from the soil.

In summer, I’m all about Mexican chilies and the sizzling flavor of spice, cooled down with a dollop of sour cream and an ice-cold cucumber margarita, though I’ve also been known to indulge in chili dogs, beefed up with cheese and caramelized onions. With a bountiful harvest overflowing from the farmers’ market in the summer months, choosing your toppings is easy as pie. Sliced avocado, grilled corn on the cob, sweet and spicy salsa, heirloom tomatoes, green onions, rainbow bright bell peppers, fire alarm hot peppers or crunchy tortilla chips add a splash of texture and taste to each bite.

Once fall rolls around, it’s ball time again…football that is. In autumn, I crave baked potatoes covered with a classic barbeque beef chili, spiked with a wee bit of dark chocolate and an amber ale. The cooler winds usher in an appetite for a brawny bowl filled with fall’s rutabagas, Brussel sprouts and pumpkins, and I’ve been known to add parmigiano reggiano cheese rinds to the mix as well…just be sure to fish them out before serving! Bread bowls can be good fun come fall, but if not readily available, throw a couple handfuls of orzo pasta into your pot to bulk it up.

I may not be a college sports connoisseur, but I like to think that what I lack on the court I make up for in the kitchen. In March and for the rest of the year long, I can often be found standing over a stove in anticipation of friends ringing my buzzer, bounding up my stairs with bottles of beer in hand, ready to dig into the chili I’ve been simmering for hours, for any occasion, in all seasons.

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