Observing National Chili Month is a tradition here at Under Western Skies, recognizing the endless variety and simple pleasure of that iconic American food. Well, this year, we missed it. October is National Chili Month, and, somehow, it got away from us. However, there is no season that is NOT appropriate for chili, once skies darken early and the cold closes in, so we’re celebrating it now.
I say, “American,” though we use that term in the broadest sense, including in it all of “the Americas,” since the chili pepper originated in South America and migrated to become a primary food for native Americans across a vast area. In the past year, I’ve read two books by Charles C. Mann, “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” and its sequel, “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.” One of the startling things one learns in those books is that all the world’s extensive varieties of chili peppers originated in the New World. Any cuisine you can think of featuring any of the wide variety of mild-to-incendiary chili peppers — from India and China to southeast Asia and everywhere else — emerged after the proliferation of worldwide trade that followed the exploration and exploitation of the Americas. The traders found gold and silver, timber and countless other commodities, but they also took with them chilis, the potato and a long list of other foods. For our readers in other countries, don’t let the “National” deter you: chilis are everywhere, and you’re welcome to join the celebration.
Our definition of “chili” is simple: it contains one or more members of the genus Capsicum. Usually we include the actual fruit, fresh or dried, although many recipes rely on chili powder or other ground or powdered chilis. Longtime readers know one more thing: here you will find vegetarian chili. If your diet demands meat, add it as you wish. Cows, pigs and chickens find no threat here.
If one doesn’t make an effort, a certain sameness can creep into one’s chili, just as looking at too many mountains or waterfalls or political races inures one to their subtle differences. Seen one mountain, seen ’em all. After all, how many different ways can one combine the ol’ reliable peppers, tomatoes, beans and spices? Curious or adventurous cooks, though, know that you don’t just “drive by” your food, but get out and explore, just as savvy, inquisitive travelers do in order to distinguish one mountain from another. There are endless combinations of ingredients and techniques. Since “chili” is a broad concept with only the inclusion of chili peppers as a requirement, it can embrace many things. Without thinking hard or resorting to a cookbook, for example, one can list a big variety of accompaniments to chili: cornbread, rice, pasta, hot dogs and burgers (meat or vegetarian), nacho chips, and so forth.
This year we’ll fight complacency by using our newest kitchen tool: a mandoline.
First, make certain you’re using the correct tool! Here are a mandolin (top) and, below, a mandoline. (click on any photo for larger image):
Using the correct tool will produce superior results. While one can conceivably slice vegetables with a mandolin, it does gum up the strings, the thickness isn’t adjustable, and it’s hard to get the food out when it falls into the sound hole. For best results, use the mandoline.
Our inspiration for acquiring the mandoline was what it does for potatoes, sliced thin and baked to perfection. For this recipe, we’ll use our mandoline to make thin slices of potato, layer them in a baking dish, and while they bake, we’ll make our chili. Later, we’ll layer the chili over the nearly roasted potatoes and cook until bubbling and tasty.
While there are countless ways to flavor potatoes and myriad varieties of chili, we’re going to adopt a moderate approach to both components of this dish, so the flavor of the potatoes comes through without being overwhelmed by the chili — and, in turn, the chili has its place of pride as more than a mere garnish to a mass of starch.
To make this dish, you will need: 1 to 1-1/2 pounds of potatoes. We used a pound of Idaho baking potatoes plus 2 medium Yukon golds. Olive oil, bay leaf, salt and pepper. For the chili, a 28 oz. can of diced San Marzano tomatoes, a medium onion, 2 cloves of garlic, chili powder (we used 3/4 tablespoon — mild, for us — a pinch of turmeric and 2 Anaheim or other moderately spicy green chilis. If you like cheese on your chili, as we do, grate a cup or more (lots more if you’re wild about cheese). Sharper is better, to hold its own amidst the chili and potato flavors. We used Asiago. Sharp cheddar would be a good choice, too.
Start with the potatoes. Slice them thin, about 1/8 inch on the mandoline. Lightly oil a 9″ x 15″ baking dish and layer the potatoes along the length of the dish, overlapping half of each slice with the next. Make 3 layers. Lightly oil, salt and pepper each layer. Place 5 or 6 bay leaves under the top layer across the dish. Bake at 450 degrees for 45 minutes or so, depending on potato, altitude, and your desire for crunchiness — watch ’em!
While they’re baking, make your chili. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, sauté chopped onion, chilis and garlic until translucent. Then add chili powder, turmeric and tomatoes. Simmer to your preference using more heat and with the pot uncovered for thicker chili, less heat and covered for a soupier one. We prefer the former. Add freshly ground black pepper — cayenne or more chili powder if you want more heat — and a small amount of salt.
After about 45 minutes, take the potatoes out of the oven and remove the bay leaves. Sprinkle the potatoes with a small amount of cheese. Your potatoes should look something like this.
Spread your well-simmered chili onto the potatoes. Sprinkle the remaining cheese evenly across the top of the chili. Bake everything at 450 degrees for approximately fifteen minutes. When it’s ready, it should look something like this:
You have only a few thousand other decisions to make, so we hope you’ll make wise use of your time while the dish finishes cooking: serve with salad or a vegetable? What beer, wine or other beverage will best complement the dish? How will you serve it: bowls? plates? What color should they be? Then, time to serve!
We served ours with a salad on vintage plates designed in the 1960s by Ben Seibel. If you try our Mandoline Chili Potatoes, we hope you’ll add a comment about how you like it and any variations you introduced.
I hope you’ll investigate some of our previous Under Western Skies chili recipes:
© 2013 Brad Nixon