What do two of our favorite subjects, Marcel Proust and chili, have in common? They both have big celebrations this month.
This month is the centennial anniversary of the publication of Swann’s Way, the first of the seven volumes of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, which debuted in 1913. It’s also an annual event that we celebrate here every November: National Chili Month.
Can we do it? Can we combine these solemn observances into a single event in honor of the author who wrote extensively and with enormous perception about food? Read on!
A large number of the two million or so words Proust wrote in A la recherche concern food: Fascinating descriptions of the cuisine served at parties, salons, restaurants, hotels and in his and his family’s dining room. The single most famous passage is the episode of the madeleine dipped in tea that invokes the first of the critically important “involuntary memories” that eventually lead to the novel’s climax. But, madeleine chili? Not, we think, a recipe for success. What then?
Proust loved coffee and imbibed vast quantities of it. In fact, he consumed many beverages to excess, including beer, insisting that he was doing it for sound medicinal purposes to treat his poor digestion. (He followed a daunting regimen of self-prescribed narcotics and stimulants not normally recommended for those intending to live long enough to write a two million word novel.)
As to chili, we have no evidence that Proust ever ate it, saw it or even heard of it. He may have eaten dishes that resembled it in various ways, but he likely had little or no familiarity with the dish
‘s prime ingredient, the chile pepper, genus capsicum. Café? Mais oui!
Why not put the two together, we thought, for a chili that may have intrigued M. Proust and opened his investigation of the medicinal properties of chiles. In his honor we now present:
In Search of Lost Thyme Centennial Chili
Ingredients: Olive oil; 1 medium to large onion (depending on your taste); 2 garlic cloves, minced; 1-2 Tbsp. chili powder (according to your taste); 1 tsp. ground cumin; 1/2 tsp. marjoram; 1 tsp. thyme; 1 cup strong coffee (we used French roast — mais oui — finely ground); 1 cup water; 3 cups white kidney beans (you might also use navy, great northern, cannellini or haricots blancs); 2-3 cups firm tofu cut into bite-sized cubes; 2 diced jalapeno chiles; 1 chile de arbol; 2 Tbsp. lime juice; 1 Tbsp. chopped cilantro; salt and fresh ground pepper to taste; brown sugar to taste. Sour cream or yogurt for topping (we used a thick and creamy nonfat Greek yogurt).
As regular readers know, this blog features vegetarian chili, and we made this one with tofu. (M. Proust almost certainly would have gone for a big meat flavor. A chacun a son gout. You may improvise as you wish.)
In a large, heavy pan, fry the cubed tofu in about 2 Tbsp. of olive oil until golden. Remove tofu from the pan and set it aside. Heat another 2 Tbsp. olive oil in the pan and sauté the onion and garlic, along with half the green chiles, until softened.
Add chili powder, marjoram, cumin, tofu, beans, coffee and, if needed, water. Be careful with the amount of water if you like a thicker chili, as we do. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for about 25 minutes.
Add lime juice, cilantro, and salt and pepper to your taste. We used 1/2 tsp. smoky salish salt and a few pinches of sea salt. Simmer for another five minutes or so to let the flavors blend. Remove any pieces of that chile de arbol you can find. Top with the yogurt or sour cream and serve. We served this chili on brown rice, which complemented the coffee flavor and added a nice texture. You can skip the rice and serve it with a baguette instead. Add a mixed salad tossed with a classic French vinaigrette. Madeleine? Entirely up to you.
As for beverages to accompany this dish, beer would certainly be our honoree’s choice – preferably several; the man could really knock ’em down.
But wait, you ask. When were we supposed to add the thyme listed in the ingredients? We lost track of it too and are still searching …
Bon appetit, and merci, Monsieur Proust!
Cook’s notes: This turned out to be a flavorful chili, spicy without a lot of heat (which M. Proust would have appreciated) and the color of café au lait. The coffee flavor was clearly discernable, but subtle, blending well with the chiles and other seasonings. M. Proust may have requested plus de cafe — for the betterment of his health, naturallement. If you try this recipe, we’d love to have you post a comment about how you liked it.
Note: We’ve had fun with National Chili Month for years and have posted a number of recipes. You can find them under the “Food” category in the right-hand navigation. Our other articles about Proust and The Search are there in their own category too.
© copyright 2013 Brad Nixon