Food for Thought

Chile versus chili: no contest



One letter makes a very big difference.

I have a friend, whose identity will not be revealed here, for her protection — except to say her first name starts with a C and rhymes with “Larry.” The first letter in her last name is T, last letter is H. There’s an O and another T in there, somewhere.

No way you could guess who it is, so she is spared the embarrassment that comes of what follows.

We recently got into a sniping contest regarding dumplings. Specifically, my friend was being snide about a column in which I highlighted the Swedish potato cake/dumpling, kroppkakon. My friend opined that kroppkakon were merely pierogi wannabes and went a giant step beyond that when she challenged me: my kroppkakon (“pumpkin pie dumplings” is what she called them, due to the addition of allspice) versus her pierogi — allegedly made otherworldly good due to a Czech heritage featuring generations of eastern European potato eaters passing their spud skills to the next in line.

The battle intensified, the trash talk continued and we were on the verge of a major league dumpling brawl when, out the woodwork, she mentions Cincinnati chili.

Said she conjures a superb Cincinnati chili and, to make things worse, she begins to simultaneously brag about it and to condemn the traditional “red” favored in this part of the world for a lot longer than Cincinnati chili has existed. Or Cincinnati itself, for that matter.

A superb Cincinnati chili? Dear lord, talk about a contradiction in terms.

If the gloves weren’t off before that comment, the title bout had begun in earnest. I was first stunned, then combative.

Cincinnati chili?

Let’s be clear from the outset: Even without the qualifier of a city or state, the word “chili” denotes one undeniable thing: the purveyor knows next to nothing about the real deal.
As in, chile.

And no concoction descended from a recipe created by a Macedonian immigrant can hold its own with the real thing. Chili is not, and will never be, chile.

Let me pause a moment and catch my breath. I am so darned upset I am hyperventilating.

OK, I’m back.

You see, this deviant that goes by the name Cincinnati chili is, at best, a weak, quasi-Greek version of a bargain basement mole. That’s right: Cincinnati chili recipes frequently include cinnamon, sometimes cocoa powder. And Worcestershire sauce. And tomato sauce. And vinegar.

Ground beef is cooked (often boiled) then seasoned. The “chili” comes from the addition of what is laughingly called “chili powder”— an effete blend of ground and fairly mild peppers, with various stale spices. (It is said the first chili powder was created by some geek named DeWitt Pendary, late in the 1890s — a couple centuries, at least, after the primo reds of the Southwest were produced as a staple of one of the planet’s most noble diets).

Then, to make the humiliation complete, the mess is served over pasta.

How can one possibly justify this travesty?

I know the horror firsthand. When I was but a lad, traveling the country in the music business, I sampled Cincinnati chili. One night in that quaint berg, that “Gateway to the West,” that ill-named “Chili Capital of the World,” I staggered from a crash pad on Mount Adams and visited one of the city’s all-too-numerous chili parlors. Driven by a hunger that clouded my judgment, I ate some of this junk: a relatively thin, brown, ground-beefy mess slopped atop a pile of overcooked spaghetti, topped with diced white onion and sickly yellow, shredded processed cheese. The crud was plopped atop a foundation of mushy kidney beans.

Turns out, I’d had it “five way.”

That’s the top of the heap (pardon the pun) in terms of the combos ordered by aficionados.

One way, I presume, is when someone is foolish enough to want the chili, alone.

Two way is chili on pasta.

Three way is pasta, chili and onion.

Four way adds the cheese to the disaster.

Five way … bring on the beans.

Or, there is my way with Cincinnati chili.

No way.

I want chile.

And, in this case, I want red.

I mention to my friend that the real red deal is the only deal, and she recoils in horror. No go with the red, she says. Never liked it.

You never had any that was well made, I say.

There is no well made she says.

Things could get out of hand here, but I remind myself she is of Czech origin, was born in Ohio and was raised in New Jersey. Enough said.

Well, I reply, with a confident air, I will make some red for you. Some real red. Then, we will see.

Oh, yes … we will see.

My pals Michael and Denise have just returned from points south and they have brought me a pound of fresh, Espanola red (hot) straight from Romero’s — a blend similar to the best of productions by a vaunted wine negociant in the Rhone River valley. This baby is made of hand-selected chiles — the peppers from various locations and different growers, each with distinctive terroir. The peppers are dried, ground and blended by a master. This red is like a great Chateauneuf-du-Pape; it smells of the earth, it carries enormous depth, complexity and a powerful punch. The heat of the chile never obliterates the taste, and the two go on forever, locked in an unforgettable embrace.

I prepare to create a classic red, the most simple of sauces: a roux, made with lard; the Espanola red; garlic; salt and pepper; a whisper of oregano and cumin. I use chicken broth, but water works too.

Then, I realize: this is going to kill my friend and her family. This elixir is an acquired taste, as is the immunity to its impact. It takes the body a while to start producing endorphins to counteract the assault. For a red novice to start here would be akin to someone with a learner’s permit trying to drive the Daytona 500. Granted, there is nothing much better than enchiladas ranchero, awash in the red, all cheesy good with a soft-cooked egg on top. But, no — we must take baby steps here.

So, I choose a mix with a classic pairing — chile and pork. To avoid a trip to the ICU, I leave out lard, sacrificing additional taste for the sake of “health.”

I buy a pork loin roast; I trim the silver skin and cut the meat into large cubes. I season the cubes with salt (no pepper — it burns when the meat is browned).

I sauté the meat a few cubes at a time. I do not want the meat too brown, just a bit, in order to produce some fond in the pan. Fond equals flavor when lard is lacking.

When all the meat is done, into a slow cooker it goes, with the cooker set on high. I toss a diced white onion into the pork pan and cook the onion over medium heat for a while, until it is soft. I then throw in about ten cloves of garlic, roughly minced (this is a rustic mix that will be strained). After a minute or so, I deglaze the pan with chicken broth and add four tablespoons or so of the red, along with some oregano and ground cumin. A bit of freshly-ground black pepper is added and the liquid goes into the slow cooker. The top goes on. The stuff is cooked on high for about an hour; the heat is turned to low and the meat cooks another six hours or so.

I remove the meat to a warm bowl and cover it.

I make a roux with olive oil, butter and flour in a pot — the amounts gauged to the amount of liquid that remains. I want to thicken the liquid to a medium consistency.

I cook the roux to just past blond. I strain the cooking liquid and add it, a bit at a time, to the roux. I taste and season. I whisk in a bit more of the chile, just for good measure. Then, a bit more.

I tear the hunks of meat into smaller hunks, add them to the red and simmer for a half hour or so.

I purchase some of those dandy fresh, uncooked flour tortillas and cook them on a hot griddle until blistered, with some brown spots. The toastiness is a treat.

I have a blend of beans cooked (pinto, black, kidney), zipped up with a teensy bit of crushed tomato, some chicken broth and oregano and cumin. I cook them until the liquid is reduced to near nothing and mash a few of the beans to provide binder and body.

I make a simple green salad with a bit of diced cucumber and dress it with a citrus vinaigrette.

Shredded cheese?

You bet. Some queso fresco as well.

Finely chopped white onion, tomato and cilantro?

Of course.

One way: just the chile and pork.

Two way: a tortilla wrapped around some chile and pork.

Three way: a tortilla wrapped around some chile and pork, cheese on top.

Four way: add the onion, tomato and cilantro.

Five way — my way. Put beans on the tortilla and sprinkle with cheese. Roll tortilla. Top with chile and pork. Shower with more cheese. Add onion, tomato and cilantro.


The way its meant to be.

I bet you could smother pierogies with this stuff and, with a dollop of sour cream, you’d have a real treat on your hands. A pierogi needs all the help it can get.

Estrellita Maria Peña

A lifelong resident of Arboles, Mrs. Peña departed this world Feb. 16, 2008, due to a long, 12-year battle with cancer.

Mrs. Peña was born Jan. 25, 1939, in Arboles, Colo., the daughter of Nestor Lopez and Lousita Garcia. In February of 1958, she married Joseph Baker Peña and from that union came six children.     

She is survived by Angela (Preston) Abeyta (daughter) of Ignacio, Colo., Ernestine (Samuel) Maez (daughter) of Tiffany, Colo., Trinidad (Amos) Martinez (daughter) of Allison, Colo., Mossimo (Shasta) Peña (son) of Arboles, Colo., Bernard (Monica) Peña (son) of Ignacio, Colo., Kes Peña (son) of Ignacio, Colo., Tony Garcia (brother) of Delta, Colo., Joe Garcia (brother) of Pagosa Springs, Colo., Joe Lopez (brother) of Globe, Ariz., Bernie Lopez (sister) of Superior, Ariz., Randy Fletcher (companion), 22 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, numerous nieces, nephews, and many, many friends she called family.

She was preceded in death by her spouse, Joseph Peña, in 1991, her son, Melvin Peña, in 1985, her sister, Jane Tuck, in 2003, and her sister, Faye Romero in 2006.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be Friday, Feb. 22, 2008, at 10 a.m. at St. Peter-St. Rosa Catholic Church in Arboles. Burial will occur at Rosa Cemetery in Arboles.  Visitation will be at Hood Mortuary Chapel from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008, and Recitation of the Rosary will be said at 6 p.m. that same evening.

Frank Richard Newberg Sr.

Frank Richard Newberg Sr., 79, of Sequim, Wash., died Jan. 22, 2008, in Seattle, Wash.

Mr. Newberg was born Jan. 11, 1929, in Hollywood, Calif., to Frank N. and Clara C (Doerr) Newberg.

Mr. Newberg served in the U.S. Navy.

He was a retired surveyor for Operating Engineers.  He moved back to Sequim in 2005 from Pagosa Springs, to be at sea level for health reasons.  He enjoyed hunting, fishing, working in the garden, planting trees and serving his creator.

He is survived by sons, Frank Richard Newberg Jr., and Phillip Wayne Newberg, both of Colorado, and by one granddaughter.

A memorial service was held on Feb. 9, 2008, at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sequim, Wash.