Chili is messy. It is not pretty or delicate and it flies in the face of all good food habits I’ve acquired in my almost twenty-seven years of life. I admit that my experience with the stuff is severely limited. I’ve never ordered it in a restaurant; my mom never made it for me as a kid and to say that I was not a school cafeteria/college dining hall type of a gal would be an understatement. Based purely on observation, to me chili always appeared to be this collection of ingredients that had no business being in the same bowl together.
And then one afternoon on the eve of what was probably a very important football game, Tom turned to me and asked, “Do you know how to make chili?” At the time we were still in our first year of marriage and I wanted to make a good impression so instead of responding with a look of repugnance I replied “um… sure... let me just go call my mom” (who will undoubtedly have no idea how to help me with this). Except that I was wrong. My mom’s advice was this, “call your Nonna, she makes great chili”. Of course she does. How else could something so wrong ever stand a chance of tasting so right?
It turns out that like me, Nonna can remember her very first bowl of chili. She and my grandfather were newly married and visiting with my Great Aunt Rosemary and her husband, my Uncle Harold. Apparently they liked the stuff so much that Nonna decided it was worth making. And it absolutely is worth making. Especially if unlike me, your football team isn’t dead to you.
I should probably tell you that every time I make chili at home I have to call Nonna for a refresher and I swear to you she tells me a different way of doing it each time. So the following is an account of my most recent creation, which deviates slightly from Nonna’s instructions with the addition of pancetta and habenero peppers. Feel free to adjust the types of beans and the amount of chili powder to your liking, but do not omit the baked beans- they make all the difference.
You will be making enough chili to feed a football team so make room in your freezer and be ready with the Tupperware.
Oh and for the record this will be the first, and I promise the last recipe I offer to you that includes tomato sauce from a jar. I can feel your look of disgust and I understand. Honestly, I had my doubts about some of the ingredients in this recipe and every time I make it I still feel slightly dubious that it is going to come together and produce something edible. But the proof is in the pudding. Or in this case the text message from my brother, which reads: “amazing chili”.
3 lbs. hamburger meat
.25 lbs. pancetta, chopped
3-4 TBLS olive oil
2 28 oz. cans crushed tomatoes (yes, I realize that in the past I have lectured against using crushed tomatoes, but per Nonna’s instructions chili is apparently an exception to many, many rules…)
1 jar tomato sauce
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
2 cans red kidney beans, drained
1 can pinto beans, drained
1 can baked beans, drained
3 onions, chopped
2 red peppers, chopped
1 habenero pepper, chopped (optional)
4-5 garlic cloves, chopped
2 oz. chili powder of your choice
In a very large stockpot heat the oil and add the pancetta. Cook over medium heat until crisp. Remove pancetta with slotted spoon and reserve for later.
Add the hamburger meat. Breaking it up with the back of your wooden spoon brown the meat thoroughly.
Add onions and sauté until soft for about 10-15 minutes. Add garlic and peppers and sauté for about 15 more minutes.
Push the meat and onions aside to create a hot spot for your tomato paste. Stirring frequently, cook the tomato paste for about 2 minutes and then mix it with the meat and vegetables.
Add your tomatoes, sauce, beans, pancetta and chili powder and stir to combine.
Let simmer for at least an hour. Add water as needed to get your desired chili consistency.
Serve with raw chopped onion.