Inside the slow-cooker, the weekend’s batch of chili was just about ready to serve.
Chunks of white-meat chicken stirred in a milky broth with boiling great northern beans. Translucent onions, sauteed beforehand in a pan of olive oil, and green chilis bubbled up.
As a final garnish, Aaron Pietras added a flourish of red jalapenos grown in his backyard garden. His chili creation was complete, and dinner was ready.
“It’s simple. It sits heavy, so one bowl will usually fill me up well,” he said. “And it’s fairly economical. Chicken breast, beans, that’s not terribly expensive. By the time you get done,you can feed a family of four for a couple of days.”
Cooler weather and football mean that chili season has returned. But while fans of the chunky stew agree that the mix of beans, meat and spices are best when the temperature drops, opinions are fiercely divided on what makes the best bowl. From standard tomato-based creations to lighter chicken broth chilis, from mild and zingy to sweat-inducingly spicy, everyone has a take on the dish.
The endless combinations of ingredients and styles, along with the relative ease in fixing it, makes it an ideal meal.
“I’m not one that likes to follow a hard recipe, where I have to do it a certain way,” chili enthusiast Jim Buist said. “I may look at three or four different recipes then just add in a few different things on my own.”
His strategy when cooking vegetarian chili is to throw a variety of ingredients on hand in the slow-cooker and let it simmer for hours. He developed his recipe back when working with a college ministry.
The go-go lifestyle of college students required a meal that could be prepared quickly and ready at any time. He found that with a handful of canned goods mixed together, he could make a tasty, inexpensive stew.
“It’s pretty quick and easy to make. The time-consuming thing is opening the cans. This recipe, you don’t have to put a whole lot of thought into it,” he said.
Canned chili beans, black beans, white beans and black olives all go in together. Corn and chopped celery give it a textural crunch. A hint of lime gives it a sweeter citrus taste.
Beist’s secret ingredient comes last — a can of beer.
If you go
Chili at the Greenwood Airport
When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Greenwood Municipal Airport, 799 E. County Line Road
Benefits: Kasler Civil Air Patrol Squadron, for hangar rent, supplies and training of volunteers for emergency services missions such as search and rescue and disaster relief.
Cost: $5 suggested donation
team chili cookoff
When: Noon to 4 p.m. Nov. 10
Where: Whiteland Community High School cafeteria, 300 Main St., Whiteland
Details: Local chefs are invited to submit chili to be judged by Whiteland staff, students and neighbors. The public can pay to judge the submissions, then vote for three of their favorites.
Benefits: Whiteland Community High School swim team
Cost: $5 to taste and judge the chilis; free to submit an entry.
Information: Contact Christine Walls at 372-1618 or email@example.com
White River Township Fire Department Chili Cook-off
When: 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Old National Bank, 900 S. State Road 135, Greenwood
Benefits: The fire department’s Christmas Angels Fund to help local children in need.
Cost: No direct charge for event, but donations will be accepted
“My wife always says she can taste it if it isn’t included, it gives it that zing. The alcohol boils off, but it does give it a nice additional flavor that you don’t always find,” he said.
While some people follow a hard and fast recipe to fix their food, Pietras is more inclined to meander according to his tastes. He makes a version of a Brunswick stew, with ground beef, shredded pork and shredded chicken that adds a twist to the standard chili flavor.
Corn and okra, plus an infusion of sweetness through a few spoonfuls of Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce, make it more tangy than spicy.
“This kind of thing originated with whatever people had available to them, they threw in the pot. But I like it because it’s sweeter than normal,” he said.
Pietras also makes a white chicken chili, a healthier version of the dish. He starts the night before, cooking about five chicken breasts in water overnight to make his own chicken broth.
After shredding the meat, he adds beans, onions, green chilis or jalapenos, and anything else that sounds good at the time, such fresh-chopped cilantro or his own homegrown vegetables. Everything is topped by a dollop of sour cream.
“I don’t have a repetitive recipe I use, so everything is an estimation,” he said.
Pietras became a chili fan cooking for his family and loves the ease in which you can feed everybody at once. Preparation time is almost nonexistent, and if he starts early enough, it can be ready in a few hours, before the football games are done for the day.
The ease that chili can be fixed is what makes it such an attractive dish.
As White River Township fire chief, Jeremy Pell has found that chili makes the ideal firehouse meal. For the men and women working full-day shifts, having a pot of simmering beans, meat, vegetables and broth is great for those looking to grab a quick meal.
“We just keep it going through the day, and guys can walk through and help themselves. When you never know if you’re going to have a long time to eat, it fits great into this lifestyle,” he said.
Pell often makes both white and red versions of the dish for the firefighters. In his red version, the key is to add tomato paste to the recipe, which thickens up the concoction without changing the basic taste.
His white chili focuses more on the spice. Shredded chicken and great northern beans pop with a blend of garlic, cumin, cayenne and other peppers.
“It can be kind of bland if you don’t have a good mix of flavors and let it simmer,” he said. “Foods are so much better when they can sit and simmer for a while. It really brings out the flavor.”