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Cheap and Good: Chili

chili1 Well, we’re back in the kitchen with Aunt Toby (which works out pretty well, since we’re talking about food) and your first assignment (because I’m all about the assignments and all about doing it right now) is this:

Take out your wallet and take out a $10 bill. Put that bill in an envelope with your coupons or shopping list for the week and hold onto it. We’ll talk about that $10 bill a little bit later, but trust me on this one: You will want to do this every single week for a while. It WILL save you money.

The whole point of this series (which will be on-going…at least until the economy gets itself together) is to share ideas on how to nourish ourselves and our families with stuff that is a) good, b) cheap and c) good for you. There are a lot of things that are cheap and good, but from a nutrition standpoint, are not particularly good for you. The point here is to hit the Nutritional Trifecta: Good, Good for you and Gives you ultimate bang for your nutritional buck.

For our last discussion of Nutritional Bang for the Dollar, see:
What’s It Worth To You?

Our first week’s topic is the old and new favorite: chili.

I’m going to assume that everyone knows the difference between Chile and chilis so we won’t go there. There is no mystery (despite the Terlingua contests) to making a great pot of chili: If there had been, cowboys would have been starving on those long cattle drives. I’m not going to discuss the other deal about chili that is supposedly “real,” “genuine,” “authentic” or whatever.

The basic formula for chili is this (commit this to memory and save yourself a lot of grief):
Some sort of liquid
Meat if you’ve got it
(we’ll talk about vegetarian chili later)
Onions, lots
Garlic, lots

After that, it’s all in the seasonings.

The picture above is our favorite chili at home, made in a crockpot. I take out a pound of ground meat the night before. Any ground meat will do: chicken, turkey, beef, whatever you have.

That morning, brown the meat and throw the whole thing, grease included, into the crock pot.
Throw in a handful of garlic (that usually works out to 5-6 cloves)

Coarsely chop an onion – keep the pieces pretty big (if the onion’s been in the fridge a while and has sprouted, throw in the green sprouts too)

Choose your liquid and throw that in. If you like it tomato-y, then the big can (26 ounce can) or a quart jar of canned tomatoes in sauce or juice is your weapon of choice. If you don’t want it tomato-y, then two cans of low salt beef broth is your ticket.

Put in your beans: We happen to like having more than one type of beans in our chili – one can each of black beans and pinto beans, rinsed, with the rest of this, will fill up a good sized (2.5 qts) crock pot. You can always use less meat and more beans – it’s up to you. I like canned beans because I hate to go through the washing-sorting-washing-soaking-cooking, etc. thing with dried beans. If you want to do that, you’ll need to start this process the day before so that they soak overnight.

Spices: All of this depends on how adventurous your family is:
Oregano and basil will make your chili taste like Mexican Spaghetti Sauce, which is very nice, but not authentic.

Taco Seasoning Mix: I admit that sometimes, I just am not in the mood to try to think of combining spices and I just reach into the cupboard for a package of low salt taco seasoning mix, throw a tablespoon of that into the meat when I’m browning it. Not the most authentic, but can pass muster with teenagers. If you use that, then all you need is a little pepper.

Cumin – Very authentic and can be overdone – throw in a teaspoon and taste again later.

Pepper – 1/2 teaspoon and taste again later

Cilantro – very authentic; throw in a tablespoon of the dried stuff

Fresh Green (or red or orange or yellow) Peppers – very yum – chop coarsely and throw those in; the more colorful the better

Dried Hot Peppers – here is where the whole thing can end up with the fire department – if I am doing this, I put in a really small one like a jalapeño, chopped up with the seeds and taste again later.

Anything else? Well, if I am down to the last half a jar of medium salsa, esp if it’s got corn in it, I’ll throw that in too.

There you have it – red chili.

If you are a vegetarian, here is all you need to know:
Leave out the meat and make sure you eat this with a whole grain bread. That will complete your protein from the beans and you are good to go. I know there are a lot of folks out there who like to throw tofu into their chili as their protein source – go for it. I don’t eat soy products as they interfere with my thyroid hormone replacement.

White Chili:
I’m sort of at a loss as to the attraction of white chili, just the way I feel a tremendous level of ambivalence about “white chocolate.” That’s like saying, “kosher bacon”. But, I happen to like eating white chili a lot and it IS different.

Again, to go back to our basic formula:
Beans – use Great Northerns or navy beans…they are white!
Meat – use chicken (I suppose you could use pork too, but I have never had white pork chili) or turkey – cooked if you have around (yay, Thanksgiving); if not, brown some cut up chicken parts that are meaty, cut off the meat and throw that in, skin included.
Liquid – ah, here is where we get different – use a couple of cans of chicken broth. Do NOT use chicken bouillon cubes.

All the rest for spices follows the same as for red chili.

Put your crockpot on low and leave it for the day – when you get home, you will have chili all made for dinner. Serve with some fresh veggies or a salad, bread or rolls. In our house, a favorite accompaniment is cornbread, which I will save for another time.

Now, let’s say that you don’t have this sort of planning or time available to YOU. Let’s say that you get the call when you get home from work from the DS or DD that they are bringing home their friends from school for dinner…and they are going to be home in an hour. Should you just pick up the phone and order a pizza? Nope – as long as you have things at hand, you will be able to do this and still have time to set the table, clean up a little bit and take out the dog.

But the key is: having things at hand, which brings us back to …the $10 bill.

Cooking Good and Cheap requires one thing and one thing only: having basics on the shelf (under the bed, in the pantry, in a cardboard box…whatever). How many times have we ended up “eating by Pizza Hut™” because we got home, stared into the fridge and shelves and saw pickles, a half-eaten sandwich, a couple of onions that looked past their best and nothing defrosted? The entire US restaurant industry is based on this problem. Take that $10 bill and turn it into an opportunity for you and your family to eat cheap.

This weekend, check the circular from your usual grocery store. Chasing the best price on one item is just nuts. You will save more money going to one place to do all of your shopping. If another store does the best buy on fish or meat, then do that there but basically, don’t chase around.

Look at specials on the following items:
Chicken Broth (low salt if possible)
Beef Broth (low salt if possible)
Canned tomatoes (low salt if possible and whatever your family uses most – crushed, whole, diced or whatever)

You will hardly ever find a special on powdered milk, but buy a box anyway – unless you are allergic to milk. If you are going to buy it, the reason is that you’ll need it for another one of these postings, when we cover breads and holiday yummies).

Take that $10 bill with you and that circular and figure out and buy the most of a couple of those items above so that you stock up on them. Once you have them, then you can do anything you want in terms of cooking cheap and nutritiously.

Next posting: Chowder!! (or, more correctly, “Chow-dah!!”)

(originally published at Oxdown Gazette)

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