A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Terlingua International Chili Cook Off. It was an interesting event with lots of cooks who live and breathe competition chili. I decided right away that I would never be in a chili cook off much less as champion. Still, the excitement got me to thinking about making chili. This is the perfect time of year to make a pot. Nearly everyone has his or her own recipe, and probably everybody believes that his or hers is the best. No doubt that’s how the Terlingua cook off got its start in the first place.
To me, a bowl of chili is not complete without a handful of Fritos sprinkled on the top, along with chopped onion, grated cheddar cheese and maybe some sour cream and jalapeño slices on top of the Fritos. Hey – I’ve just described one version of Frito pie.
No one knows for sure when Frito pie was invented, but one story traces its start in the 1960s to the F. W. Woolworth store on the Plaza in Santa Fe. For many years, the Woolworth store was an iconic tourist Mecca because of the pie. Unfortunately, the store is long gone, but Frito pie continues as one of the quintessential dishes of Santa Fe. Many restaurants offer their own version, and people love most of them. Many charity fund-raisers sell Frito pies with great success.
Frito pie has spread across America, and each region has its claim as to the best and most traditional version. You can put the Fritos on the top; you can put them on the bottom. You can bake a casserole. You can dump some chili in a bag of Fritos. Every version has its proponents. Sadly, you can even use canned chili. But for me the quality of the dish is totally dependent upon the chili you put in it. So I am sharing my recipe for chili. Didn’t I already say that everybody thinks his or her is best?
Frito pie can be eaten by itself, but a warm tortilla or a piece of cornbread put the finishing touch on the meal. So I am also providing a recipe for cornbread made with another New Mexico tradition, blue corn meal. Green chiles, onion, cheese, and piñon nuts combine to make a unique Santa Fe cornbread. The recipe also contains powdered gluten. These days it should be easy to find in the baking section of a large grocery store. Gluten is not necessary, but it gives the cornbread a better rise and lighter texture. Corn contains no gluten, and blue corn meal is very fine so that those two characteristics sometimes make a cornbread that is flat and very crumbly. Gluten gives a crusty loaf with a light, well-textured inside.
2 Cups dried pinto beans
6 Cups water
1 Tablespoon cooking oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 pound ground beef, 15% fat
4 Cups beef stock
1 can (14 ½ oz) diced tomatoes
2 cloves, garlic, minced
1 packet (5 grams) Sazón Goya
½ teaspoon ground cumin
2 Tablespoons whole dried Mexican oregano
1-3 Tablespoons chili powder (or more according to taste)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 Tablespoons corn meal
salt and pepper to taste
- Soak the dry beans overnight in the water.
- In the morning, heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add the chopped onions, and cook, covered, until translucent. Do not let them brown.
- Add the ground beef, breaking it up as you stir, and brown it completely.
- Add the beans with their soaking liquid and stir in the beef stock. Bring to the boil.
- Stir in the tomatoes, garlic, Sazón Goya, and cumin. Add the oregano by crushing finely with your hands over the pot. Stir in the desired amount of chili powder and return to the boil, immediately reducing the heat to a simmer.
- Simmer, covered, for two hours or until the beans are soft. Stir frequently, and add water if needed.
- About a half hour before you are ready to serve, add the sugar, lemon juice, and corn meal. Simmer uncovered until the corn meal has thickened the gravy. Adjust the seasonings with salt, pepper, and more cumin and chili powder if desired.
- Serve in bowls and pass Frito chips, grated Cheddar cheese, chopped onions, and sour cream for toppings.
Blue Corn Meal Cornbread with Green Chiles, Cheese, and Piñon Nuts
½ Cup piñon nuts
1 Cup all-purpose flour
1 Cup blue corn meal (Do not use atole. It is too finely ground.)
1 Tablespoon gluten powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 oz canned chopped green chiles (choose your heat – mild to hot)
½ Cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese
½ Cup chopped green onions including the tops
1½ Cups buttermilk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 Tablespoons butter, melted
- Grease a heavy 8 inch cast iron skillet generously and place it in the middle of the oven as you preheat the oven to 425°. Meanwhile prepare the batter.
- In a dry skillet over high heat, toast the piñon nuts until the oils are released and the nuts have begun to brown slightly. Be careful not to burn them. Allow them to cool and then chop them coarsely. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine the corn meal, flour, baking soda, salt, and baking powder. Add the chopped, toasted nuts, green chiles, grated Cheddar cheese, and green onion. Mix well.
- In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, beaten eggs, and melted butter.
- Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry mixture and stir together until they are well blended. Do not overbeat.
- Remove the preheated skillet from the oven and pour in the batter, working quickly. Return the skillet to the oven and bake for 25 minutes.
- Cut into wedges and serve immediately with plenty of butter and honey on the side.