My mother is a fantastic cook. But it wasn't always this way. I don't know if she liked to cook when I was growing up. As a mother to two finicky young eaters, cooking was about getting something on the table. There's little I remember about what we ate day-to-day. I know there were a lot of Spaghetti-O's (Sorry, Mom!) and once in awhile this thing she called "quiche" which is nothing like quiche, really. I vaguely recall her filling a Pillsbury pie-crust with eggs, shredded white cheddar, and cream cheese. It was okay.
I couldn't have been less prepared for the first time I tasted Mrs. Booth's Famous Chili, which has since become My Mother's Famous Chili. Mrs. Booth, our next door neighbor, invited us over for dinner one evening when I couldn't have been older than eight. The interior of their home was starch-white and pristine, full of modern furniture and glass cabinets that housed collectible porcelain dolls. In the kitchen, the smell of cumin and savory beef billowed out of a crockpot, and the windows dripped with condensation. A plate of Pillsbury crescents had been deconstructed and reborn as pastry twists, sprinkled with chili powder. There was a large bowl of sour cream and a second filled with a pile of orange grated cheese. She told us to dig in and help ourselves.
I didn't feel up to it at first, but my parents gave my sister and I that look. The "don't you dare embarass us in front of company" look. Too proud to back down, I helped myself to a bowl that spoiled me on any other kind of chili forever. It was so hot and spicy my knee-jerk reaction was to cry, but the brown sugar and chili spices urged me on. I know children have very particular tastebuds but this chili was so packed with flavor from the peppers and tender beans and honest-to-god good ground beef that I was flown light-years ahead to the adult table where food was better than I ever could have imagined. This chili promised good, exotic things to come.
Mrs. Booth sent us home with the recipe, and every year since when the mercury drops (or maybe just afternoons where we wished it would), mom puts her soup pot on the burner. When I moved and set up my own kitchen, I took this recipe with me. I do a few things differently, but in the spirit of Mrs. Booth's original designs. I serve mine with a little creme fraiche dotted w/ chopped chives. I use a mix of dried beans and soak them the night before. A friend taught me to simmer my own beans so I can imbue them with even more flavor (bay leaves! celery!). It doesn't take that much more time, and if you simmer them when you're having your coffee, it really isn't an energy-zapper at all. Make this on a Sunday when the house is freezing. Start in the late morning so it can simmer all day. Call your friends over for a chili party. Have someone bring some cornbread and someone else bring the beer with lime.
Mrs. Booth's Famous ChiliIngredients For the Beans:* (See below)2/3 cup dried pinto beans2/3 cup dried kidney beans1 carrot, cut in half1 celery, cut in half1/2 white onion2 cloves garlic3 sprigs of marjoramIngredients for the Chili:2 Tbs. olive oil3 lbs. ground beef1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes2 large yellow onions, diced1 green bell pepper, diced1 anaheim chile, seeds removed, diced3 cloves garlic, chopped3 Tbs. ancho chili powder2 Tbs. dark brown sugar1 Tbs. crushed red pepper3 Tbs. red wine vinegar1 tsp. ground cuminsalt & pepper to tasteIngredients For The Toppings:1/4 cup creme fraiche2 tbs chopped chives1/2 cup shredded cheddar*NOTE: If you prefer to use canned beans, substitute those suggested above w/ a 15.5 oz. can each of kidney and pinto beans. Use the beans & their liquid.Directions:1. DO AHEAD: Soak the beans with enough water to cover overnight. In the morning, drain them and transfer to a medium-size sauce pan. Cover with water, add to this the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, bay leaf, and marjoram sprigs.2. Bring the beans to a boil, then simmer uncovered for 2 hours over low heat, adding 1/2 teaspoon salt after the first hour. If the water goes too far below the beans, add more. Test the beans for doneness by scooping up a small spoonful and blowing on them. If the skins peel away, they are done. Discard the carrot, onion, celery, and bay leaf.3. To make the chili, heat the olive oil in a 4 quart, heavy bottomed dutch oven over medium heat. Add the ground beef to the pan, stirring to brown, about 8-10 minutes. When all of the beef has been carmelized, drain off the excess fat.4. To the pot add the undrained kidney and pinto beans, tomatoes, chopped onions and peppers, garlic, chili powder, dark brown sugar, crushed red pepper, red wine vinegar, cumin, salt and pepper.5. Cover and simmer the chili for at least one hour, stirring frequently to prevent burning. The chili improves if simmered for 2-3 hours, and tastes even better the following day.6. Serve the chili hot with toppings as you wish.YIELD: 8 servings