First, before we get down to business, we’d like to send a little reminder to all our friends. Though our own weather is improving and warmer temperatures have reappeared, necessitating visits to the great outdoors, not everyone is so fortunate. There are places where the temperatures remain bone-numbing cold and any exposure for either human or feline…or canine…can be dangerous. If you live in a place where the daily high is still struggling to make it out of negative numbers, please remember to keep your cats and dogs inside. And if you must go out (crazy dogs), minimize your time outside and don’t forget to bundle up. Make sure exposed skin is covered – doggy booties may not be attractive but they can help prevent frostbite or worse.
Now, onto the question of the day, which happens to be inspired by the bomb cyclone that started the recent spate of chilly weather. And what could be more appropriate in chilly weather than chili? Something heavier than soup, but not as heavy as a stew, this peppery concoction has been keeping people warm inside for over a century.
The history of chili is a bit clouded, but the idea of a soup/stew consisting of beef, chile peppers, and onion is definitely an American creation, not Mexican. The most likely ancestor of our modern idea of chili was probably created along the cattle trails in Texas. As early as 1850, cowboys (well, those who fed them) were pounding beef, fat, chiles and salt into dried squares that could be dropped into pots of boiling water to be rehydrated and turned into a stew for the road. There are a few other stories about the roots of chili, including the notion that it was developed in Texas prisons. Since no one cares much for the idea of eating prison gruel (especially from the 1860’s), we’ll just stick with the cowboy story.
Today’s chili comes in a seemingly endless list of variations. Beans or no beans. Beef, chicken, or vegan. Tomato based or broth based. The one quality they all share is a spicy hot flavor. Entire competitions have been built around the notion of finding the hottest chili – and was the basis for one of the greatest Simpson’s episodes ever. (Guatemalan Insanity Pepper anyone?) And then there’s LBJ – he loved to invite unsuspecting foreigners to the White House to enjoy some true Nacogdoches chili, hot enough to please his own palate and scorch those of most others.
So what do you pair with this super spicy concoction? The obvious answer is beer, served chilled and foaming. It’s heavy enough to pair with big, heavy chilis and the yeasty nature of the brew can stand up to most hot peppers. But what if you prefer something less chewy than beer?
Wine can be problematic with chili. It’s tough to find something that can stand up to the beef and spices without being overwhelmed but not so powerful that it buries the flavors of the chili. We’ve tried a few pairings over the years and have a few suggestions:
- Red wines – look for more medium bodied wines. A good Malbec will often merge with the flavors of cumin and pepper in a wonderfully delicious way. Shiraz is another good contender, pairing pepper to pepper. Avoid anything to heavy or complex, as you’ll end up with a weird mish-mash of flavors that often don’t complement each other. (We’re looking at you aged and oaked Cabernet Sauvignon.)
- White wines – though not an obvious pairing for chili, it is possible to find something that will match well. Avoid anything fruity and look for something more on the dry side – Riesling or even Sancerre. The minerals of Sancerre offer their own counter-bite to the hot peppers and match well with beef or whatever meat you prefer.
- Rose wines – while many still frown upon the pink, rose is often a good choice for foods that are tough to pair with either a red or white. Again, avoid anything that is heavy on the fruit and sweet flavors. A dry rose with a hint of peach or strawberry and a touch of summer honey can provide a soothing balm to smoking tastebuds.
- Sparkling wines – probably you’re best option, oddly enough. Dry champagnes that are less complex and more straightforward can stand up to almost any super spice, and those fantastic little bubbles can help cut the spice.
- Cocktails – when all else fails, find a nice cocktail to help soothe your burning tongue. As with wine, the simpler the better. Remember, the goal is to complement the spice, not bury it. Also, fruit works here, especially if you go with something from the citrus family. Think Pimm’s Cup, Sea Breeze or Blushing Lady. If you prefer something with a nice tequila punch (in keeping with the whole southwest accent), try a grapefruit Agua Fresca or a Paloma.
Whatever your preference, it is possible to find a wine to match, even for foods that are heavy on the hot and spicy side. Remember, it’s all about matching your flavors, not burying them.