Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Winter food tip: Chili powder vs. chile powder

Whenever I run recipes for chili, I usually get this question: "You called for (1 tablespoon/1/4cup/etc.) of chili powder. That's sounds like a lot. Is it a mistake?"

Nope, it's not a mistake. The important thing to know, though, is the difference between chili and chile. As a food writer for a couple of decades now (almost as long as this winter is starting to feel), I get to do things like set The Observer's food style. That means thinking way too long about things like "chile" vs. chili."

Because they are such different things, the spelling difference is a good way to tell them apart. "Chile" means a hot chile pepper and its many forms - dried chiles, fresh chiles, canned chiles, cooked chiles, chile pepper seeds (AKA red pepper flakes, another one that drives people batty).

"Chili," however, means the dish. Whether you make it with beans or without beans (an argument for another day) or with meat or without meat (or with ground meat, meat chunks, chicken or whatever you like), chili is the stew-like dish. So CHILI is flavored with CHILES.

Are you with me so far? OK, on to chili/chile powder: Chili powder is used to make chili. It's a mixture of spices, usually red pepper or cayenne pepper, cumin, paprika, garlic powder and oregano. It's used to flavor chili, sort of the same way you'd use Montreal steak seasoning to season a steak rather than get all the ingredients out and season it yourself.

Chili powder has heat, but it's not remarkably hot. So if you're making a big pot of chili, typically with 6 to 8 servings, a 1/4 cup of chili powder really isn't all that much. With 12 teaspoons in a 1/4 cup, you're using maybe 2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper, total, for 8 servings, or 1/4 teaspoon per bowl. Not that hot, really.

That brings us to chile powder. There's a lot of confusion about it because there was a time when this product didn't exist, or at least wasn't common in American supermarkets and kitchens. If you had a well-stocked spice rack, you might have red pepper or cayenne pepper. But the remarkable variety of spices we now have didn't include things like ancho chile powder or ground chipotles, to name two chile powders that are in my spice cabinet right now.

Here's the important thing to remember from all that: When a recipe calls for CHILI powder, don't mix that up with CHILE powder. A quarter cup of chili powder isn't much. A quarter cup of chile powder would be powerful stuff. But if you make chili with CHILI powder and it isn't hot enough, a little CHILE powder and see if that does the trick.

Chili Con Carne

Adapted from "How to Cook Everything," by Mark Bittman (Wiley, 2008). If you want a long-cooking project, start with dried beans. If you want something faster, use 2 cans of canned pinto or dark red kidney beans, rinsed and drained.

1 pound dried pinto beans or two cans pinto or kidney beans (or use a couple of kinds, like black beans and pinto beans)
1 whole onion, unpeeled (if cooking dried beans), and 1 small onion, minced
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 pound hand-chopped or ground beef, turkey, pork or chicken
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 teaspoons chili powder (see note)
1 cup bean-cooking liquid, vegetable or chicken stock, or water
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons cornmeal (optional)
Garnishes of your choice: Fresh cilantro, grated cheese, diced onion, diced avocado, cooked rice or hot sauce

RINSE the dried beans and drain well. Place in a pot with water to cover and bring to a boil. Cover and remove from heat; let stand 1 hour. Drain, cover with fresh water and bring to a boil again. Add the whole onion. Adjust heat to a steady simmer, cover loosely and cook until they begin to soften, about 30 minutes.
 (If using canned beans, skip this step, rinse and drain the beans.)

 DRAIN the beans, reserving the cooking water if desired. Return to the pot and add 1 cup liquid (bean-cooking liquid, stock or water). Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer.

WHILE the beans are cooking, heat the oil in a skillet and add the meat. Cook, stirring, until the meat loses its color, about 10 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and chili powder. Stir into the beans with the garlic and minced onion. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid if needed. Cook until the beans and meat are very tender, 15 to 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more chili powder or chile powder and salt if needed. If you want it thicker, stir in cornmeal and cook a few more minutes.

SERVE hot, over cooked rice if desired, and garnished however you like it.

NOTE: To make your own chili powder, combine 2 tablespoons ground ancho, New Mexico or any other mild dried chile (or use 1 tablespoon ground chile powder), 1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder, 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, 2 teaspoons cumin seed, 2 teaspoon coriander seeds and 1 tablespoon dried Mexican or Italian oregano. Put all the ingredients in a small, dry skillet over medium heat and toast, shaking the pan occasionally, until very fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes. Grind in a spice or coffee grinder (or with a mortar and pestle) until powdery. Store in a tightly covered container up to 2 weeks.

YIELD: 6 to 8 servings.