Tales of the Kitchen


By Chef K. Marie Paulk

Chili or stew, for me either one sounds pretty good on a cold winter night. Chili, with a nice big piece of corn bread, or stew served with a nice big slice of crusty sourdough bread. I get hungry just thinking about it, especially if I have a red wine to savor with it as well, but let’s not get off course. Either one is a perfect winter dish.

I think the key for either dish is the meat you use. Beef, lamb, pork, turkey, chicken, seafood, shell fish or even goat or rabbit lend themselves well and each offers its own distinct flavor and character to a stew. Chili tends to need a heartier cut of meat to stand up, but experiment and I think you will discover some interesting combinations.

Let’s take a look at chili first. Once you decide on the meat(s) to use for your chili, you’ll have to decide whether to use diced or ground meat. The texture of your chili should complement the flavors you decide to incorporate in your recipe. Basic flavor elements would build from onions, garlic and cumin and the choice of your chili powder will be key. Adding more flavors, liquids, spices, and vegetables, also must be considered, though the biggest decision to make is to add beans or not. I personally don’t think a chili is complete without beans, but there are many that prefer it without. The beans do help to thicken the chili, so if you make yours without, know your chili will be thinner. There are about seven simple steps in making a great chili:

  • The first step will be trimming off the fat from your meat and browning it. You will need about 2 lbs. of meat for a chili to feed six to eight.
  • The second would be to sauté the aromatics. You want to cook the onion until soft while adding your spices. Remember that a little chili goes a long way.
  • The third would be the liquids used to deglaze your pan after cooking your meat. This is the process of dissolving the browned bits left on the bottom of the pot so they will become part of your chili – there are some great flavors in those little bits of meat. You could use beer, a hard cider, or water. Then add your stewing liquids such as chicken or beef broth and maybe a can of diced tomatoes as well.
  • The fourth and fifth would be to add beans, if you are going to use them, and then adding your vegetables. Both of these steps are optional.
  • The sixth step would be adding a splash (up to 1 Tbs.) of a food acid at the end of the cooking process. This will help brighten the flavors. Give your chili a taste before you add it, and then add a splash of apple cider vinegar and/or maybe some fresh lime juice, stir then taste again and you will notice a difference.
  • The last step would be picking you garnish; sour cream, cheese, bacon, and/or avocado would be some suggested starting points. This would really depend on your taste buds and what type of chili you made.

I entered a chili cook-off once and was asked to a make a vegetarian chili, so I worked with a product call Beyond Meat and pretty much everyone thought the protein was really chicken. I was pleasantly surprised I won first place that year. The variations of what type of chili you want to make are very wide, so explore and try different combinations.

I feel that one of the keys to making a rich tasting stew is the use of a Dutch oven. Like chili, you could use a stockpot, but I feel that for a quality stew a Dutch oven is essential. If you don’t have one, I suggest investing in one. They shouldn’t be that costly. I have acquired 3 and regularly use all of them, not only for my stews but for a myriad of dishes, which makes them an excellent investment.

  • Like chili, the first step would be to sear and brown your meat. As I said earlier you could use any type of meat, but for this I am going to focus on beef. Picking the correct cut of meat is also essential. Chuck eye roast would be my suggestion, and it is also one of the cheapest. It will turn tender when properly cooked. The nicer cuts—tenderloin, strips, or rib eye—will turn mealy with prolonged cooking; these cuts are best for grilling. The texture of the hanger steak and/or skirt steak is stringy. Pat your meat dry before you sear, and when searing, do it batches. Overcrowding the meat will just steam the meat in its own juices and not give you the necessary char to your meat.
  • The next step would be browning the vegetables with fresh crushed garlic and tomato paste, then adding some flour to use as your thickener.
  • Like chili you will deglaze your pan after browning your meat, but you must use red wine (good quality, medium body), also adding chicken and beef stock. Use a 3-to-1 ratio with the stock, with more chicken than beef. Reduce down your liquid for a few minutes on the stove.
  • Next let it simmer for about two hours in a 300-degree oven for an even heat distribution. Potatoes, if you want to add them to your stew, should be placed in the pot during the last 45 minutes of the cooking time in the oven.
  • A little trick to give your stew a nice thickness is adding a bloomed, unflavored, powdered gelatin after you take the stew out the oven. Finish the stew on the stove for about 5 minutes on high heat and you will have a perfect texture.

So there it is, but the question remains: “What to do, chili or stew?” I vote for both! They keep well, you can freeze them so they’re ready to go on that cold night when no one feels like cooking.