Tonight, like most people in the UK, we will be celebrating “Bonfire Night.” For the uninitiated: On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were foiled in their dastardly plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament. For many years, effigies of Guy Fawkes were burned on November 5; but these days, it’s mostly an excuse for fireworks and bonfires – and that kind of activity is easier to carry out over the weekend. My daughter’s school always holds an elaborate Bonfire Night, which includes a torch-lit procession down to the waiting bonfire. Like all activities that take place in the dark, the occasion has a slightly transgressive quality to it. The teenagers tend to slope off to do goodness knows what, while everyone ooos and ahs over the bursts of fireworks in the inky dark sky.
I attended my first Bonfire Night more than a decade ago, and my chief memories of that night are suffused in smoke and the cold foggy damp that rises up from the forest at night. I remember eating tinned tomato soup, followed by burnt sausages, in a thin drizzle. I found it all rather miserable.
For me, the key to enjoying Bonfire Night is to dress extremely warmly, and to forget the barbeque and eat inside. (Frankly, English barbeques are dubious enough in July; never mind November.) The traditional menu is sausages and “jacket” (baked) potatoes, but because the occasion requires something especially warming, I am going with chili – Texas-style. I will still make the jacket potatoes, but I will load them up with chili – with lots of cheddar cheese and sour cream and tortilla chips on the side.
In Texas, where I'm from, chili is a way of life. The Chili Cook-Off is a popular social activity, and there is almost no limit to what you can put in that stew pot. The key ingredients, though, are some kind of beef, onions, peppers, tomatoes and chili powder. Many Texans think that you must never, ever put beans in chili; but I like the flavor and texture they give. They make a healthier chili, too, and break up all of that meat. I’ve never found The Ultimate chili, but I think that this recipe is a pretty good starting place for our family’s tastes. Even if you aren’t celebrating Bonfire Night, the beginning of November is always the tipping point for colder, more wintry weather. This month can feel dark and bleak, and there is nothing like a bowl of hot steaming chili to warm up the insides.
(adapted from the Peace Meals, the Houston Junior League cookbook)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, diced
2 red peppers, diced
3 cloves garlic, pressed
2 ½ pounds ground beef
16 ounces tomato sauce
3 tablespoons prepared red mole
3 tablespoons chili powder
24 ounces water
32 ounces canned red kidney beans
For garnishes: shredded cheddar cheese and diced onions and sour cream
Heat olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Add the onions, peppers and garlic and sauté until the onions are translucent and the peppers begin to soften. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Brown the beef in a separate skillet; draining off any excess fat. Add half of the onion mixture to the meat and reserve the rest for later. Stir in the tomato sauce, mole, chili powder and water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Adjust the seasonings for taste.* Simmer for 30 minutes. Add the beans and remaining half of the onion-pepper mixture. Cook for 15 minutes more, then serve – with desired garnishes.
*I thought about calling this “blueprint chili,” because in my mind chili is always more of a process than an exact specification. This is particularly true in England, where there are a variety of chilis/chiles (and chili powder), but not necessarily the same ones that you are going to find in Texas. Also, unless you have access to some specialty store, it is doubtful that you will be able to find any red mole sauce. I Googled red mole, but quickly rejected the idea of making it from scratch when I saw the long list of ingredients and the repeated words: roasting and pounding. The key thing about mole is that it includes good quality dark chocolate; so that is what I retained from the mole concept. I added a cocoa bean/chili blend spice and also about 4 ounces of 70% cocoa solids dark chocolate. This gave the chili a lovely rich dark color and a slightly silky quality: I highly recommend using it. I also added too much fiery chili powder, and then had to compensate with more tomato sauce and some beef broth. So really, my advice would be to go easy on the spices at first, and to keep tasting until you get a concoction that will please your family. My family isn’t fond of tongue-burning chili, so I aim to get something with a slight bite.
Speaking of bite, I’ve made chocolate spider cupcakes for dessert. Okay, they are usually something I make for a Halloween treat . . . but I think that they work well for Bonfire Night, too. When those wood piles get disturbed tonight, the spiders will be on the prowl!
I have a family of chocoholics coming for dinner, so I’ve tried out the rich cupcakes and icing from the new Primrose Bakery cookbook. The spider idea comes from a Ladies Home Journal article from 1997. You use dark chocolate peppermint creams for the spider’s body and melted white and dark chocolate for the web, eyes and legs. Just melt a few ounces of chocolate in a small Ziploc bag in the microwave – 30 seconds will do it. Snip off the tiniest corner from one end of the bag, and use it like an icing bag.
Chocolate in the chili, chocolate in the dessert . . . a week of Halloween candy still hasn't put us off!