As you might have heard, I’ve been staying with Tai’s grandmother Louisa, in Downeast Maine, since before Thanksgiving. Louisa is awesome: she is bright, warm, and generous, and has always made me feel welcome and an important part of this big, wacky family into which I married. But Louisa is 88 years old, and while she has maintained an amazing amount of independence and vitality throughout her ‘golden years,’ in the last six months or so she has suffered some health problems that require a bit more help from family & friends in order to maintain the lifestyle she loves. One of the great things about my particular lifestyle is that I can work from anywhere, as long as I have a reliable internet connection (more challenging than you might think in Downeast Maine, which is somewhere on the timescale between Little House on the Prairie and 1972): a bonus of my consultant business is that I am flexible, in both hours & location, and able to pitch in when needed.
So here I am, in this gorgeous spot on the edge of Hog Bay. It’s 15 degrees in the morning and a balmy 35 in the late afternoon. The sky is a brilliant blue, or an overcast grey, or a dark, threatening charcoal. The trees are dark green, and hunkered down for winter, and the ground is already cold enough that the faintest whisper of a snow flurry just sits there, without melting, all day long. The screens are still on the windows at home in New York, but here in Maine, the emergency shovel, the ice scraper and the kitty litter are already in the trunk of my car. It’s winter: Maine winter, and I don’t have my pantry full of preserves, my chest freezer packed to the gills with summer’s bounty, my treasure trove of dried herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables and fungi just waiting for me to unlock their magic.
What I do have is a robust local food scene, with artisan bread bakers, organic vegetable growers, heirloom bean producers and sustainable meat farmers. I have ground beef from Tai’s cousin’s family, called “Windsor beef” by the family because the cattle are raised in Windsor, Maine (on green grass and not much else). I have carrots from Mandala Farm, and local leeks and garlic, even in the midst of a chilly Maine winter. I have gorgeous local heirloom beans, farmed by a friend of Tai’s Aunt Sue, and bacon grease from local, smoked, uncured bacon. I have delicious, chewy, sourdough-tangy Tinder Hearth bread, wood-fired and made with local Maine & Quebec grains. And I have John Edwards: pricey, yes, but fabulously devoted to local, organic and sustainable foods, and the kind of one-stop shopping that I don’t find at home outside of the farmer’s market. I have local Maine sea salt and even the bowls that hold my chili were thrown about a hundred yards away: what else could a local girl want?
- 1/2 lb dried black turtle beans
- 1/2 lb dried bumblebee beans (or other white or cranberry bean)
- 3 tbsp bacon grease or olive oil, divided
- 1 medium white onion, diced
- 2 celery stalks, with leaves if possible, chopped
- 2 small leeks, cleaned well and sliced, tough green ends discarded
- 3 medium carrots, sliced
- 3 small bell peppers, diced (I used one each of red, yelllow and green)
- 4 fresh chile peppers, thinly sliced, with seeds or without (I used jalapeño and small red chiles)
- 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 4 tsp chili powder
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp red chile flakes
- 1 lb lean ground beef
- 1 28-oz can fire-roasted tomatoes (or 2 pints home-canned)
- salt & pepper to taste (I added about 1 and 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp black pepper)
- shredded cheddar and fresh cilantro, for serving
- Soak the dried beans, separately, in cool water to cover by 2 inches, overnight (or cook beans via the no-soak method). Transfer beans and soaking water to two, separate saucepans. Add additional water to cover by 1 inch, if necessary. Bring beans to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until tender, about 60 to 90 minutes. Add salt to taste (about 1/2 tsp per pot), halfway through the cooking time. Drain the black beans, reserving the pot liquor. Drain bumblebee beans and discard pot liquor (or reserve for another use).
- Heat 2 tbsp bacon grease or oil in a medium stockpot until shimmering. Add onion, celery, leeks, carrots, peppers & garlic; stir and sauté over medium-low heat until softened and fragrant, about 7 – 10 minutes. Add chile powder, cayenne and chile flakes; stir and sauté for 1 minute.
- Meanwhile, heat remaining 1 tbsp of bacon grease in a large skillet until shimmering. Brown beef, stirring occasionally, until just cooked through. Transfer browned beef to the stockpot. Add tomatoes, both sets of cooked beans and the black bean pot liquor; bring mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 1 hour. Remove cover, raise heat slightly, and continue to simmer until sauce is thickened, about 30 – 60 minutes. Taste and add salt, pepper, and additional chili, cayenne or red chile flakes as needed. Serve hot garnished with grated cheese and cilantro.
- For those of you who, like me, have a hard time tolerating beef, ground dark meat turkey would be a good substitute.
- Uncle Charlie found this very spicy, while everyone else thought it was nicely flavorful, but not hot. Adjust the amount of fresh chiles, seeds and spices to your crowd.
Like all stews, chili improves in flavor & texture over time. Will keep for up to 5 days in the refrigerator, up to 6 months frozen.
A brisk Maine winter.