Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Beans and Rice

The packages were mailed with impeccable timing so as to arrive the day before the holiday, birthday, or special event, or, in the case of a weekend shindig, on the Friday before. The boxes were cut down and refolded so as to require minimal packing materials, to scalpel away every unnecessary ounce — no sense paying Uncle Sugar and the US Postal folks a penny more than he needed to.

Inside the box were presents for the grandkids, something special for each one, but it also unfailingly included something practical. Maybe a few pounds of pecans from the nearby orchards, or something that my mom had mentioned, off-handedly, something she needed to get from the store.

And there was always an envelope. A blank envelope, no writing or return address or "To:" on the front or back. Unsealed, with the flap tucked in, so the card wouldn't fall out but so the envelope could be used again. Inside the envelope was a card, also blank, with a handwritten note on a separate piece of paper. A blank card and a blank envelope, so I could reuse it, maybe give it to my mom or dad on their birthday, saving me a trip to the store and a dollar-fifty.

The note always started with a reference to whatever we had spoken about last: "Thank you for the baseball pictures" or "It's so good to hear how you're doing in school." Then it congratulated us on our birthday, wished us a happy Thanksgiving, or explained how proud he was of whatever it was we did most recently.

And he signed off the same way every time: "Beans and rice." From my earliest years, I knew what it meant, shorthand for those things that will get you through the hard times. My grandparents had lived through the depression, had seen tough times, not tough as in your stock portfolio took a hit over the last quarter or the Apple Store was out of the 3G iPad, but real tough, missing meals tough, darning socks tough, and waking up seeing your breath it's so cold inside tough.

We weren't much of a bean family, but we had our share of rice. Whatever it was Mom was cooking, rice would make it go further. Add a cup of cooked rice to the meatloaf to make it look like two pounds of ground beef, that kind of thing. Wasn't hardly anything you couldn't add rice to. I half expected to see the grains floating in my Kool-ade.

I still have a lot of my grandfather in me. When I travel and want to send home little gifts, I'm a lot more likely to send them a pound of coffee from wherever I am, than an ornamental plate or spoon or a T-shirt — something practical and consumable that won't sit on a shelf taking up space forever. And I have trouble looking at any recipe without wondering how you could double the servings by adding some rice or potatoes or stuffing it into a tortilla. Mu shu pork burrito? Why not?

Chili always looks naked to me when it's not served over rice. Even Cincinnati-style chili can go a little further if you put a scoop of rice in the bottom of the bowl, then add the spaghetti, then the chili.

Okay, maybe that's getting carried away ... rice and spaghetti sounds like you're just asking Primo to call you a criminal and refuse to serve you. But it's still in the back of my mind nearly every time I step into the kitchen.

Not sure what Papa Joe would think about this chili. The man knew his produce and his steaks, but our family wasn't much for spices that made you sweat. But I do know that after tasting it, he would say that we should double the beans and serve it over a huge bowl of rice. Just because, you never know ... and you should never forget the tough times.

Our go to chili recipe: Hot and Spicy Buffalo Chili (The starting point)

1 pound ground bison
1 pound hot and spicy Italian sausage (casings removed)
1 large red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
1 4-ounce can fire-roasted diced green chiles
1 15-ounce can black beans
1 15-ounce can pinto beans
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Shredded Mexican cheese, sour cream, and chopped cilantro for serving

In a large skillet, cook bison and sausage over medium heat until
browned. Drain.

Mix meat and remaining ingredients in 6-quart crock pot. Cover and
cook on low heat setting 6–8 hours (or high heat setting 3–4 hours) or until
onion is tender.

Serve with shredded cheese and sour cream.


  • There are lots of chili powders to try, and we'll occasionally go up to 4 Tbs if they're not super hot. Savory Spices has a huge selection if your grocery store can't help you out. Mexican oregano is a nice addition, maybe a Tbs sprinkled in with the chili powder.

  • Experiment with cinnamon, cloves, all-spice, and even chocolate.

  • I'm guessing you can get canned chili peppers just about anywhere these days. If you're lucky, you live in a place where folks roast Hatch chili peppers on the side of the road, so you can pick up a bag on your way home. In these parts, you can buy them frozen as well. Or, roast your own. The conventional wisdom is to roast them on a grill or in the oven, then place in a paper bag and let them steam. You can then peel off the skins and use immediately or slice and freeze. But I've never quite gotten the part about peeling off the skins. I just slice them up, roast them on the grill or oven, then store in zip lock bags in individual servings. Keep enough in the fridge for the rest of the week and freeze the rest.
  • Canned tomatoes work in pinch, but try roasting a pound or so, slicing them in half and oven-roasting them for 30-45 minutes. Then coarsely chop them before adding them to the mix.
  • When we've made the chili on the hot side, it always seems to mellow out the next day. So the first time, serve it plain or over white rice. The next day, make the rice with a little cumin, Mexican oregano, and lime juice, and it won't seem like leftovers at all.

Tomorrow: Zucchini Cornbread, if you really don't feel like rice in your chili


tasteofbeirut said...

i love nothing more than a hearty bowl of good honest chili such as this! Too bad the hot weather here prevents me from rushing to the kitchen to make some!

Faith said...

Sounds like a great recipe! I love how it uses bison meat!

oneordinaryday said...

You're a great storyteller. I enjoyed reading your post and I love the "beans and rice" signed at the end of the letters. Really happy that you shared this memory.