Thank heaven for Texas.
Food historians can't agree on whether cowboys or Indians invented chili powder, or who first manufactured it for the marketplace, but they do agree about one thing: that chili powder as we know it -- a blend of ground chile peppers and other spices -- has its origins in Texas.
In 1890 or so, a man named D.C. Pendry, who ran a Mexican grocery supply company in Ft. Worth, began selling his special chili powder to local restaurants. At about the same time, William Gebhardt was serving up chili flavored with his own blend of chili powder in his café in New Braunfels. He started marketing the blend in 1894 under the brand name Gebhardt's Eagle Brand Chili Powder.
One of the two got to market first. Nobody knows which one, really.
Every chili cook has his or her own chili powder blend, often a closely guarded family secret, but for those of us who didn't grow up in Texas, there are great commercial chili powders on the market. Like Mr. Pendry's and Mr. Gebhardt's, no two blends are the same.
First, though, let's clear up the chile-chili confusion.
Chile-with-an-e is pure ground pepper. Chili-with-an-i refers to the blend of spices, and also to the stew cooked with it.
To add to the confusion, in Europe and Asia you'll see alternate spellings of chilli, or chillie. Both of those refer to the pure pepper, what we call chile-with-an-e.
I have many varieties of chile peppers in my pantry, but I also keep three or four commercially blended chili powders on hand. The mild one gets the least workout; I save that for the times when I'm cooking for a crowd of people I don't know very well. The super-hot I save for my husband Ted and me, and a few hardy heat-loving friends.
Most frequently I reach for one of two medium-hot chili powders.
The Spice House's medium chili contains sweet ancho chile pepper, cumin, garlic, powdered Mexican oregano, cayenne pepper and paprika. From Penzey's I buy a relatively new product, Chili 3000. Dubbed "The Now Chili", it sounds like something from outer space, but the ingredients let you know the influences are closer to the American Southwest: ancho chile powder, garlic, cumin, onion, cilantro, paprika, cayenne pepper, lemon peel, Mexican oregano, black pepper, citric acid, natural smoke flavor, jalapeño pepper.
Neither blend contains salt, but wait... lemon peel? Well, yes, it's chili powder, and anything goes. And yes, if you're so inclined, you can blend your own, with guidance from a real Texan.
Remember that, like all ground spices, the potency of chili powder degrades quickly. Buy in small quantities unless you are a confirmed chili-head, and store away from heat or in the freezer.
And be sure to say Thank You, Texas, whenever you use it.
Turkey and white bean chili
Serves 8; can be frozen.
2 Tbsp olive oil
1-1/4 lbs ground turkey (I use 93% fat free)
1 medium onion, diced
3 tbsp cumin
4 tbsp medium-hot chili powder (I used Penzeys Chili 3000)
2 cans Ro*Tel
1 32-oz box canned chopped tomatoes (I use POMI)
1 4 oz can fire-roasted green chiles
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 lb cooked or canned white navy beans
Shredded Monterey Jack cheese, sour cream, chopped avocado, chopped red onion (all optional, for garnish)
In a Dutch oven or heavy non-reactive pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the turkey and cook, stirring frequently, until almost brown. Add the onion, and continue cooking until the onion is translucent. Add cumin and chili powder, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add Ro*Tel, tomatoes, green chiles, salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low, and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the beans, and continue cooking for 15 minutes, stirring every now and then to make sure the chili doesn't stick. If it does, add a few teaspoons of water.
Taste and adjust the seasoning, as needed, with salt and pepper. Serve hot, topped with garnishes of your choice, or refrigerate/freeze.
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