Horning in on the game: Elk Chili
Food fads come and go, but when it comes to wild game animals, we here at Choosy Beggars are certainly not ones to buck the trend. As bison, emu, kangaroo and wild boar start to become more mainstream, popping up in big chain restaurants and Mom’n’Pop joints alike, we’re just settling in, tucking in our bibs and banging on the table yelling, “We! Want! More! Meat!”
What can I say? I would prefer a greasy duck or a gamey pheasant to bland ol’ chicken. I would take a lean, purple tenderloin of venison before the same in beef, and even gamey and rich bear has a dear place in my heart, especially when fashioned into summer sausage. Kangaroo, camel, elk, bison and buffalo have all been enthusiastically welcomed to our table, along with horse (sorry, my Horsey Equestrian Friends, but your steed is delicious), rabbit and boar. Despite my fondness for most game meats, the only qualifier I have is that I generally will not choose wild boar over a regular pig, because that would just be crazy. Unless somebody gave me boar bacon. Come to think of it, I had wild boar prosciutto and it was simply delicious. Maybe all it takes is boar bacon for a total game changer.
I’m not a hunter, and I certainly don’t think that I have the cajones to kill and butcher my dinner, but yet my eyes light up like a bonfire when someone groans about how Crazy Uncle Wilbur just offloaded 15 pounds of venison in their freezer. Without trying to seem too eager, I’ll casually wipe the drool off my chin and offer, generously, trying to maintain a semblance of calm, that if they didn’t want ALL of that it would be, I suppose, you know, maybe okay if they happened to store some in my freezer, but for me to eat so not really to store, and it’s just right — hey, why don’t I just open the freezer up -right over here, watch your step– and show you all the space I’ve got…..?
I think people are wising up to my ruse, however, so lately the only game meat I have been lucky enough to get my hands on is from White House Meats at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. It is physically impossible for me to leave St.Lawrence without three types of cheese, olives, country pate and some variety of game meat in my bag, and a visit to White House is inevitable. Seriously. I have suspicions that if I stepped outside without my bounty in tow, I would likely turn to dust and therefore I will never attempt it.
On our last visit to the market, we were dawdling in the North Building, sampling honey and selecting kale, when a vendor selling elk meat caught my eye and I decided on a whim to buy it. There was no price on the little freezer, but I figured that a couple of pounds of ground elk would be cheap and cheerful enough to use for chili. So, of course, when the cashier ran up my total, I was flabbergasted. I was in so much shock that I just mutely stuck out my wallet, slightly confused, accepted a couple of coins in return and stumbled away before I could question my decision. Two pounds of ground elk, which was most likely road kill from highway 11 last week, cost slightly more than what you would pay for 3.5 pounds of exceptional beef tenderloin.
But on the plus side, I had elk.
Oh yes, and I think that it goes without saying that if you live in the Toronto area, and you happen to have a friend or relative who hunts and has a surplus of game meat, I would happily trade you anything (homemade cookies? Three frozen pies? Fifty jars of pickles? MY CAR?) for a taste. Just putting it out there, people.
Serves 8-10, freezes well
- 3 cups dried soup beans *
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 dried red chili
- 1.5 tsp cumin seed **
- 1 tsp coriander seed **
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 8 fat cloves garlic
- 1 large Spanish onion
- 4 poblano chili peppers
- 2 lb ground elk meat
- 1 can (5.5 oz) tomato paste
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 4 cups (1 qt) passata ***
- salt and pepper, to taste
* A combination of pinto and kidney beans is a sure bet, but you could throw in some black beans, cannelini, romano or black eyed peas if they’re on your favorites list. Just make sure that if you’re using a combination of beans, as I like to do, that the varieties cook up in roughly the same amount of time. Before you start, pick through the beans to remove any nasty little buggers, wrinkly bits, small stones or debris. I used to be one of those people who only liked canned beans (the more fool, I) and thought that rehydrating dried beans was a waste of time, but gradually I have come around. Now I find that the texture is different but delightful, and I love both equally and for different reasons. That said, in a pinch, you could use approximately 3 cans of beans and add them to the chili to simmer for half an hour at the end.
** Ground spices will not have the same toasted intensity and depth of flavor, but they can absolutely be used if that is all you have on hand.
*** Passata is fresh strained tomato puree that has not been cooked down into a sauce or paste. The texture is very loose like a pulpy liquid and the flavor is bright and fresh. If you do not have passata, don’t substitute a jar of tomato sauce. Instead, a large can (28 oz) of diced tomatoes will do. Squeeze the tomatoes between your fingers as you add them to the mix, mashing them into a pulp and using all the liquid in the can.
Soak the dried beans overnight in a large bowl where they are covered by at least 3 inches of cold water. The next day, or after at least 12 hours and up to 24, the beans should be relatively plump and you can start cooking the hili.
Toast the dried red chili peppers in a dry pan over medium heat. After about a minute, add the coriander and then the cumin seeds. Toast for an additional 30-45 seconds, shaking the pan frequently, until the spices are fragrant and starting to brown. Immediately remove from the pan to prevent the residual heat from burning the spices.
As soon as they are cool enough to handle, pop the stem ends off the chili but leave the seeds intact. Grind the chili and toasted spices in a spice grinder if you have one, or really get your elbows into it and grind them to a powder in a mortar and pestle if you don’t have a surplus of mini appliances. Set the spice blend aside along with the oregano and cinnamon.
Drain the beans and discard the soaking water. Rinse the beans several times under cold running water. Put the beans in a large pot (this chili will be a two pot operation) along with a bay leaf and add water until the level is at least one (1) inch above the beans. Cover the pot and let the beans simmer over medium low heat for about an hour until they are tender but not mushy.
In the mean time, peel then dice the onion and mince the garlic cloves. In a large pot or heavy bottomed Dutch oven, warm the oil over medium high heat. Saute the garlic and onions until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.
Remove the stem and seeds from the poblano peppers before dicing the flesh. When the onion is tender, add the poblanos to the mix and continue to saute for 3-5 minutes until the peppers soften.
Add the ground elk to the pot and brown it. At this point, your pot is pretty full and there is a fair bit of moisture from the armoatics, so the meat may try to steam rather than brown. Keep cooking it, but stir less frequently so that you can get a bit of caramelization.
Stir in the tomato paste and spice mixture. Season with salt and pepper and cook the mixture for 3-5 minutes until it is fragrant and the tomato paste has mellowed.
Pour in the tomato passata and stir until combined. Let the mixture simmer for at least 20 minutes, which is roughly the cooking time left for the beans. Feel free to turn the heat down, cover the pot, and let it grow more fabulous by the minute.
Drain the tender cooked beans but reserve a few cups of the cooking water. Stir the beans into the chili and let it simmer for an additional 30 minutes (or more, if you have the time). If the mixture is too thick, add a cup or two of the bean cooking water and simmer with the lid on. If the mix is too thin, simmer it with the lid off until the liquid has reduced.
Adjust the salt and pepper as you see fit.
I like to serve the chili with a handful of shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese and some freshly minced cilantro to brighten it up. The only other thing you need is a fresh loaf of fluffy bread (white cheddar cheese swirl optional but recommended, of course) to sop up all the goodness.
Hearty and perfect for a chilly fall day, elk chili is robust without being gamey, and the perfect Sunday night meal to delight your football watching friends.