Thursday, March 12, 2009

Buffalo Yam Chili

Like some of my all-time favorite dishes, this one just came to me out of the blue, like a buffalo thundering across the prairie and then into my pot.

I'd never heard of chili with yams (or pineapple vinegar) before, but the spirit moved me to unite these unlikely but not unfriendly ingredients. It turned out to be the best chili I've ever had. I'd be tickled for others to take up the gauntlet, and if you do make it, drop me a line and let me know how it turned out.

There are three reasons as to why it was so good. The first was the choice of ingredients, especially the spices. For those still using "chili powder," I strongly suggest creating your own mix. You might find that you prefer more cumin, or less partially hydrogenated oil and silicon dioxide, all of which are commonly found in the pre-made stuff.

I went heavy on whole cumin seeds and chipotles, and their smoky heat paired beautifully with the sweetness of the yams, while the buffalo kept it grounded.

A word on buffalo. Yes, I used buffalo, like a buffalo, not like a buffalo wing, which is chicken. Some might balk at the idea of eating a buffalo, and if you're ethically opposed to eating meat, then I understand where you're coming from. But if not, and you just can't stomach the thought of eating an animal that doesn't appear in a white kid's barnyard animal picture book, I have no sympathy for you, and you don't deserve to eat this anyway.

Also, from what I understand, buffalo don't tolerate confinement, and so raising them in a CAFO is not (yet, I'm sure) an option. Therefore any buffalo meat, even if it's in an otherwise ecologically disastrous chain supermarket, is technically free range, for what that's worth, which is something. As the NYT reported in '07:

"A meeting of people who raise buffaloes is not at all like a meeting of people who raise conventional cattle. For many buffalo herders it is a calling, an effort to save part of their national heritage. They talk of sustainability and even of a holistic approach to raising their animals, which, unlike cattle, are still wild, not domesticated."

Of course you shouldn't eat too much of it, as you shouldn't eat too much of any meat, especially red. Which is why I used a small amount of buff for a big pot of chili, going with the Mark Bittman-Thomas Jefferson approach of using meat as more of a seasoning than a main dish.

The second reason it was so good was browning. Brown everything you put in the pot, from the cumin seeds to the meat. The broth will be richer, the color darker.

The third reason it was so good is that it was chili.


Recipe: Buffalo Yam Chili

3 yams
1/4 lb ground buffalo
1 large can of tomatoes (or fresh in season, but never these)
2 cups of precooked beans in the pinto or kidney family (or 1 small can)
2 onions
1 red bell pepper
5 cloves garlic
2 dried chipotle peppers
2 tbsp whole cumin seeds
a splash of homemade pineapple vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)
salt to taste
neutral, high heat oil for browning (i.e. canola)

Note: This might seem like a lot of ingredients and steps, but you're only really doing two things: browning and simmering, and you can certainly handle that. Therefore you'll need a skillet and a big pot.

1. Put the tomatoes in the big pot on medium heat.

2. Toast the cumin seeds and chipotles in the dry skillet. Add the cumin to the pot with the 'maters, set the chipotles aside.

3. Cut the yams into bite sized hunks. Seriously brown them in the oil, then add to the pot.

4. Dice and brown the onions. Mince the garlic and add it and the diced bell pepper to the skillet when the onions are at the halfway point. Transfer to the pot when ready.

5. While the onions are in the skillet, de-stem and de-seed the chipotles. Soak in some of the warm tomato water until soft, then muddle (or blend), and add to the pot.

6. Brown the buffalo. Add to the pot.

7. Add the beans, simmer ten minutes, then add salt and vinegar.

8. If it needs more kick, add cayenne to taste. It's good now, but it will be better tomorrow.

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Dave said...

I think I saw a program on Buffalos on PBS with my dad... So impressed with your success without a recipe. I tried to make a stew without a recipe on the principle that a little bit of meat would make any vegetable palatable, especially if I remembered to brown it. It worked with the lamb and potatoes and a little bit of turnip, but was a disaster with stewing beef and a lot of turnip! this is Karen not Dave.

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