Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Winning is good, but sharing is better

When I say "progressive school", you might immediately think of:

Hands-on learning
No grades or standardized tests
Colorful artwork
Orff instruments
Cooperation and group problem solving
Some kind of livestock and/or organic garden
A bunch of artsy-fartsy parents with Obama stickers on their Priuses

And you'd be 95% right on the money.

But I'm here to tell you it's not all peace and light and everybody gets a trophy*. For at least one day a year, it's about coming in first. Despite the deceptively joyous atmosphere of a sunny Sunday at the all-school fair, amidst the peals of childish laughter and the patter of little feet going from hand-painted game to hand painted game with butterfly tattoos on their shiny faces, a brutal pit of vipers lurked under the eaves at the annual chili cookoff. Beneath the torn jeans and organic cotton tees beat the hearts of fierce and ruthless competitors who would stop at nothing to win.

We should know, because they were all gunning for us:

"My husband says you're going down this year."
"I heard they were up until 2 am in Brentwood."
"My daughter signed me up so I could beat you."
"That kid who votes for you every time has a soccer game today. What do you think about that?"

It's not even my chili. My husband makes this every year. But I admit it. I was nervous. A little edgy. There was an incredible, melt-in your mouth entry with smoky pork butt and our own secret ingredient, corn. Someone used buffalo meat. No one made veggie chili (a sure fire way to lose). A lot of people seemed enamored of the entry with the mole undertones of chocolate and cinnamon. It was going to be close.

It'll be OK, I thought, if someone else wins. Nice even, in keeping with the spirit of the school. But what kind of lesson is that for my child, who spent her Saturday afternoon squeezing out pound after pound of sausage until her little fingers were all gross and slimy? Am I going to give her a big hug and say, "It's OK, honey. It's not whether you win or lose, but how good it tastes to you that counts?"

I don't think so. That may be fine in math class, but not this time. Not this day. Victory came, and it was sweet and good.

But the lessons of progressive education have not been entirely lost on me. Everything, even an unbeaten chili recipe, is better if it is shared with friends.**

We Win Every Year Chili for A Crowd
Very liberally adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook
by Sharon Graves
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 2 hours
  • 1/2 c. olive oil
  • 2 lbs. yellow onions, chopped
  • 3 lbs. spicy Italian sausage, removed from casings
  • 8-9 lbs. ground beef sirloin (use good quality meat)
  • 1 1/2 Tbs. freshly ground black pepper
  • 30 oz. tomato paste
  • 3 Tbs. minced fresh garlic
  • 3 oz. ground cumin
  • 4 oz. chili powder
  • 1/2 c. Dijon-style mustard
  • 4 Tbs. salt
  • 4 Tbs. dried oregano
  • 4 Tbs. dried basil
  • 6 1/2 lbs. canned diced tomatoes, drained (I used the fire roasted kind)
  • 1/2 c. red wine
  • 1/4 c. lemon juice
  • 3 Tbs. dried parsley
  • 3 Tbs. dried red chili pepper flakes
  • 3 cans, 16 oz each, black beans, drained
  • 1 1/2 bags frozen sweet corn, thawed (Trader Joes has roasted corn, which is great to use)

Heat oil in extremely large pot. Add onions and cook over low heat, covered, until translucent and tender, about 10 minutes.

In separate pan, crumble the meats and cook over medium heat until well browned. Drain, and add to the onions.

Over low heat, add the pepper, tomato paste, garlic, cumin, mustard, salt, chili powder, basil and oregano. Mix well. Stir in tomatoes, wine, lemon juice, parsley and chili flakes. Stir well and simmer on very low heat for an hour at least to blend flavors.

Here's where you need to taste and start adjusting. You can add more of everything and anything to make it taste the way you like it. Sometimes I'll throw in some brown sugar, or a little beer. Just have fun with it. About 30 minutes before serving, add the beans and the corn so they can warm up and blend in.

Taste a few more times, and serve an army. This makes at least 40 portions of prize-winning chili!

P.S. Condiments are important here! At our annual holiday party, we provide Fritos, shredded cheese, chopped green and white onions, and plenty of sour cream.

* Actually, almost everybody did get a trophy.
** Certain family members disagreed, but this is not their blog.

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