… Beans, beans, beautiful beans … this year, I hosted Thanksgiving Day dinner and beginning on the Sunday prior to the holiday, my kitchen was not only filled with the aroma of pinto beans, tomatoes, chili powder, cumin and a few other ingredients to create a streaming, steaming array of delicious pots of chili, but also an improvised melody of my singing – beans, beans, beautiful beans to a tune similar to “Skip to My Lou.”
If you live outside of Canada or America, you might not be aware that Thanksgiving’s traditional main dishes of roast turkey and/or baked ham are complemented by common, seasonal side dishes, such as stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, green beans, cornbread, squash, dinner rolls, cranberry sauce and for dessert, pumpkin pie. To serve chili on the holiday table is something akin to ladling out simmering chicken noodle soup on a hot summer’s day – it doesn’t quite fit.
The first Thanksgiving feast between the native Wampanoag and English settlers, Pilgrims, was in the fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It’s likely it consisted of venison, fowl (geese and duck), corn, nuts and shellfish. The modern dish we know as chili, also known as chili con carne (chili with meat), comes much later on in American history. “It does appear to have roots in the American West, particularly the State of Texas. An old legend holds that immigrants from the Canary Islands brought a recipe for chili with them when they settled San Antonio in the early 1700s.”
Enough of the history lesson.
“Chili is not supposed to be part of the meal,” my fiance, a pure traditionalist engaged to a pure non-traditionalist, commented with a slightly bemused expression after he realized that my dinner plan was to serve three different versions of chili: spicy hot, mild and vegetarian.
“Well, it is now,” I replied and went back to cooking.
My sister-friend Anne gave me the idea of making chili for Thanksgiving after she sent me a large-sized ziploc bag of dried pinto beans from New Mexico, the state in which she resides, in the care package she sent this past November. They’ve been one of the consistent, individually wrapped gifts that she’s sent in her thoughtful parcels over these last three years. Sometimes she pens notes about the background information of each gift. For instance, she always writes that she travels forty-five minutes one-way to a farm (I don’t remember its name, but it’s a long German-sounding name) to purchase the dried pinto beans. That’s Anne. She packs every little bean of life with a mammoth punch of love.
There’s typically a separate package in each delivery marked “Stacy and Alex” for me and my daughter, as there was this year. Last month we unwrapped two silver angels, a small and large one, inside the recycled brown bag wrapping. Her accompanying note said they caught her view at one of her favorite greenhouses, and they had our names written all over it. All I can say is when you enter my living room, the focal point is the large silver-toned angel in the center of the fireplace’s mantle.
Anne might live across the country, but her creative powerhouse fuels our spirit and reminds us of the good in the world. In fact, in proximity to the silver-toned angel is a gold and pink-colored, three-inch acrylic dragonfly that she sent in her first package, a Christmas package, the tragic year in which we lost our North Star, Alex’s brother and my son. Sorrow blacked out our holiday, and Alex and I were unable to exchange any gifts. Anne’s individually wrapped goodies arrived via first-class mailing service. Inside, she paired the dragonfly with a blue-colored butterfly. On the attached note she explained that a dragonfly represents change, transformation and an understanding of the deeper meaning of life. The butterfly, on the other hand, she noted meant “hope.” To this day when I see the dragonfly in my living room, as well as the butterfly where I placed it in my garage, they give me a sense of faith.
In that particular holiday package were, of course, a large-sized ziploc bag of her “famous” beans .… Beans, beans, beautiful beans ….
Now, let me say one more thing about the darn New Mexico beans. You gotta soak them for days. And slow cook them for hours and hours and hours. Otherwise, they are crunchy. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to eating. I don’t want my beans to have the texture of potato chips. They really are a nuisance to cook. But in the end, it’s so worth it. The process reminds me of how unconditional love can be inconvenient. In the end, though, the chili made with the pinto beans are yummy each and every time, which may or may not be the result of the unconditional time and devotion you give to a human being. Either way, after undergoing the cooking challenge, I’m a better, more disciplined person because my behavior is a reflection of me. One thing certain after the beans are FINALLY cooked, the chili made, my exhausted self looks in the reflection of the mirror and says, “Damn, that was a good job. Stand tall. Stand proud.”
Additionally, in the package this year was a cutting of her fresh organic sage, direct from her garden. I added it to my TRADITIONAL stuffing, and EVERYONE said it was the best stuffing they ever tasted – and it was, thanks to Anne. So, this past Thanksgiving, Anne visited in her own special way, every time I served delicious stuffing and chili.
Almost every night, holidays included, I light one of my candles in Anne’s honor. I started the tradition after she kicked off the ritual for me and my family a little over three years ago during our tragic time. Although we live on opposite sides of the United States, she always feels close by like a woolly blanket.
Don’t kid yourself, love CAN be bought as long as it’s given unconditionally – gift wrap optional.
So, what’s the ins and outs of making a great chili bean recipe? A lot of patience if you get dried pinto beans from some faraway farm in New Mexico! No matter what you prefer, add a little cube of unsweetened baking chocolate. It balances out the spices in the dish and makes it rich and satisfying, much like a lifelong friendship.
Mild, Non-Vegetarian Chili 🌶️ made with Beautiful New Mexico Pinto Beans
(you can substitute your own dried or canned beans)
Dried or canned pinto beans, about a pound or a pound and a half, depending on how many beans you prefer in your chili
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil; or non-stick cooking spray
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large sweet white onion, diced
2 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
3 small cans of tomato sauce
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 to 4 bay leaves, use less if they are large bay leaves
1 teaspoon parsley
1/4 teaspoon black pepper or cayenne pepper to taste
Squeeze of lime
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
a dash of pickle juice if you have a jar of pickles on hand (you heard it right!)
Unsweetened baking chocolate, 2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate baking bar
2 cans of evaporated milk
1 carton beef broth (you will use about half of it)
1 to 3 pounds of ground beef (depending on your preference)
Salt to taste
If you are using dried pinto beans, soak overnight in water with bay leaves. (With New Mexico bean, I soak them for a minimum of THREE nights and then quick boil before using them in the slow cooker.)
Place oil in a large skillet (I use my cast iron pan) and set to medium-high heat. When the oil glistens, add onions and cook for 2-3 minutes. Next, add garlic and cook for another minute.
Add spices and stir often so they won’t burn.
Turn up the heat to medium and add meat and brown. Once the meat is brown, stir in beans along with bay leaves. Cool. Add to slow cooker. Top with tomato sauce. After tomato sauce is emptied from cans, pour evaporated milk into tomato cans, swirl the liquid around and pour into slow cooker (I don’t waste anything.) Add beef broth as needed to keep chili moist but not too watery, and chocolate and stir, stir, stir. Squeeze the lime juice, add balsamic vinegar and, if you are a super creative cook adventurer, pickle juice. Slow cook at least eight hours. Freezes PERFECTLY, so you can enjoy it during the winter months; it will surely warm you up like a wooly blanket of friendship.