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Buffalo poblano chili recipe at lynnecurry.com.

A Contest Winning Chili? You Be the Judge

Last weekend, I entered a chili contest. My first ever.

It’s been a super low snow year for skiing. So, I thought it sounded like fun to spend a Saturday tasting chilis and drinking free beer at Embers, our local brew pub.

What was there to lose?

It turned out that the sun shone brightly that day. About two dozen locals brought crock pots filled with chili for sampling. Tomatoey chili with cinnamon. Spicy chili with New Mexico chiles. White chili with chicken and another white chili with sausage. Chili with elk meat.

And there was me. I made a bison chili with meat from Stangel Bison Ranch, kidney beans, poblanos and corn topped with a cilantro crema.

Was it a winner?

Flavoring Chili with Chiles

We Americans love our chili, and it’s a wintertime favorite whether you’re at the ski hill or on the couch with a football game on TV.

The way I like chili best probably tastes less like most American chili and more like enchiladas. That’s because I love the flavors of dried chiles–ancho, pasilla, guajillo, chipotle… And I used them as a foundational flavor in this bison chili.

Dried chiles way better than any chili powder you can buy.

{By the way, have you noticed that so many chili powders are actually blends that include oregano, cumin, garlic powder and salt–not to mention silicon dioxide, a mineral added to prevent clumping? Whenever you use a blend like this, you’re not in total control of seasoning. And that can steer the taste of your chili in a direction you don’t want.}

Buffalo poblano chili recipe at lynnecurry.com.

Dried chiles are the basis for the flavoring–and the brick red color–in my chili. Then, I add other spices, including cumin, cinnamon and oregano to build up more layers of flavor.

It’s more subtle than a lot of tomatoey chilis you find.

How to Toast and Soak Dried Chiles

Dealing with dried chiles is definitely more work than using chili powder. But, when you’re making a big pot of chili that will last for a few meals–or entering a chili contest–quality matters. For this recipe, I used ancho chiles, the dried form of the poblano.

The steps are pretty simple:

  1. Break the stems and use your fingers to split the chiles open. They’ll crack and break apart, but you can still use all the papery pieces. Shake to remove the seeds and the ribs.
  2. Heat a skillet over medium heat. You can add oil, but I usually toast them in a dry skillet. They’ll lighten in color as they toast, but your nose is the best gauge. When they smell lightly toasted, flip them and then remove them from the pan with tongs.
  3. Soak them in boiling water until they soften, about 20 minutes before puréeing in the blender to make your sauce.

The toasting step isn’t essential, but I love how it brings out a smoky complex quality to the chiles.

So what was the verdict on my bison chili?

Let’s Talk About That Crema

I all ate a lot of chili in tiny cups that day. And I liked all of them, truth be told, especially with sips of cold pale ale with the sun beaming down and the sounds of happy crowds around me.

Yeah, in other words, my bison chili did not win the contest!

Still, every person who tasted it commented how much they loved the cilantro crema. It’s a simple recipe made with sour cream, lime juice, garlic and a bunch of cilantro that lasts in the fridge for about five days.

Along with topping your chili, it’s great on fish tacos, black bean rice bowls and as a dip for carrot sticks.

Try it, and then let me know: what’s your favorite type of chili?

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Bison Chili with Poblanos and Cilantro Crema

This chili features ground bison (buffalo), but feel free to use ground beef instead. Less tomatoey than many American chilis, this version is flavored with fresh poblanos and dried ancho chiles. Still, it's very mild, so add more heat to suit your taste. The cilantro crema on top is a bright note to the warm and deep flavors from the chiles.

Course Main Course
Cuisine American, Mexican
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Total Time 1 hour
Servings 8 people

Ingredients

For the chili:

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 medium poblano chiles, seeded and chopped or canned green chiles
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground bison or grassfed beef
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne or more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 12-ounce bottle beer light or dark
  • 3 cups cooked kidney or pinto beans or 2 15-ounce cans drained and rinsed
  • 8 whole ancho chile peppers, seeded or Anaheim chile or other mild dried chile
  • 3 cups hot beef stock, chicken stock, reserved bean cooking liquid or water
  • 1-2 teaspoons liquid smoke optional
  • 1-2 tablespoons masa harina optional

For the cilantro-lime crema:

  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 small garlic clove, peeled
  • 1 bunch cilantro leaves
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion and peppers and cook until the onion turns translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, bison, cumin, salt, oregano, cinnamon and cayenne and cook until the meat is no longer pink.

  2. Add the tomato paste and cook until it darkens in color, scraping the bottom of the pot. Add the beer and reduce the heat to simmer while you make the chile sauce.

  3. Meanwhile, heat a cast iron or other heavy bottom skillet over medium heat to toast the dried chiles. Have a blender jar on hand. Arrange them in a single layer in the pan. Use tongs to encourage them to lay flat and watch them carefully so they do not scorch. As soon as they chiles lighten in color and smell toasted, transfer them into the blender jar. Continue with the remaining chiles and remove the pan from the heat.

  4. Add the hot stock to the blender jar and let the chiles soak for about 15 minutes. Then, blend to make a very smooth chile sauce. Strain, add the chile sauce to the stock pot along with the beans and bring it back to a simmer. 

  5. Cook the chili at a low simmer, uncovered, for about 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add additional salt and cayenne to taste. To thicken the chili, stir in the masa and simmer until thickened to your liking. Add the liquid smoke, if using, and adjust the amount to suit your taste. And, if you'd like your chili a bit thicker, whisk 1/2 cup of broth with the masa harina in a measuring cup and stir it in. Simmer until it reaches the thickness you like, or repeat if you'd like it thicker.

  6. To make the cilantro crema, combine the sour cream, garlic and lime juice in the bowl off a food processor. Juice the lime and add the salt and process until blended well. Taste for lime juice and salt.

  7. Serve bowls of the chili drizzled with the cilantro-lime crema, along with other chili accompaniments to your taste.

Recipe Notes

To cook dry beans, sort and rinse and soak 1 cup dried beans overnight. Cover with water by at least 2 inches in a saucepan and add a garlic clove, a wedge of onion, 1 bay leaf and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a simmer and boil until the beans are tender, about 40 minutes (or longer if the beans are unsoaked). Or, use a pressure cooker manufacturer instructions.

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