Chase Off The Winter Chill With Chili

One day in our lunchroom, someone was quietly enjoying a bowl of chili. A co-worker launched a discussion about why chili is named as such. After all, it’s not “chilly;” it’s hot. Of course, they were joking. Well, I think they were. So I went on a chili fact-finding mission, and this column is for my chili-head-wannabe colleagues.

Chili, a type of thick soup, gets its name from the chili peppers or powder it contains. The term “chili,” as applied to peppers, actually has three different and correct spellings: “chilli, chile and chili.” Of course, none of the words refer to a cool serving temperature. Chili peppers don’t cool your mouth, either.

Chili peppers have an interesting history. Columbus believed he had reached the Far East and all its spices when he landed in America. When he spotted chili peppers, he thought they were a different kind of black pepper. He brought peppers with him to the Iberian Peninsula, and the popularity of these flavorful foods spread around the world. Hot peppers became widely used in Thai and Indian cuisine, in addition to South American dishes.

Known for their spiciness, chili peppers vary widely in their degree of heat, which is measured in Scoville heat units. In general, the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. Much of the heat is concentrated in the veins, so be cautious when handling hot peppers. Wear plastic gloves if possible, and don’t rub your eyes. Nutritionally, sweet green bell peppers and hot peppers are excellent sources of vitamin C.

Chili, as a type of soup or stew, also has an interesting history, and among chili enthusiasts, the “real recipe” is hotly debated. Most information sources say that chili dates back to the cowboys of the mid-19th century. The inventive cooks used whatever kind of meat they encountered to feed the hungry cowboys. So dinner on the trail may have included anything from rattlesnake to venison. The trail chefs also added chili peppers, onions and garlic.

In Texas, in particular, beans were not allowed in the cooking pot. Chili “con carne”  means chili with meat. Some chili purists also say that chili should be made only with chunks of meat or coarsely ground meat, not finely ground meat.

“Cincinnati chili,” on the other hand, is made from ground meat, chili powder and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cumin. It’s served over spaghetti and may be topped with cheese, onion or kidney beans.

Although using them is controversial among chili purists, kidney beans are a popular ingredient in chili in many parts of the U.S. They’re a low-cost meat extender and a very healthy one at that. Kidney beans, named because of their kidneylike shape, are an excellent source of folate and a good source of minerals such as iron, magnesium and potassium.

Tomatoes are a common chili ingredient, too. Not only are tomatoes a source of vitamin C, they may protect against some types of cancer. If you’re male, eat plenty of cooked tomatoes. The pigment responsible for the red color, lycopene, has been shown to reduce the risk of prostate cancer.

So, eat up because chili is hot. Here’s a chili recipe with the best of all worlds: tomatoes, peppers, ground beef and beans. It’s a great one-dish meal served with crackers or cornmeal muffins, low-fat milk and canned or fresh fruit for dessert.

Chili With Beans

1 pound extra-lean ground beef
1 c. chopped onion
1/4 c. chopped green pepper  (or substitute some hot peppers as desired)
1 (16-ounce) can tomatoes (about 2 cups), broken apart
1 (16-ounce) can dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
1 to 2 tsp. chili powder (or to your preference)
Cheese (optional, for topping)

In heavy skillet, cook meat, onion and green pepper until meat is browned and vegetables are tender. Drain excess fat completely. Stir in remaining ingredients. Cover; simmer one hour.

Makes six servings. Each serving contains about 230 calories, 5 grams (g) fat, 24 g protein, 24 g carbohydrate, 8 g fiber and 730 milligrams sodium (with salt from recipe).