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The Fewdsletter: Philly Chili
My recipe for a super bowl befitting of gameday, or any day
It was one of the gutsiest plays in NFL history. With 38 seconds left in the first half of Super Bowl LII, the Philadelphia Eagles were at fourth-and-goal from the New England Patriots’ one-yard line. Running back Corey Clement took the snap directly from center Jason Kelce as Eagles quarterback Nick Foles snuck off to the side. Clement flipped it to tight end Trey Burton, who in turn found Foles in the endzone for a touchdown. The trick play, which put the Birds up by 10 points going into halftime, has endured as the most-iconic moment from their Super Bowl win. And it all started when Foles asked head coach Doug Pederson: “You want Philly Chili?”
…or at least that’s how I heard it.
I’m originally from Ohio, so I find it useful to distinguish between what most of America thinks of as chili and the much-maligned Cincinnati style that I also grew up enjoying. The term “Philly Chili” is inspired by the Eagles, both an homage to that Super Bowl and an acknowledgment of how many ingredients are (or are packaged in) green. It’s also the dish we make most often on otherwise-lazy football Sundays. (The Cleveland Browns are always on too, but they’re more likely to make you lose your appetite than whet it.)
But the most-important Philadelphia connection is a pair of ingredients that served as my culinary muses. The first is the long hot pepper, a standard offering at local delis (including on one of my all-time favorite sandwiches) that offers both a distinctive complex flavor and famously unpredictable heat levels. I had never heard of them before I moved there, but they’re not exclusive to the Delaware Valley. I’ve consistently found them in supermarkets here in Rhode Island if you know to look for them.
The second is the sage turkey sausage from Cannuli’s, a nearly century-old butcher shop in the Italian Market with an entire storefront devoted to specialty poultry products. It’s fresher and better-seasoned than the prepackaged stuff you’ll find at the supermarket. It’s also fattier, so you can sauté the veggies in the drippings in a way that you can’t do with most ground poultry. This specific product is considerably harder to find outside South Philly, unless you freeze bags of it to take home when you’re in town (as I have taken to doing).
If these exact ingredients aren’t available to you, don’t sweat it — they’re easy to substitute for. After all, no food lends itself to improvisation better than chili.
There are two types of people in the world: Those who enjoy reading extended prose contextualizing a recipe, and those who are already muttering get to the damn ingredients already under their breath. For readers in the latter group, you can scroll down a few paragraphs now.
If you’ve read my previous recipe posts, you know I’m reluctant to prescribe exact directions. I don’t know your palate or your preferences. I barely have the patience to measure out ingredients when I’m making something new, let alone to document precise amounts for a recipe I usually prepare by eyeballing. For a dish as famously adaptable as chili, I would have written this as a not-a-recipe recipe if I hadn’t already pulled that shtick with meat sauce. Heck, my method started out as the famous Cooking Light All-American Chili, but after years of increasingly elaborate tweaks it became its own beast. In that spirit, here are some notes of explanation and equivocation before we get cooking.
This is the final step of the recipe, but it helps to work backwards — your intended toppings and side dishes will inform your earlier choices. You can take the spice up a half-step if you plan to balance it out with sour cream. I would add a little more salt as it simmers if you’re not eventually augmenting with shredded cheddar. A crumble of oyster crackers or saltines means you don’t have to cook your beans al dente to give the dish texture. You’d probably want it thicker as a standalone stew than when sopped up by cornbread or served atop elbow macaroni (my favorite as a Midwesterner).
If you’re in range of the Italian Market in South Philly, you should get Cannuli’s turkey sage sausage. Otherwise, your local butcher or grocery store’s turkey sausage works fine, but it may be fairly lean. If your turkey won’t render enough fat to sauté the veggies in, you can augment with bacon, chorizo, or another less-lean meat that fits your desired flavor profile. Or you can keep it on the healthful side and substitute a little olive oil for the drippings. This also works for making this recipe vegan, if you omit the meat or swap in a plant-based alternative.
There’s no wrong answer for what kind of beans you use, how they’re packaged, or what you do to prep them. Dry pinto beans are my favorites for chili, and I’ll usually mix in some black or kidney too. I prefer them on the softer side so I both soak them overnight and par-cook them in the pressure cooker before I throw them in the chili. If you like some bite to your beans, do one of those two steps but not both. Just make sure to season your liquid and throw it into the chili too.
I’ve already waxed poetic about long hots, my preferred heat source for chili, but jalapeños or equivalent spicy peppers work just fine. I like to add in a bell pepper to stretch the earthy flavor without shooting up the Scoville scale. As in my meat sauce, onions slow-cooked in the rendered fat are non-negotiable and the foundation of the flavors to come. My secret (until now) ingredient is zucchini. You won’t really taste it in the final product, but you’ll appreciate how the subtle freshness takes the edge off what could otherwise be an overwhelmingly heavy bite.
Many people put beer in chili, but they rarely agree about what kind to use. Stouts add rich depth of flavor to meaty stews. Hoppy IPAs and spicy peppers are a great combination. I’m a beer snob in most contexts, but for chili I actually prefer simpler: pale lager. As with zucchini, it brings a crisp brightness where
better more-complex brews would be too heavy. Rolling Rock is my cheap beer of choice, with Narragansett and Labatt Blue as solid backup options.
When it comes to chili, you absolutely have to have salt, some kind of chili powder, and probably cumin. Everything else is up for grabs. Aleppo is my go-to chile because of how it complements the tomato flavor, and (as in latkes) I love the hint of smoke white pepper adds. But whatever catches your eye when you open the spice cabinet will be great.
An efficient and organized cook could follow this recipe start to finish in about two hours. Obviously that’s already longer than most people can devote to dinner on the average weeknight. Yet as with most simmered stews, the more chili simmers, the better it gets. Let the veggies sweat, let the broth reduce, let the spices settle in. If you have time for this project to take four hours or so, you’ll be glad you did. (And your kitchen will smell amazing in the meantime.)
This hearty stew makes a great gameday spread or a cooking project to warm your bones during a bye week. This recipe yields about a gallon of chili, though it scales well and is even better as leftovers.
1 pound ground turkey sausage
1/2 pound bacon or chorizo (optional)
Olive oil, if needed
2 yellow onions, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
1-3 long hot peppers, chopped
A few hearty pinches of salt
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp powdered Aleppo pepper
1 tbsp dark brown sugar
1/2 tbsp oregano
1/2 tbsp garlic powder
1/2 tbsp black pepper
1/2 tbsp white pepper
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tbsp tomato paste
24 oz (two cans/bottles) pale lager, or more if needed
2 cups dried black/kidney/pinto beans, soaked and softened
56 oz (two large cans) canned tomatoes
2 cups cooking stock
Heat a large stockpot or Dutch oven over a medium-high flame. Add meat and cook until the outside is browned and starting to crisp, stirring frequently to break up the clumps. Drain and reserve any rendered fat. Remove meat from pot and set aside. (If using multiple types of meat, cook each one separately, in order of fattiest to leanest.)
Reduce heat to medium-low. Add onions, a thin coating of meat juices or olive oil, and a hearty pinch of salt. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly caramelized, about 10-20 minutes.
Increase heat to medium-high. Add zucchini, a pinch of salt, and a few drops of fat/oil (as needed) and sauté it starts to soften, about two minutes. Repeat with bell pepper and long hots and sauté for 10 minutes, or until vegetables reach desired doneness.
Add spices (cumin through paprika) and mix thoroughly. Add tomato paste and stir vigorously until it just starts to blacken. Add one can beer and scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon while the liquid simmers.
Add cooked meat, beans, tomatoes, stock, and another beer. If necessary, add more lager, one can at a time, until solid ingredients are completely submersed in liquid. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium and cover. Let cook for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally to scrape browned bits off the bottom of the pot.
Uncover and let simmer for at least an hour, or until chili reaches desired consistency; if it gets too thick too quickly, add another can of beer. Half an hour before serving, taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
Serve hot in a deep bowl, alongside cornbread, or over pasta. Top with sour cream, sharp cheddar cheese, crackers, scallions, smoked salt, and/or hot sauce. Enjoy!
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