Patrol Cooking 101: Simple Chili with variations
Frontiersman, Kit Carson, is rumored to have said;
I wish I had time for just one more bowl of chili
…just before passing from this world.
Out on the frontier, chili was the basic foundation for a good hot meal that could be made from whatever was readily available or already on hand. Brown up some local meat from the trail (rabbit, squirrel, etc.) add some re-hydrated beans, spices and water from the nearest creek and let the concoction simmer over the campfire while setting up camp and you’ve got an easy-peasy hot meal to satisfy your team. Even better, add some fresh cornbread to sop up any leftover juices.
Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of chili recipes only to discover that these variations on a central theme can be improvised very easily once you’ve mastered the basic stew pot combo. Now, everyone has their own preference about chili depending on their region of the country, family upbringing and such. Beans versus no-beans; chocolate or currant jelly; cubed stew meat versus ground beef; pasta or plain; with cheese or never with cheese and so on.
Feel free to disagree with my basic chili, but if you’re starting to learn to cook for your patrol, it may save you time at the campsite and keep everyone largely satisfied until you are confident enough to tackle something more challenging. On the plus side, once you’ve mastered the basic version, you can spin out many variations – testing what you and your pals like. Remember what Alton Brown (from the Food Network on TV) says; “I know people that could serve me canned tuna and saltine crackers and have me feel more at home at their table than some people who can cook circles around me. The more you try to impress people, generally the less you do.” Keep it simple, practice, and then you’ll have a bunch of fans raving about your cooking.
BASIC CHILI AND MAC FOR PATROLS
- Spice kit (make at home in a sealable jar, quart size freezer zipper bag, etc. – combine 1 Tsp of salt, 1 Tsp freshly ground black pepper, 1 Tsp of garlic powder with a half Tsp of chili powder, and a half Tsp Oregano. – feel free to adjust the ratios, amount, and types of seasonings as you practice the recipe to suit your own preferences)
- 1 pound of extra lean (93% lean if possible) ground beef
- 1 small or half of a large onion, diced (prefer yellow, can use white)
- 1 “standard” can (14.5 ounces) of petite diced tomatos (with liquid from can, don’t strain it)
- 1 “standard” can (14.5 ounces) of tomato sauce
- 1 “standard” can (16 ounces) of beef broth
- Half a box (16 ounces) of elbow macaroni (can substitute wagon wheels, mini shells, etc.)
- Cold water, as needed while simmering.
- Dice onion and place it bottom of large camp pot (or dutch oven) over mild heat to begin to sweat the onions.
- As they slowly become transparent (couple of minutes on the stove or over the coals of the campfire), add the ground beef and break it up as it begins to brown using spatula or cooking spoon.
- Keep folding the onions and beef together as it browns – do not overcook or burn the meat.
- Add spices to taste from your pre-made spice kit (likely dump the whole bag/jar) and stir it in.
- Add diced tomatos, sauce, and beef broth while stiring.
- Add uncooked pasta.
- Bring to a boil, then simmer while stirring from the bottom to keep pasta from sticking to bottom of pot.
- Once gently simmering, cover to retain moisture. Every three minutes, stir from bottom and check progress of pasta (it will soak up excess liquid as it cooks.) If the pasta needs more liquid, add a half cup of water at a time (but don’t turn it into soup.)
- As soon as pasta is cooked (soft, spongy when bitten) – it’s ready to serve.
Patrol members can top the chili with a dollop of sour cream, or a handful of shredded cheddar cheese, or crumbled tortilla chips (or all three!) If they like spice, chopped green chilis or jalapenos (with or without seeds) could be added.
Using your imagination and thinking about other stews and casseroles you’ve tried, you should be able to come up with some interesting variations using the basic recipe as a starting point.
Next to jazz music, there is nothing that lifts the spirit and strengthens the soul more than a good bowl of chili. – Harry James
- BEANS? Instead of pasta, you could substitute two cans of red kidney beans. They add fiber and will help fill up the hungriest of patrol members. However, like the actor John Goodman said; “Chili represents your three stages of matter: solid, liquid and eventually gas.” This often depends on whether there are beans in the mix, and if they had been thoroughly rinsed before cooking. If you use canned beans, or bring re-hydrated beans, be sure they’ve been well rinsed before adding them to the mix. I usually rinse them at home, let them soak overnight, and rinse them twice in the morning before packing them in the cooler to bring on the camp out.
- Southwest Spice? Substitute “Ro-Tel” (diced tomatoes and diced green chili peppers) for the normal “petite diced” tomatoes, and try adding mild or hot salsa to the mix. Change out the elbow mac for wagon wheels, rotini (corkscrews) or small shells (which hold more of the liquid in each bite). Add frozen corn and black beans. Serve with shredded cheese and sour cream.
- Shepherd’s Pie? Instead of adding pasta, you could add frozen peas, carrots and corn (or whatever suits your taste) and then once simmering, add a layer of instant mashed potatoes (cooked separately) over the top of the mixture. The mashed potatoes add a cap to keep liquids locked in, and add heft to the final delivery in each patrol member’s mess kit bowl.
- White, Chicken Chili? Instead of ground beef, used shredded chicken (perhaps pre-cooked at home and brought to camp frozen in a container. Use chicken stock in lieu of beef stock and a cup of whole milk in lieu of tomato sauce. You could stick with pasta or substitute instant rice or two, 15 ounce cans of navy beans (small white beans or small cannellini’s)
Hands down, the best side dish for chili is (arguably) fresh cornbread made over the fire in a skillet or dutch oven. Our troop had it’s favorite recipe which was largely bomb-proof (we’ve managed to goof up the process, but got good results each time.) It started as a way to introduce a veggie (very finely chopped broccoli) into the meal by hiding it with a lot of butter and cheddar cheese inside the corn bread, but we’ve found that the plain cornbread or the version with cheese taste just fine without the “green stuff”. The recipe can be found on our old troop blog site: https://troop113.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/troop-113-cornbread/ or from its original source – “The Scouts Dutch Oven Cookbook” by Tim and Christine Connors.
Side Salad! Bring an unscented, plain (no chemical treatment) plastic trash bag to camp. At camp dice a head of iceberg lettuce, chop up tomatoes (or strain two cans of diced tomatoes), and add other veggies to taste (i.e. shredded carrots, rinsed and drained chick peas, rinsed and drained navy beans, etc.) Pour in a half bottle of favorite dressing, then grasping the bag halfway down so that there’s a little air space at the bottom, shake vigorously. Place bag in center of table, roll the edges of the bag down and place tongs or serving utensils. When everyone is full, all trash can go into the salad bag for quick clean up at the table! (This trash bag salad can even be used to make a great “taco-salad” by adding precooked, cooled, ground beef, chipotle-ranch or thousand island dressing, and tortillas)
Biscuits! If your patrol is not a fan of cornbread, we’ve often brought grand’s biscuits from home, or cooked them in dutch ovens at the campsite.
Baked Potatoes! If you have a large patrol to feed on a very tight food budget, you could wrap potatoes in heavy duty aluminum foil and bury them in hot coals in the campfire about 60 minutes prior to dinner time. Using an oven mitt or welding gloves, test the individual potatoes for “done-ness” by gently squeezing them –if they “give” gently they’re ready. If they’re hard as rock, they’re not done. Patrol members can scoop out their potatoes in order to serve the chili in the potato skins, or they simply treat the potatoes as a side dish with butter or sour cream and chives. The potatoes will help fill everyone up and stretch the chili among more people – helping to hold down overall cost per person.
What are some of your favorite variations on chili or side dishes?