Red Wine Chili

Red Wine ChiliJacques Pepin got me thinking: how many recipes does one person commit to memory in their lifetime? The question doesn’t suggest a one-size-fits-all answer but maybe you’re already beginning to rattle off recipe names or tick fingers doing a lap on the mental treadmill of memory.

The only time we ever stirred a pot of slow-cooked chili in my childhood home aligned with ominous clouds darkening the sky above as rain lashed the ground outside. It became almost a Pavlovian response: when the rain came, so did my craving for chili. In Texas, one of the important details of the chili-eating experience involves the curlicue corn chip known as the Frito. I can’t recall really ever wanting those chips outside of providing a nuance of crunch to the duet of chili-spiced ground beef and beans with its volcanic rupture of melted cheddar cheese.

Taste memories form us into the eaters we are. We may not pledge allegiance to the flavors of our childhood once we become adults, but their imprint can catapult us quickly back to a place in our past, faster than we might be able to conjure them up without the olfactory and taste bud assistance.

It’s not that we eat chili often now at home at all. I can count only two occurrences we’ve pulled together a pot this year and perhaps not coincidentally they’ve coincided with the arrival of rain. But, there’s something about taking what is known and teasing it out—seeing how far the boundaries extend before it no longer looks or acts or tastes like its initial point of departure. Would it be accurate to suggest we are all adaptations of our former selves, much like the chili recipe of now can be credited back to the flavors that formed in our taste bank many years ago?

For Christmas Eve last year, part of our family congregated around a table in a dimly lit restaurant in the wine country. We would cloister around the massive paella pan the next day preparing and waiting to dig up the crusty bits of rice still clinging and etched into the bottom of the pan of what had become tradition. But, this evening, we huddled in elegant Dry Creek Kitchen, playing the part of happy family, unfettered by a fissure whose full impact is still deeply felt a year later. I ordered the tasting menu and marveled at the soft poached egg melting into the housemade ricotta paired with spiced warm brioche and red currant vinaigrette. This led to second course of spiral cut ham salting roasted butternut squash risotto with a peppery pop of arugula and sweet maple glacage. By the main course of Pop’s Prime Rib Wellington, we had all pretty much pled mercy and requested to-go boxes.

Red Wine Chili

Two days later, we fished out the leftover prime rib steaks, considering how we might present them anew for dinner. A decent bottle of red table wine sat on the counter and one thing led to another. The flavors formed into a Spanish and Sonoma-inspired red wine chili with chunks of steak. We sat around steaming bowls that night as the savory aroma wafted up from our spoons. Through the disparate odds and ends leftover from the grand celebrations, we had created something unexpected and good.

The holidays can be tricky to navigate as they come fraught with expectation as much as ensuing excitement. They can bring to the surface leftover hurts of a misplaced comment or issues that we thought we had resolved and healed. Looking at leftover meat doesn’t usually inspire the kind of admiration of the original plate with its thoughtful garnish and presentation. But leftovers can teach us a lot about ourselves. They give us a second chance to make what was originally someone else’s creation, our own. It’s not easy forgiving small grievances that can compound into one ball of recollection. But the thing with holidays is they too are an attempt at second chances—every year we get an opportunity to try again and learn better how to celebrate life with each other.

What we might not see at first glance is that holding onto leftover hurts allows them to keep us shackled to the past instead of moving gracefully into the future. Forgiveness might seem like an odd gift to give at the holidays, but no wrapping can contain its incredible value. It is in its way a fresh start, a chance to open the to-go box, survey the cold meat inside and say, how can I make this good again?


Red Wine Chili

Red Wine Chili

In a different chili recipe I made a while back, I had jotted a note to self to try using chipotle chili in a future iteration. Oh, yes. Look for the small can of chipotles in adobo sauce in the Latin American aisle of your supermarket. My obsession with figs runs deep and I wanted to play around with the idea of letting a hint of their natural sweetness play into a chili-laced paste that’s simmered tomatoes with a bit of red wine, and thyme. This is definitely a game-changer for me. I had never made my chili using a paste before, but as I was thinking about texture and wanting to both concentrate the flavors in the base, I decided to simmer and puree and now I’m not looking back. The figs also act as a thickener in the homemade chili paste. In some circles, cooking with wine might come across as a bad way for the bottle to go down. But, I find a judicious glug of decent dry red makes a well-served sacrifice in this chili. It adds body and depth, and should come from a vintage you would like to drink, since the rest of the bottle will be the cook’s (and company’s) libation. I used Healdsburg Reserve Merlot from Split Creek Farms. When it comes to garnishing chili, we are of two minds in our household. You might find as I did that the chili tastes best on its own or with a dollop of yogurt. Nathan added cheddar to his bowl and between spoonfuls, pronounced this the best chili he has ever eaten, so there might be something to that. However you serve it, make sure to break out the corn chips.

Serves 4 huge bowls to 6 small bowls


2 cups plus 1 cup diced tomatoes and juice (1 28-ounce can)

4 ounces dried California mission figs, stemmed (1/2 cup)

2 teaspoons adobo sauce plus 1 chipotle pepper

3 tablespoons plus 1 cup dry red table wine

Fresh thyme leaves from 1 sprig (1/2 teaspoon)

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons chili powder

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil

1 large white onion, peeled and medium chopped (2 cups)

1 pound ground beef

1 cooked ribeye steak, cool and cubed

2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, drained and rinsed

1 carrot, peeled and small grated (1/2 cup)

2 ¼ teaspoons kosher salt

Organic corn chips

Whole milk yogurt, optional

Sharp cheddar cheese, optional


Simmer 2 cups of tomatoes and juice with the figs, adobo sauce, chipotle pepper, 3 tablespoons of red wine, thyme leaves, and chili powder on low for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile drizzle and swirl the olive oil into a skillet set over medium-low heat and cook the onions for 15 minutes, until almost translucent, stirring sporadically. Add and brown the ground beef in the skillet with the onions. Turn off the heat under the pot of chili-laced figs and transfer the chili-laced figs to a blender. Remove the cap off the lid and place a towel over the hole. Blend until smooth. Pour the chili-fig puree into a large stockpot. Stir in the remaining cup of red wine, cup of diced tomato and juice, steak, beans, carrot, and salt to the pot. Add the ground beef and onions to the pot. Simmer on low for 10-15 minutes. Garnish with yogurt and cheddar if desired. Serve with corn chips.


Creamy Black Beans with Melted Onions


It might seem like a given that a non-traditional person may not crave ritual.

I counter the presupposition happily. Each weekend, Saturday evenings to be precise, I pad into the kitchen, already clothed in pajamas to measure our black turtle beans and pour them into a big red bowl. They cascade into the bowl like dominoes clicking against one another when tipped over. The swish of water navigates between the beans until they are covered. I tackle this weekly soak as a ritual reserved right before bed.

This small act readies me for the coming week when the cooked beans will be our sustenance after a long Monday working and later in the week when we are looking for something healthy to eat that’s fast. They provide a continuity that sets us on a steadier path of making good choices. When paired with rice, we join the throngs of people around the world for whom rice and beans constitute a major part of their regular repast. These powerful ingredients work well together in forming a complete protein. Some people also turn to  beans for their low cost. Beans have a way of connecting the poor and the rich- their humility belying their strong health benefits.

making a pot of creamy black beans

Every two weeks, I know that quart sized jar will be running low and I subsequently plan a visit to the bulk bins. There’s something satisfying about watching an almost empty jar become full again. In its way, that emptying and refilling of the jar is reminiscent of life. In its way, it comprises the most basic ritual of all.

You may be vegetarian or vegan. Maybe you’re gluten intolerant or a real food purist. Perhaps you’re just looking to make healthier changes to your everyday choices. Can I suggest making beans a regular part of your routine? They are food of the soul of this non-traditional person who delights in the morning ritual of finding those hard black buttons hydrated and plumped overnight. They serve as signposts for what counts.

Creamy Black Beans Recipe



I use beef broth in this recipe. If you are vegetarian or vegan, feel free to substitute in vegetable broth. I’ve tried it that way and it’s still tasty though you may need to add a touch of salt as needed. Some pots of beans are kind of soupy with a lot of liquid. I like to cook these low and slow so that the liquid gets reduced down into a creamy consistency and the onions take on a melted quality. The beef broth adds a bit of an umami flavor note and an ever so slight smokiness.

YIELD: 6 side servings
TIME: overnight plus 2 hours

2 cups dry black turtle beans

4 cups organic beef broth (I use Pacific Foods)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 teaspoon cumin

4 sprigs of fresh cilantro


1. Allow your beans to soak overnight by covering the dried beans with water, making sure there is an extra inch of water above the beans, as you will find them plumped up the next morning.

2. Drain the soaking water the next day and discard it. Place beans in a heavy pot with beef broth, onion, cumin, olive oil and cilantro. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, turn down the heat and cover the pot partway with the lid, letting the ingredients simmer.

3. Low and slow is the name of the game here. Check and stir the beans occasionally. The beans will be done when they are soft and edible but not mushy with the liquid reduced to an almost gravy-like consistency, around an hour and a half to two hours.

4. Remove the cilantro sprigs and discard. Serve.


These are my go-to beans as they are versatile, so I like to keep them pretty true to form as stated above. I’ve noted a few ways to consider serving them below. Make them your own and adapt away (and if you do, leave a comment – I’d love to hear how your creativity runs wild).

– Serve with polenta or steamed rice with sautéed greens for an easy meal.

– Add extra broth as you heat up leftover beans and make an easy black bean soup. Serve with a dollop of plain’s goat milk yogurt and chopped raw red peppers.

– If you’re feeling particularly frisky in the kitchen, use an immersion blender and puree until smooth for a healthier take on refried beans.

– Stir in a spoonful of Oaxacan mole for a bit of chocolatey complexity and with fresh corn tortillas.




Hunger Challenge Day 7: Black Refried Beans recipe

Black Refried Beans

Nathan and I are living off of $4.72 per day per person this week as part of the SF Food Bank’s Hunger Challenge. This includes  preparation, time and support… With a restricted budget, there are foods that don’t make it in, there are cravings and fatigue. I’m blogging my ramblings of the challenge this week.

It’s the end of the challenge. Before me, I have a new week and menu to consider. There are groceries to be bought, dregs of this week to be engrafted into a new set of rules. Or are they?

Crossing this line isn’t the kind of whoop-whoop celebration that many challenges bring about. True, I will appreciate sinking my teeth into the crisped edges of an everything bagel and lick the toasted garlic and cream cheese from my lips with recognition of spending half a day’s allowance on a breakfast treat with two meals to go. I will continue to seek out ways to make the most of the food I do have, like making chicken stock after shucking the bones of all the meat. I’m young still. There is hopefully time yet for me to continue learning.

Poverty is nothing new to me.

I’m friends with people who could fall into the category of the working poor. I’m friends with people who used to live under the Bay Bridge and also play a wicked game of chess. I’m friends with women in India who live in a slum and sing as they hang out their laundry. I’m friends with people who never have to worry where their next meal is going to come from or the one after that. And I like them all without question.

So perhaps as we begin entering this holiday season, it’s good to ask the question, “who is my neighbor and how can I love them as I love myself?”

My friend Stacey worked and scrimped, making extreme choices for a year, all to pay off a credit card. She set a very real and very hard timeline for herself. We, her friends, respected and supported her as she lived on little and kept chipping away at her debt that she might find freedom. This act of perseverance was fraught with struggle along the way, but Stacey also learned some valuable life lessons that would see her through richer times as well as the lean times and eventually after she was married, allowed her the opportunity to stay home with their baby and live off of her husband’s small salary.  I’m sure this is the case for many living on small means, but she had become a budgeting queen.

Among the various lessons learned during her payback period, she taught me the art of finding free or very cheap ways to be with a person. The goal she showed me isn’t the “doing”, it’s the “being”. During this period, she would call and ask to meet up for a cup of coffee. For $1.50 we would catch up and at the end feel satisfied with the time spent. I’ve called up my friend Kenny to go for a walk instead of going to the cinema.

Time spent with someone who loves you is what counts, not what you can do or give to them.

So my take-aways are simple:

  • we ate better than we have in a long while because of the planning and preparing that went into making our meals.
  • we found ourselves hungry and frustrated at times.
  • I felt left out of social situations.
  • I found my eyes opened to see all the work and time necessary to eat well on a hunger challenge.
  • I felt exposed, knowing I do not live on food stamps, so this challenge is a rudimentary way to try and understand.
  • I heard you say you learned something new:

And that made me smile-  that made this worth it.


Black “Refried” Beans

Why go refried when you can go less fat? The caramelized onions and garlic give a deep, complex flavor and the tomato contributes to these silky beans. Serve on tostadas or alongside with brown rice. Heck, refried beans are fantastic on nachos or in burritos as well as for the base of a bean dip. 

TIME: 5-7 minutes
COST: $2.62

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 garlic cloves, halved

¼ yellow onion, sliced

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

1 roma tomato, diced

2 cans black beans, drained

3 tablespoons water


Saute the garlic and onion in a medium saucepan over medium heat until browned around the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the salt and tomatoes, stirring frequently and cooking until the tomatoes loosen and slump, about 4 minutes. Add the beans to the pan and stir for a few minutes until slightly bubbling. Add the tomato-laced beans into a blender with 3 tablespoons water. Puree until smooth.