Note: If you cannot find ramps, feel free to substitute garlic chives, which have a very similar flavor, shallots, or even leeks. In any case, you'll want about 1/4 to 1/3 cup minced onion....
We live in the woods. As in, when you look at an aerial view of where we live, you cannot see our cabin because it is surrounded by trees. Due to this proximity to wilderness, we have many opportunities to eat wild foods. We aren't foragers, per se. We do not build our meals around what wild edibles are in season. But we are adventurous, and we would guess that some of you are probably adventurous as well.
When we post about nettles or wild rose hips, we don't expect all of you to get a kick out of it. We know that for many city-dwellers, home cooks, and tamer eaters, wild foods hold little, if any, appeal. My grandmother is one of those people. Why would you eat venison, she argues, when you can go to the supermarket and buy boneless skinless chicken breasts?
However, one of the marvelous things about the Joy of Cooking's readership is that you folks are quite diverse. We hear from fans who live in the city and who live in very remote places. Some of you cook for a living, some by necessity, and some as a hobby. Many of you live overseas, speak more than one language, or come from a background or culture other than American. JOY reflects this riotously colorful melting pot of cooks.
There are sections in the book devoted to canning and preserving, foraging for wild greens, cooking in a hearth, fermenting, and cheesemaking. Do we think these nuggets of information will be valuable to everyone? No. Do we think they are worth talking about? Absolutely.
In any case, we try to impart cooking lessons into everything we discuss here. You may not use the recipes verbatim (in fact, we hope you make them your own), but we think that in every recipe lies an idea or two that can be useful to you, if not now, then down the road. The same is true of this richly flavored venison chili.
There are a couple things that make this chili different. One, rather than using ground meat, we opt for large chunks of stew meat which we brown and then cut into cubes, as opposed to the other way around. This way, you can achieve a lovely brown crust on the meat without overcooking it, which can cause it to become tough. It also prevents the meat from steaming, which often happens when you try to brown little cubes of meat and end up overcrowding the pan. Coincidentally, when you brown the meat in larger chunks, you will spend less time doing so and will avoid the frustration of trying to turn dozens of cubes to brown them on all sides. What's more, we love the texture of the cubed meat in this chili.
The second thing to note about this recipe is that we toast and grind our own chiles. This is not just an overcomplicated step meant to appeal to foodies--buying whole dried chiles is economical (you can find huge bags of them for very little money at your local hispanic market), fresher (want to place bets on how long that bottle of chili powder has been sitting at the supermarket?), and more flavorful. What's more, as you explore the fabulous flavors of different chiles, you can tweak your recipes to incorporate the ones you like best.
Keep in mind that not all chiles are hot. This chili is very mild even though it contains a lot of chiles--mild enough to be suitable for children. If you like more heat, you may want to add some Tabasco or cayenne to taste.
As for substitutions, please feel free to substitute lean beef (sirloin or round steak) for the venison. You may also use any type of bean you prefer--kidney, cannellini, or pinto beans would be great substitutions. We usually buy dried beans and cook them in our pressure cooker, but you can use canned beans. In a pinch, you may also use prepared chili powder and ground cumin, but the flavor will be much richer if you toast and grind the chiles and spices yourself.
If using dried beans, cook them at a simmer until tender, about 45 minutes to an hour. If using a pressure cooker, which we highly recommend if you have one, cook the beans for 20 minutes at 15 pounds pressure. You may soak them if you like, but we do not find this to be necessary for black beans.
To toast whole dried chiles, heat a dry skillet over medium heat until quite hot. Remove and discard the seeds from the chiles and open them up so that they can lay flat in the skillet. Toast them until fragrant and blackening in spots. If you have one of those cast iron bacon presses, you can use it to keep the chiles flat in the skillet, and they will toast more evenly. If not, no worries. Allow the toasted chiles to cool and grind them finely in a spice grinder.
You may toast whole cumin seeds in a similar manner--in a dry skillet until fragrant and starting to brown and pop.
Cook in a large Dutch oven until golden brown and the fat has rendered:
8 ounces bacon
Remove the bacon to a plate. Brown on all sides in the drippings over medium-high heat:
1 1/2 pounds venison in large chunks
Remove the venison to the plate with the bacon. In the same pan, sauté until starting to brown, about 8 minutes:
12 or more large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
Add, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, and stir until the foam disappears:
One 12-ounce bottle dark beer
Stir in and bring to a slow simmer:
One 32-ounce can whole tomatoes, with their juice
1 quart beef stock
1 pound dried black beans, cooked, or 2 cans black beans, drained
3 tablespoons toasted and ground ancho chiles
3 tablespoons toasted and ground guajillo chiles
2 tablespoons toasted and ground cumin seeds
1 tablespoon black pepper
Chop the bacon and venison into bite-sized chunks (or smaller, if you prefer) and add back to the pot.
Simmer for 1 to 2 hours, covered, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Season to taste with:
Salt and black pepper
Hot pepper sauce
Sour cream or Greek yogurt
Chopped green onions
Shredded cheddar cheese