Once upon a time, one of Montana'€™s largest wheat growers and millers operated a restaurant across the street from a cookware store where I taught classes. They served an array of great big sandwiches, soups, salads, and their signature wheat chili. It was vegetarian, and made with wheat berries, tomato-based with, I believe, kidney beans. One woman in particular with whom I worked loved it, praised it to the skies, closed her eyes as her head sank backward with the first couple of fragrant, steaming bites. â€œI just love this,â€ she intoned every single time she brought back a styrofoam cup of it.
I had to try it. Since I cannot eat anything out of styrofoam in any shape, I ordered a cup and sat down then and there with a book for a delicious bit of silent time away from the store. I took my first eye-closing, head-tilting bite.
My eyes popped and my jaw dropped. Bitter, extremely bitter. The cumin, and there was a hell of a lot of it, had been over-toasted. The wheat berries, the supposed star of the show, had simply been tossed into the pot and cooked in the available liquid. I stuck my spoon in the center of the cup, and I swear to you it stood up straight as a stick. It wasnâ€™t chili; it was mortar. Okay, I can adopt the restaurant criticâ€™s approach and give a place three tries. The second time yielded the same results. I suspected that a third would not be a charm.
Clearly, it was a work in progress. The missing ingredient was progress.
Moving on, I kept the vegetarian concept. The boiled-within wheat berries alone focused too much attention on an ingredient that was more texture than flavor, and waaaaaay too much texture at that. Oven-roasting them punches up their flavor before simmering them separately in some vegetable stock in advance of adding them and their stock to the mix. While the wheat was roasting, I built a hardwood charcoal fire. I used it to sear the chile and tomatillos, then tossed some alder chips on the coals and tamped down the drafts to kiss them with a touch of smoky flavor. And I didnâ€™t over-toast the cumin.