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Author Notes: 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.
Serves 2 with leftovers
- 1 cup dry navy beans
- 1 cup soft white wheat berries
- 32 ounces vegetable stock, plus more at the end if needed
- 1 poblano pepper
- 8-10 tomatillos, depending on size
- Neutral flavored oil (I used corn oil)
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 2 pods green coriander, seeds removed
- 1 yellow onion, 1/2â€ dice
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed & minced
- 12 ounces wheat beer
- The diced pepper and tomatillos
- The beans, drained
- The cooked wheat berries and their stock
- 1/4 cup sour cream, or more if you wish
- Cholula (or your favorite) hot sauce
- 1/2 avocado, diced
- Juice of 1/2 lime
- Sea or kosher salt & pepper
- Chopped cilantro
- Tortilla chips
- Spread the beans out on something light-colored, like a piece of parchment. Pour the beans onto it and sort through them to remove any pebbles (I found 3 in just one cup). Pour them into a colander and rinse them under cold running water. Transfer them to a soup pot and fill to cover by 3 inches with cold water. Bring them to a boil, then reduce to an active simmer. Cook for about 45 minutes, or until softened.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread the wheat berries out on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Roast them for 15 minutes; they should take on a rich golden brown color and deep aroma. Remove from oven and set aside.
- While the beans are cooking and the wheat berries roasting, build a fire or light a grill. Cut the pepper in half lengthwise and remove the seeds and white ribs. Remove the husks from the tomatillos. Cut them in half. Place tomatillos and pepper halves in a mixing bowl. Add 2 or 3 ounces of oil, and toss them all until coated. Set a grill pan on the barbecue grate and allow it to get hot. When it is, add the vegetables. With the lid open, sear the peppers and tomatillos on both sides. on both sides. Cook for about 5-10 minutes total, depending on how large or hot your fire is. Remove the grill pan and scatter a small handful of your favorite smoking chips (I like alder) over the coals. Replace the pan and close the lid of the barbecue. I know, with the handle of the grill pan sticking out, it won't close all the way. No matter. Close the top and bottom drafts almost all the way. Smoke the vegetables for 5 minutes. When finished, take them inside and allow to cool until you can comfortably handle them. Quarter the tomatillo halves and cut the pepper into 1/4â€ dice.
- While the beans continue to cook, bring 32 ounces of vegetable stock (your own, or a good organic one) to a boil. Add the roasted wheat berries and reduce heat to an active simmer. Cook the berries until well softened, about 40 minutes. They will still have some crunch to them by virtue of having been roasted, but they shouldn't be too firm to bite.
- Warm a dry skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the cumin and coriander seeds. Toast them, shaking the skillet back and forth until they are fragrant. If they begin to smoke, toss them out and start over and this time donâ€™t toast them that long. I grind mine with a mortar and pestle, but if you have a spice grinder, by all means use it.
- While the berries are cooking, rinse out the pot in which you cooked the beans. Warm it over medium heat. Add enough oil to film the bottom of the pot. When hot, add the onions and a good pinch of salt. Cook until softened and translucent. Add the garlic, chiles and tomatillos and any accumulated juices in the bottom of the bowl. Cook until the garlic is very fragrant. Add the cumin and coriander.
- Letâ€™s talk about beer here. I used Chainbreaker White IPA made by Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon. In addition to wheat, hops, and yeast (Belgian yeast at that), itâ€™s been subtly flavored with orange and coriander (much more subtle than Blue Moon, also a wheat beer, but waaaay to high on the orange scale), all perfect for something like this. In fact, the label asks, â€œWhat if wheat wasnâ€™t the goal in itself? But a route to something awesomely new?â€ Excellent question, and it applies to how Iâ€™ve come to think of this chili.
- Add the beer to the pot. It will foam up; thatâ€™s okay. Add the beans. Bring everything to a gentle boil. By now, the wheat berries should be done. Pour them and the stock in which they were cooked into the soup pot. Stir it all together, put a lid on the pot, and simmer for 30 minutes.
- While the chili is simmering, whisk as much hot sauce as you need (Iâ€™m partial to Cholula) into the sour cream. Dice half of an avocado and place it in a mixing bowl. Add the lime juice and toss to blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Chop some cilantro.
- Give the chili a stir. If it seems too thick (if a spoon can stand upright and salute you), add more stock until it reaches a good chili-like consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper. To serve, ladle the chile into bowls. Scatter the avocados over each, followed by the cilantro. Drop a dollop of sour cream in the middle. Arrange tortilla chips around the perimeter of the bowl. This is great Sunday dinner fare.
- This recipe was entered in the contest for Your Best Recipe with Cereal