Why hello there! Let’s talk about a word that a lot of people are going to have a fun time arguing about in the comments (I hope. What’s the point of a comments section if there’s no fighting?) That word? “Gourmand”. Of course, I doubt all my readers are super-interested in the finer distinctions between two words that come from the same root, so if all you’re looking for is a good chili-mac recipe, SAY NO MORE!
For the rest of us, let’s begin.
Potato, Pomme de Terre
(Honestly, This new format is great if only because it lets me make more chapter header puns.)
‘Gourmand’. What does it mean? Well, generally, it means “a glutton”, or “an overeater”. However, it also means “lover of Good Food.” Many find that latter definition strange, as the word ‘gourmet’ has grown to fill that role in the modern parlance. And that’s a fair call. However, there is a distinction: A gourmet has a refined palate, and prefers food presented in a more aesthetic, balanced fashion. A Gourmet is the kind of guy to tell you whether your beluga caviar is properly accented by your crème fraîche and buckwheat blinis. A gourmand, by comparision, loves eating good food, in a more general sense, and the act of eating is essential to the role. The Gourmand is going to tell you that the caviar blinis are great, but unless you want to spend a fortune, there had better be something heartier coming along. To put it another way, the way a stereotypical French Waiter approaches caviar is the gourmet. (“It is a briny egg, sir, best used to cut the rich fat of the crème, offset with a crisp hard alcohol.”) While the way a stereotypical Russian approaches caviar is the gourmand. (“Caviar! Vodka! Excellent! Next, we have steak!”)
I bring this up because I am not, nor have I ever really been, a gourmet. It’s not in my blood. My family enjoys food too much to be snooty about it. We have our rules, of course. (You are allowed to order your steak at whatever doneness you want. We just know that any answer above “medium” is a sad thing to do to a steak.) If my family goes to a restaurant, and the waiter starts talking about the regional notes of the food clarified in the Ratatouille, how the herb and vegetable flavors meld in the sauce, working to paint a picture of a sun setting on a Normandy farmstead, we’re going to roll our eyes. I don’t need the history of Gaulic France for a vegetable stew. The stew speaks for itself.
“So, what brings you guys to the restaurant? To eat me? That’s nice. You kids have fun. MON DIEU, THAT HURTS!”
Because of our love of food not necessarily aligning with a ‘refined palate’, when it comes time to discuss the favorite dishes of my family, we come across as…kind of bipolar. My father loves Veal Parmigiana, Frenched Rib Chops, and “Hot” Taco Bell Hot Sauce. My youngest brother loves to order medium-rare Filet Mignon with a lobster tail on the side, and he also loves Kraft Mac and Cheese with “the cheapest can of tuna he can find” tossed in. He prefers Spongebob Mac and Cheese, but doesn’t like spending the extra money over normal. That sort of dichotomy.
But a unifying force of our meals is simple economics: Every son of my mother and father is over six feet tall. Every member of our family is over 150 pounds, with half of us being closer to or over 250. Which is not to say we’re all lard-monsters. I’m easily the heaviest member of the family, and I can still muster feats like riding 40 miles on a bike in an afternoon, pushing sedans and minivans by myself, hauling 20-foot tree limbs, and 18 hour workdays. And, again, I’m the fat one. My family is, in many ways, simply larger than life.
This is an antler chandelier in front of a wool blanket depicting Lewis and Clark’s journey across America. This is the first thing you encounter in our house.
So our meals must be as well, and that means roughly enough to feed 7 normal human beings. That means starches, proteins, and sauces, as we discussed back in You Saucy Minx. So, when I was considering what to cook for this note, I asked my dad what he wanted; His response was ‘I haven’t had a good Chili-Mac in years.” My mother concurred. “We try them at restaurants, now and again, but they’re always missing something.” Meat? Check. Starch? Check. Sauce? Check. I had myself a mission.
Mission Temporally Impossible
And no, that’s not a typo.
Now, I was using America’s Test Kitchen’s (an organization I will continue to shill for and fawn over, despite their occasional betrayals) recipe out of their Ultimate Weeknight Meals cookbook. I have included a picture of a key point on their cover.
Is “Lemony” a real word? Or is it a reference to a Series of Unfortunate Events?
Now, my family has difficulties intertwining our schedules these days. I’m used to a life of working on plays, which means evening rehearsals, post-rehearsal beers to dull the pain on how element X of a show could be great, but never will be, and so on. So I’m at my busiest in the evening. I rarely go to sleep before midnight, and prefer to get up around 9 AM. My parents get up between 3 and 4 in the morning, and prefer to retire by 10 pm at the latest. It’s not uncommon for my parents to be getting up as I’m going to sleep. So, beyond having our house under 24 hour watch, we have issues matching actions and times. So we seized on the Ultimate Chili Mac, because the cover told us we could be done in 30 minutes. That meant we could have dinner by 7-7:30! Late enough that I was hungry, but early enough that my parents could enjoy it, before winding down and going to bed.
This recipe takes at LEAST an hour, if you’re willing to dirty an extra dish. Seriously, there are 4 general steps to this recipe, and one of them, alone, is 30 minutes. The shortest step, the first, is a minimum of 13 minutes. There is no way you can make this meal in 30 minutes unless you own a time machine. Luckily, my family knows how to cheat. And by cheat, I mean say “Screw it, we’ll do two of the things at the same time.” Because the original recipe wanted you to boil macaroni, pour it out, and then cook the sauce in the same pot. But that would eat up valuable cooking time. So we said screw it, and went to work.
Let’s get down to business, to reheat, aliums.
Burning Down the House
Now, another thing about my family: My father grew up in Death Valley, California, or so he’s said. So when it comes to food choices, beyond his love of anything hearty and covered in tomato sauce, he likes spicy food. Which is a sentence that really needs some sort of qualifier, because when I say it, I mean that he likes food a little spicier than your average everyday Joe; Enough that he errs on the over-spicing side when adding chili powder and cumin, or likes a roasted jalapeno with his carne asada. So when we had to add diced tomatoes to the Chili Mac, we decided to kick it up a bit.
WE TURNED REALITY HORIZONTAL!
No, the point was the Jalapenoes.
I felt that his love of spicy food needed a qualifier, because I, on the other hand, generally like SPICY food. As in, I’m actively excited to find Ghost Peppers for sale. In those Thai restaurants that ask “how Spicy, 1 to 5?” I never pick under 3. And I’m typically disappointed with the 3. I used to eat a whole dried Ghost Pepper once a year, as a sort of annual catharsis. “There,” I would say, weeping openly, and drinking an entire quart of milk to kill the pain, “nothing can hurt me that badly for the rest of the year.” My dad likes to slice up the roast jalapeno with his carne asada. I like eating it in one bite. I make this extended tangent of self-inflicted suffering because, when we finished the meal and ate it, I was honestly mildly saddened at how little bite there was in the finished product. But that’s probably a good thing for you, the average home reader.
Anyway, the chili mac itself was fairly pretty to make. Chopped Onion and Red pepper, with the faint yellow of diced garlic, tossed in the sticky deep red of chili powder, the underlying brown of cumin. Look, I just really liked how it looked, okay?
This is beautiful. Screw you if you think otherwise. There’s no joke here, Philistine.
SO. MUCH. MAC.
Now, when you mix in the meat and tomatoes, and the noodles, you’re going to notice that this is a hefty damn dish. We’re talking 3 quarts of protein, starch, and acid. And it goes into a 9 by 13 pan, gets coated with cheese, and cooked for 20 minutes, let it cool for 10. EVEN THE LAST STEP IS 30 MINUTES! DAMN YOU, AMERICA’S TEST KITCHEN. When it’s done, it’s going to look like, well, like Chili Mac. It’s not exactly a surprising transformation.
Surprising? No. Satisfying, yes.
Now, I said earlier I was saddened by how not-spicy it was. However, in every other category, I’d call it a success. It’s rich, and thick, and it tastes like tomatoey-chili, which complements the pasta. It’s a hell of a hearty dish, with a single bowl and a slice of bread being a sufficient meal for me. A statement which, if you look at the dish it came out in, you may note a slight issue incoming.
Holy crap, this is a lot of food.
We had this the night we made it, and for various lunches and dinners for the next 3 days. We made it on a Thursday, and I don’t think we finished it until at least Tuesday. It was in our fridge long enough we started wondering when it would go bad. I made this dish a MONTH ago, and I’m still Chili-mac’ed out.
What I’m saying is, if you’re wondering if this is truly an “Ultimate Chili Mac”, consider the boast of Li Shuwen: “I have yet to encounter an opponent who needed a second strike.” I have yet to encounter a diner who needed a second bowl.
If you found yourself full after this meal, and want to eat again say around Monday, check back in or join our email list in the box at the top of the page!
8 oz Elbow Macaroni
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 onions, chopped fine (I’m pretty sure we cut it down to 1.)
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, and chopped fine.
6 garlic cloves, minced (yeah, six EAT THE GARLIC)
2 tbsps chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1.5 lbs 85% lean ground beef.
28oz tomato Puree. (this is the bigger can size)
14.5 oz diced tomatoes with juice (normal can size. Feel free to play with different types of diced tomato)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
10 oz Colby jack, shredded (2.5 cups. We mixed Colby jack and cheddar.)
- Boil Macaroni until just under al dente. Preheat oven to 400, with rack in middle. Keep ¾ cup of pasta water when draining macaroni.
- If you want, dry out the macaroni pot and use it, or use a large skillet and, while macaroni boils, heat oil until shimmering over medium heat. Add Onion(s), Bell Pepper, and ¾ tsp salt. Cook 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add Garlic, Chili powder, and cumin, stir 1 minute. Add ground beef. Brown 5-8 minutes, breaking up meat with spoon.
- Add tomato puree and tomatoes/juice and brown sugar, stirring to combine. Add pasta water. Cover dish, leaving a small gap for steam, and simmer 20 minutes.
- Remove from heat. Add salt and pepper to taste, and stir in macaroni. Stir in 1 cup of cheese, then pour into 13 by 9 pan, cover with remaining cheese, and cook for 15 minutes, until cheese is browned in spots. Cool 10 minutes, and eat.