Let’s start by dispensing with the formalities of how I’m going to connect this post on my Sunday cooking project to my train theme. After thinking long and hard about it, I decided to fall back on my old friend the hobo. I’ve touched on hobos in posts on Tom Waits, Dean Martin, open-container policies on New York’s commuter rail lines, and the current jobs crunch. So when I decided to cook chili, the hobo naturally came to mind. What else are you going to cook over an open flame shooting from the top of a 30-gallon oil drum? Urban Dictionary has a definition for “hobo chili”:
Any combination of readily available ingredients stirred together in a pot or used soup-can over an open fire. Ingredients can include: Pigeons, fecal matter, babies, dogs, grass, fingers.
I decided not to use any of those recommended ingredients. I also stayed away from some of the super-simple chili recipes called hobo chili that you can find on the Internet. But let’s back up a little before I tell you about the ingredients I did use.
Early last week, as I was mowing the lawn, my 92-year-old neighbor stopped me to ask if I’d like some fresh peppers. One of his friends had given him a bunch from the garden, “but I don’t eat peppers,” he told me in his wonderful Hungarian accent. (Isn’t Hungary the land of paprika?) I love peppers, so I said sure. But I had no idea. Fifteen minutes later, I’m walking out of there with half a plastic shopping bag full of red, yellow, orange, and greenish peppers. Over the course of the week, I threw some in a few omelets, but still had a ton. Something had to give.
Sunday rolled around and I knew exactly what to do. During football season in particular, this sign that a friend gave me captures how I prefer to spend a free Sunday afternoon:
I put on the football games, open a bottle of wine, and break open a cookbook, like this (that’s Tom Brady on the screen, whose Patriots had just won):
I sought the most pepper-laden chili recipe I could find. After thumbing through several cookbooks and searching the Epicurious app on my iPad, I settled for “Jalapeño chili” from The New Basics Cookbook. My wife and I got this book as a wedding gift 20 years ago (it was published in 1989, a few years before we got married), and it’s still one of my favorites. Just about everything I’ve ever made from it has been delicious.
The thing about “Jalapeño chili” is that I wouldn’t have called it this at all. I would have called it “Sausage and pepper chili,” because those are the ingredients that distinguish this one from your basic “quicksand” (ground beef) chili. Another reason I wouldn’t have put jalapeño in the title is that I didn’t use those spicy little fellas. I wanted a decent chance of getting my kids to try this dish, plus I had way too many sweet peppers from my neighbor. So my first step was browning and then draining sliced-up Italian peppers—half of them sweet and the other half hot.
Then it was time to eat. I garnished it with some of my favorite chili toppings: sour cream, scallions, and crushed Fritos. The cookbook didn’t disappoint. The result was mildly spicy. I like a good amount of heat in my food, so I would have liked it with the jalapeños, but I think what I did made it more palatable for most people. But I really like the idea of a sausage-and-pepper chili. Sort of an Italian take on a Texan favorite. Works for me.
So the peppers are gone and I had a good dinner. My son liked it, but my daughters will never eat it. My wife and I came up with a plan of several people we could give some to. She also suggested my 92-year-old neighbor. I reminded her that it was his disdain for peppers that inspired this whole project.