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Christmas: A Chili Season

December 22, 1991|NATHALIE DUPREE | Dupree is a cookbook author. and

For a French woman, Christmas means buche de Noel , that wonderful chocolate roll decorated with meringue mushrooms and butter cream. But for me, after nearly 40 years of living in the South, Christmas means chili.

At least, it starts with chili. This ritual of mine began in the early '80s when the Brewers started their Christmas tree farm on Cedar Lane, near my home in Georgia. Every year around Nov. 15, the sign goes up announcing that the Mt. Pleasant Christmas Tree Farm is open. Ann Brewer's phone starts ringing with calls from those requesting permission to come out to tag their tree, because officially, Ann doesn't start selling them until Nov. 30.

Soon, the school buses start driving up and unloading small children, who are taken on hayrides with the teen-agers Ann hires for the season. Sometimes Ann and her loyal co-worker Darci May will entertain 700 children at a time, offering a drink of Kool-Aid, cookies and popcorn.

There might be a tree decorated with candy canes, waiting for someone to find it on a tree hunt. Or a tree might be selected for a school to become an edible tree for the birds, that is, strung with popcorn strings, Cheerios and/or cranberries. One school used cookie cutters to cut out bread snowmen, let the bread dry and then decorated the tree with them.

But, although there is nothing better than the ring of laughter of 700 children on Cedar Lane, my pleasure is selecting a tree myself. I take a thermos full of chili and a couple of friends, and we ride that hay wagon until we find just the right pine or cedar. It takes a couple of bowls of chili and maybe a swig or two of cider before the decision is made.

Once that is done, our young driver helps cut, bag and tie the tree onto the car. I stay in charge of the chili, cleaning out the bowls and wrapping them in the now-dirty napkins. And the taste of chili and the smell of cedar combine for the hourlong trip home, mingling with my good memories of being young.

CHILI

1/4 cup oil

4 medium onions, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

3 pounds lean ground chuck

2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes, chopped, reserving juice

3 pounds home-cooked kidney beans or 3 (16-ounce) cans, drained and juice reserved

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

1/2 cup chili powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon chopped fresh or 1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 to 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

2 to 4 ounces canned green chiles, chopped

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Additional herbs

Heat oil in large Dutch oven. Add onions and garlic and saute until tender. Remove onions and garlic with slotted spoon and set aside. Add meat and brown, breaking up pieces with spoon, over high heat. Drain off excess fat.

Reduce heat. Return onions and garlic to pan. Stir in tomatoes and juice, beans, vinegar, chili powder, cumin, oregano, cayenne and chiles. Add bean juice if necessary. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, 30 minutes.

Season to taste with salt, pepper and additional herbs, if desired. Refrigerate and remove fat if time allows. Chili freezes well. Makes 12 to 16 servings.

Each serving contains about:

590 calories; 342 mg sodium; 52 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 80 grams carbohydrates; 45 grams protein; 10.30 grams fiber; 18% calories from fat.

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