The Power of A Pot of Chili

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA/STYLED BY CATRINE KELTY

As a born and bred New Englander, for me there is something magical about the transition from summer to fall—and not just because the trees become a Technicolor exhibition of the season. As we retreat indoors and the temperatures drop, our kitchens are reinvigorated and provide comforting scents and warmth that are, in their own way, traditional harbingers of fall.

Though cooler weather may curb your outdoor cookouts and backyard barbecues, it doesn’t put an end to get-togethers with friends for easily prepared meals. Trading hot dogs and popsicles for pots of stew and apple pies, and swapping pools and beaches for the comforts of Sunday living room football is one of fall’s greatest joys (especially for us NE fans whose team rarely disappoints!). Chili is the unofficial food for these gatherings, because a pot of chili is meant to feed a crowd. Have you ever attempted to make chili for one? Virtually impossible. You make a vat, you invite over friends to eat it and still you’re likely to have leftovers. It’s amazing.

Sadly, I spent my formative years under the assumption that “chili” was that rogue meat sauce occasionally ordered on hot dogs at George’s Coney Island in Worcester near where I grew up. It wasn’t until college that I discovered the joy—and convening power—of a pot of chili. Who wants to go to the library when your roommate is making a batch of something that can cure whatever ails you and there is football to be watched? Not this girl. With relatively simple and affordable ingredients you can bring people together to hunker down, watch a game and eat. And did I mention chili pairs extremely well with cold beer? A college student’s dream meal.

This stuck with me as I moved to Boston. Autumn Sundays, when the air was cool and filled with the scent of tomatoes and chili peppers, always brought my college friends together. Back then we’d gather from different spots around campus, and even now, with far more space between us, the promise of a pot of good chili will always drag me off my couch to spend quality time with friends, no matter where they are around the city.

One of the best things about chili is how simple it is to manipulate and personalize. For example, some prefer a four-alarm-fire level of heat, whereas I prefer my chili spice at a level more akin to a warm hug. Everyone likes it their own way, so among my friends different hosts mean different variations on a dish I had sadly spent a good part of my life thinking of as mundane. 

Since there are very few rules when it comes to a chili’s composition it’s a perfect avenue for creativity. As long as it’s a stew-like concoction—and it’s got a little heat—it can claim the name. Fall in New England still brings an amazing bounty of local produce, with most of our farmers markets open late into November (including the year-round Boston Public Market), so it’s easy to make your chili using locally grown vegetables and meat deep into the winter months.

Fall produce may not be what f irst comes to mind when thinking about what “belongs” in chili, but trust me: Some of the least-expected ingredients make for the most delicious variations. Local delicacies like winter squash, late-season tomatoes and the last of the fresh corn are all ingredients that add sweet, subtle complexity to the heat of the chili peppers and warmth of the spices that make up the baseline of any good chili.

Maybe you’re a purist who simply wants heat and meat from their chili—I have a recipe for you. But maybe you’re looking for a unique, seasonal, distinctly New England vibe, so I’ve included a recipe for you, too. And for vegetarians: a recipe with a plethora of vegetables and beans that’s plenty hearty without the meat. Chili is a dish you can make truly your own with little fuss and plenty of local flair.

So don’t lament the passing of summer, because fall holds its own promises. When the time comes for us all to embrace the cold in the company of friends (and most likely a game of football), pull out the biggest pot in your kitchen to make a batch of chili. And don’t be afraid to throw in some unexpected details that make it all your own.  

BETHANY GRABER is a Boston-based food writer whose work can be seen in The Boston Globe, Edible Boston and on her blog winedinerepeat.com. A lover of coffee and a glutton for pastry, she and her insatiable appetite can be found eating their way through the city or at bethany.graber@gmail.com.