Spring, schming—It might as well be chili dogs

by Terry B on May 14, 2008

The lack of reliably warm weather this spring calls for comfort food, and Turkey Chili Dogs don’t just hit the spot—they obliterate it. Recipe below.

This week’s post was supposed to be a light chicken sandwich celebrating the flavors of spring. I’d already created it in my head, and just thinking of it now, I can actually taste it.

But spring is being especially coy this year. We should be flinging windows open, airing out the apartment and waking to birds singing. Instead, we awoke this weekend to a cold rain being blown hard against the windows. The temperature was in the 40s and not predicted to do a lot better than the low 50s, and besides the rain, there was a wind advisory.

I had to absolutely will myself out of the warm bed to get my day started. Clearly, some light sandwich celebrating spring was not going to happen. Comfort food was called for. And to my way of thinking, there are few foods more comforting than a chili dog on a raw day.

We’ve sung the praises of chili here before. And we’ve presented various takes on it—my three-bean chili, Marion’s amazing chili and even a white chili. Whatever your regional preferences—beans, no beans, meat, no meat—chili is just plain good.

Hot dogs are less universally understood. Growing up in St. Louis, hot dogs were what you got at the ball game or something you threw on the barbecue grill for the kids when the grown-ups were having burgers. So I was somewhat mystified when I moved to Chicago the first time [this is our second tour of duty here, as I like to put it] and there seemed to be a hot dog stand every other block or so [outrageous real estate prices have diminished the number of hot dog places severely, but Chicagoans can still find plenty of places to get a great dog].

Then I had one. The word revelation springs to mind. As Doug of Hot Doug’s says, “There are no two finer words in the English language than ‘encased meats,’ my friend.” Unless you live in Chicago or New York, you may not get this level of fervor for the seemingly lowly hot dog. And even if you do get them, you’ll get all kinds of takes on what makes the perfect dog, some of them regional. Here is how NPR’s Daniel Pinkwater, born in Chicago but now living in exile in upstate New York, describes a Chicago dog:

“First, it’s on a poppy-seed bun which is doughy and substantial, but not heavy. The bun is lightly steamed at the point of serving.

“The hot dog is all beef, spicier than the New York variety. It is steamed and has a natural casing. It snaps when you bite into it, and squirts hot deliciousness. A variant is the Polish sausage which the gods ate on Olympus.
This is what goes on it:
• Yellow mustard
• Bright green pickle relish
• Chopped onion
• A kosher pickle spear
• Two slices of tomato
• Two tiny but devastating peppers
• And all-important, celery salt

“All of this is fitted together with fiendish cleverness enabling the eater to get most of it in his mouth, and only a little on his shirt. If there are fries, they are hand cut, skinny and glorious.”

Chili + Dog: The whole equals waaaay more than the sum of its parts. Okay, we’ve established that these foods are wonderful in their own right. I’d heard that chili dogs were even better, but it took Marion to introduce me to their delights. It was a rainy Saturday afternoon, as I recall, and we suddenly found ourselves in the lovely semi-deserted darkness of the original John Barleycorn, a long, rambling bar and restaurant on Lincoln Avenue. I had a burger in mind, but Marion started exclaiming when she found chili dogs on the menu. I was skeptical, but even back then, I’d learned to trust her taste buds.

So we each ordered one. Honestly, it fell a little bit short of amazing. But it showed me amazing could be had. As with almost every chili dog you’ll find in a bar, restaurant or hot dog stand, there wasn’t enough chili. Here’s how you can tell: If you can pick up the chili dog and eat it without utensils, there’s not enough chili. Hell, if you can see the hot dog or much of the bun, there’s not enough chili. We bury them. In fact, for the photo above, I kind of skimped on the chili just so you could see the dog and bun.

But the wonder of the combined flavors was undeniable. Our first impulse was to order more there and tell them not to be so shy with the chili. But then we had a better idea. We hightailed it out of the bar, headed for the grocery store and then went home and cooked up the first of many chili dog orgies.

The chili for this recipe is pretty much the same as my three-bean chili, except I felt like lightening the taste up a bit, so I substituted ground turkey for the ground beef; this was strictly a taste choice, since we typically use ground sirloin for our beef, which is actually slightly lower in fat than turkey. For the dogs, I went with reduced-guilt, lowfat hot dogs, also made with turkey. Whichever ground meat and dogs you choose, you’re in for a treat. I use three varieties of beans not so much for taste, but because it looks cool. You can mix it up or use all the same.

Chili Dogs
Serves 3 to 4, with potential stretchable leftovers

For Chili
1 14-1/2-oz. can diced tomatoes with juices, preferably unsalted
3 15-oz. cans beans, drained and rinsed [black, red or pinto and great northern]
2 tablespoons tomato paste, preferably unsalted
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup [plus more] water
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon olive oil
1-1/4 to 1-1/2 lb. lean ground turkey
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 medium yellow onion
2 stalks celery
salt to taste

For Hot Dogs
hot dogs
buns [seeded or otherwise—your call]

Make the chili. Combine first eight ingredients in a stock pot and bring to boil over medium high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium low and continue to cook, uncovered.

Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add olive oil and ground turkey, breaking up turkey as you brown it for about five minutes. Grind a generous amount of black pepper over the turkey as it browns. Sprinkle roughly half the cayenne pepper over the browning ground turkey; add the rest to the stock pot. While turkey is browning [or immediately after, if you don't feel like multi-tasking], peel and roughly chop onion and slice celery into 1/2-inch pieces. Using a slotted spoon, transfer turkey to stock pot. Add celery and half of the onion, stirring to mix completely.

Let chili cook, uncovered, for about 30 minutes to let flavors mix and develop, stirring occasionally and adding water by 1/4 cups if chili gets too thick [be judicious here—you don't want to make it too watery]. About 15 minutes into the half-hour of cooking time, add the rest of the onion. This will give some of the onion a little more bite, a trick I learned from Marion. Taste and add salt [as needed—canned products, particularly tomatoes, can add lots of salt on their own].

Prepare the dogs. When the chili is nearly done, heat the hot dogs and buns. Here’s how we do it. We place hot dogs in a shallow sauce pan and barely cover them with cold water. Then we place buns in a bamboo steamer and put them on top of the sauce pan and set the heat to medium high. When the water starts to boil, reduce heat to low. About the time you start to smell the bamboo, the dogs and buns are ready. You can also forgo steaming the buns and even nuke the dogs [stab them with a fork first, so they don’t pop], but for us, the bamboo steamer has become a nice part of the chili dog ritual.

Place a dog and bun in a shallow bowl, then smother with chili. Serve as is, or with grated cheese, yellow mustard, chopped green onions, hot sauce or additions of your choice. Myself, I like my chili dogs naked.

Kitchen Notes

How spicy is spicy? This recipe, made as above and using only a half teaspoon of cayenne pepper, is very flavorful but [to my palate, at least] not hot. But heat is very subjective. If your taste runs to mild, rather than reduce the amount of chili powder, choose a mild one. The Spice House offers chili powders ranging from mild to hot, so you can get all the flavor while controlling the heat. Don’t skimp on the cumin either—it doesn’t add much heat, but its big aroma and flavor are the very foundation of the taste of chili. I didn’t realize this until once, years ago, I was buying chili powder at the wonderful spice shop at Soulard Farmers Market in St. Louis. The clerk asked me if I needed cumin too. I said I didn’t know. She said, “If you’re making chili, you do.” With that, she opened a container of cumin and gave me a whiff of its distinctive, powerful aroma. She was right—I needed cumin.

Getting a night-before headstart. Over the years, I’ve refined the order of cooking steps to get from raw ingredients to steaming bowls of red as quickly as possible, making it a great work week dish. But this is a dish you can easily start the night before, getting it to the table even quicker the next night. And if anything, it tastes even better because the flavors have been swapping and percolating in the fridge overnight. Just mix the first eight ingredients in a large pot or bowl, but don’t heat them. Brown the ground turkey as described above and stir it into the tomato/beans mixture. Let it cool briefly and then store covered in the fridge. The next night, just put the chili on the stove and add the onion and celery as described above.

Also this week in Blue Kitchen, 5/14/2008

Goodbye, Mr. Rauschenberg. Thank you. Farewell to the American artist who, as the New York Times said, “time and again reshaped art in the 20th century,” at WTF? Random food for thought.

A gift for you, from Nine Inch Nails. You can’t buy their satisfyingly dark new album The Slip anywhere, but you can download it for free, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

rachel May 14, 2008 at 10:32 am

These look lovely! I personally love hot dogs in many forms.

carolyn May 14, 2008 at 6:25 pm

Ah, Terry! Love hotdogs. Love chili. Perfect pairing.

My only question is, Who can cook a hotdog any other way than putting it in the microwave and let it steam itself from the inside out?

Terry B May 14, 2008 at 6:47 pm

Thanks, Rachel. Your comment and Carolyn’s question lead me to say that my favorite dogs on their own are grilled, not steamed or simmered. It adds to that snap when you bite into it, and the charring bumps up the taste nicely. But for chili dogs, I want them easier to eat with a fork, so steaming or simmering works fine.

In terms of home grilling, if you don’t want to fire up your outdoor grill, you can use a grilling pan brushed with a little oil or throw them in the broiler. And show of hands now: Who out there hasn’t stuck a hot dog on a fork and grilled it over a burner flame on the stove like you’re at a camp run by a motel? Hey, if it’s good enough for roasting peppers, it’s just fine for a dog.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) May 14, 2008 at 6:49 pm

A turkey hot dog topped with turkey chili sounds perfect — even if the weather warms up a bit!

Terry B May 14, 2008 at 6:53 pm

Lydia—You’re totally right. I used the weather as an excuse for making chili dogs, but they’re pretty much an all-season dish for us.

carol w. May 14, 2008 at 8:00 pm

I was going to make a plodding old family recipe of buffalo chili today. Instead, I’ll make your chili, sans turkey, sans dogs, using the ground buffalo, and wow, wine. Plus cumin and cayenne pepper. Thanks for jolting me out of a rut.

Amy May 14, 2008 at 8:01 pm

I had to make some comfort food on Monday to try to comfort us from the miserable spring weather. Your dogs look tasty.

Madeline May 14, 2008 at 8:59 pm

I love chili dogs. Your photos look so delicious, now you have me craving one!

Terry B May 14, 2008 at 9:12 pm

carol w—Ground buffalo has a nice light quality to it compared ground beef. I think you’ll really like it in this. Let me know how it comes out.

Amy—And it’s fascinating that your comfort food involved turkey too! Your sage turkey hoagies sound great. Just last night I cooked some turkey cutlets in a tarragon mustard sauce. Quick and easy and quite tasty. I feel sorry for people who only think of turkey as a Thanksgiving meal.

Madeline—Yep, that’s a definite hazard of reading food blogs. I think I’m going to have to mix up some of your Creole Seasoning; I know I can find plenty of uses for it.

jenblossom May 14, 2008 at 10:04 pm

Mmmmm – chili and dogs, two of my favorite things, and a knockout when combined. Makes me miss the coneys of my Detroit years…

Vicki May 15, 2008 at 1:02 am

This post made me homesick – I want a Chicago dog!

Zoomie May 15, 2008 at 1:23 am

Oh, yes, please! I think I was 50+ before I had my first chili dog but I’ve had several since!

Susan from Food Blogga May 15, 2008 at 12:12 pm

I think your city is just confused about the seasons, Terry. Guess you’ll just have to stay inside with your dogs. ;) That’s not such a bad thing now, is it?

Terry B May 15, 2008 at 4:08 pm

jenblossom and Vicki—Isn’t it cool how we can link certain foods to certain places? Despite the Applebee’s of the world homogenizing everything, there’s still plenty of regional flavor to be found.

Zoomie—Better late than never! Now get out there and make up for lost time.

Susan—My worry is that we’ll go straight from this faux spring to 95 degrees and 95 percent humidity any day now.

Christina May 16, 2008 at 1:10 am

Last summer, my friend SWW and I celebrated the beginning of summer by heading out to the Valley for chili dogs. It was hot, but under the shade of a dense stand of fan palms with cold sodas, the chili dogs slopping back into their boat-shaped paper plates were the perfect summer-celebrating food.

I know that ECG would like a chili dog, and I don’t think he’s ever had one. Using this recipe, I think I’m going to have to remedy the situation.

Kevin May 16, 2008 at 2:22 am

Nice looking chili dogs! The next time I make chili I will have to make sure to also get the dogs and buns.

evi May 17, 2008 at 3:39 am

Oh my God. I totally need to get on a plane and eat one of those hot dogs. I feel so deprived!

Terry B May 17, 2008 at 5:18 am

Christina—Yeah, I think chili dogs are definitely a year ’round taste treat. And I hope you do make them for ECG. How exciting to share things not just with another person [and someone you love], but across cultures.

Kevin—Both are elevated in the deal. Really.

evi—Definitely a cut above the vendor dogs in New York. But I have to admit, there’s something so cool about being able to buy a hot dog on a street corner that I have to have at least one whenever I’m in New York. Okay, and a visit to Gray’s Papaya for their recession deal—two dogs and a papaya drink for about $2.75.

Mike of Mike's Table May 18, 2008 at 12:28 am

First you taunt us with Hot Dougs and now chili dogs? :o These look delicious!

I have fond memories of chili dogs and I think you described the amount of chili required perfectly–if you aren’t making everyone you’re with embarrassed by what a slob you are trying to eat that thing, there’s simply not enough chili on there.

Toni May 19, 2008 at 5:26 am

I love the description of the hot dog snapping and squirting it’s delicious juices when you bite into it! I’ve had dogs like that – with and without chili, and that’s the ultimate in multi-sensual eating pleasure!

Terry B May 19, 2008 at 7:46 pm

Mike—Another way I like to describe the proper amount of chili is that you have to excavate to find the dog.

Toni—Interestingly, the first place I had a dog that made me understand snap as I bit into it was F&B Güdtfood in New York, an unlikely place if there ever was one for a true hot dog experience. Run by a Brit and a German, its décor could best be described as IKEA. But man, their Great Dane was perfection on a bun.

Dolce May 19, 2008 at 9:53 pm

Very true that St. Louisans don’t appreciate the hotdog in a way it deserves, however I couldn’t imagine going to Busch stadium for a Cards game without getting a Kosher’s Best.

Chilli July 22, 2008 at 5:47 pm

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TheRoosterChick November 6, 2009 at 1:03 am

Fun and yummy!

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