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.
Serves 3 to 4, with potential stretchable leftovers
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
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.
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?