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A Political Family’s Un-Political Cookbook

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Texas Ranch Chili is one of the Bush family favorites according to Matthew Wendel, author of Recipes from the President's Ranch: Food People Like to Eat.

In her weekly Page Turners column, Cindy Burnett recently wrote about “A Delightful New Cookbook with Texas Connections” and I am here to second that Recipes from the President’s Ranch: Food People Like to Eat, by Matthew Wendel, is delightful.

This part-cookbook, part-memoir is Matthew’s account of the eight years he cooked for Laura and President George Bush at Camp David and at their Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, TX. In it, we get to peek inside the lives of the Bush family as they entertained heads of state, the president’s cabinet members and their own family. 

The entire book was fascinating to me – warm and intimate – but my favorite part was learning about the Bush family’s favorite recipes. You can tell a lot about people by the menus they plan. And these, every one, are unpretentious and uniquely Texan (or maybe I should say Tex-Mex). 

One of the family’s favorites, according to Matthew, is tamales and chili. I have always been a 2-Alarm girl (Wick Fowler’s, the kit), but I had to try the chili the Bush family loves. Texas Ranch Chili was the real deal. Browning chuck roast, frying bacon and sauteing onions and jalapeños is slightly more work than throwing all the little 2-Alarm packets together on top of some browned ground beef. But if you have extra time, it’s worth the effort for this more complex-tasting, substantial chili. The chuck roast alone brings a texture that makes Texas Ranch Chili special.

We are in the heat of a political divide right now. But reading Recipes from the President’s Ranch is a lovely reminder that people are people, and family is family, no matter what your political opinions. 

Texas Ranch Chili
Serves 6 to 8

Note: I made a few tweaks to this recipe. I substituted 1 teaspoon ancho chili powder and 1 teaspoon New Mexico chili powder for the ground chilis, and masa for the cornstarch. I also cooked the chili, let it cool, then refrigerated it overnight in order to skim the fat off the top the next day before heating again.

Chili Powder ingredients:

4 medium dried ancho chili pods
4 medium dried New Mexico chili pods

Chili ingredients: 

2 tablespoons cumin seeds, toasted in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, crushed
3 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican
½ cup water
4 pounds beef chuck roast, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 teaspoon salt
7 to 8 slices bacon, cut into ¼-inch pieces
1 medium onion, minced
4 to 5 small jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
5 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons lime juice, freshly squeezed
7 cups water, plus 3 tablespoons
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Freshly ground pepper

Recipe directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the two types of chili pods on a cookie sheet and bake for about 6 minutes. They should be fragrant and puffed up. Cool the chilies and remove the seeds and stems. Tear into small pieces. Place the chilies in a coffee grinder that is dedicated to spices only, and process until they are a nice powder.

In a small bowl, mix the chili powder, cumin and oregano with water to form a thick paste. Set aside.

In a large bowl, mix the cubed beef with the salt. 

In a large Dutch oven or stock pot, fry the bacon on medium-low heat until crisp. With a slotted spoon, remove the bacon and transfer to paper towels to drain. Pour the bacon fat into a small bowl, leaving 2 tablespoons of fat in the pot.

Sauté cubes of meat in small batches over medium-high heat until well browned on all sides. Make sure not to overcrowd the pot or the meat will not brown properly. Add more bacon fat if needed. Set aside in large bowl. 

Reduce the heat to medium, and add 3 tablespoons more of the reserved bacon fat to the pot. Add the onion and sauté until soft. Add the jalapeños and garlic, and sauté for 1 minute more. Add the chili powder mixture and sauté 2 to 3 more minutes. Add the bacon, beef, tomatoes, lime juice and water. Stir and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. 

Mix the cornstarch with 3 tablespoons of water to form a paste. Add to the chili to thicken. Continue to simmer for 15 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

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