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Make Big Batches of Food for Busy Days

Take the chill out of the air with chili.

Last week I wrote about , who recently published a book about growing up in an Italian family. When I interviewed her, I discovered that the two of us have a lot in common, food-wise.

We grew up in families where . My family was not Italian, but it certainly could have been, considering the spreads we had. Russotto and I also agreed that even busy people can have healthy, from-scratch meals with a little planning.

What she does, and what I do as well, is cook big batches or multiple dishes when we have the time. Working from home, my lunch is often the of whatever we had for dinner the night before. It's quick and easy and allows me to get back to work without losing too much of my focus -- important for a writer. It's also healthier than the "quick" alternative of heating a frozen meal full of preservatives and who knows what other chemicals and fake ingredients.

Meals I'm particularly fond of are those that start out as one thing but can become something else in the leftover phase.

Carnitas, for example, one of my family's favorite foods and a staple of cuisine, can start life as simply a pork main dish then reappear in leftovers as a filling or a . It's less like eating leftovers for those who don't like the idea of leftovers, and those people exist but not in my house.

This kind of meal planning is particularly handy this time of year when everyone is so busy. School is well under way, and extracurricular activities are in full swing. I only have one child left in school, yet I feel overwhelmed sometimes with volunteer activities and obligations as well as spending time with all three of my children. Oh, and the job and the house and the husband, of course.

There's also a very definite nip in the air, earlier than usual it seems this year, which is why my meal planning thoughts turn to chili. I love chili, but it's not a quick meal to make. However, if you make a big batch on a weekend afternoon, you have meals for a couple of days. Chili by itself is great the first night. The next day, it's chili dogs, which are hugely popular around here. Here are a few other chili-related leftover ideas:

  • Make chili nachos and top with cheese.
  • Top a baked potato with chili.
  • Make a chili/cheese omelet.
  • Taco salad.
  • French fries topped with chili.
  • Top spaghetti or macaroni with leftover chili.

There are so many recipes for chili that anyone can find one that suits his palate. My daughter even makes a turkey chili with white beans, although I admit it's not my favorite dish.

The recipe I have, below, is very basic. It's based on one from an old Betty Crocker cookbook my mother gave me years ago. It's a mild recipe, which is why my children loved it when they were young and now that's what they're used to chili tasting like.

I have tweaked the original recipe over the years and am putting in my variation because it's heavier on the vegetables and I think just has a really nice flavor.

Which brings me to the problem with counting on leftovers. A few weeks ago my family was coming in fairly late on a Friday night. It was one of the first cool nights of the season. I knew everyone would be hungry, but I wasn't entirely sure of what time everyone would be in so I needed something I could make and keep on the stove for a while. Chili seemed to be the perfect answer.

I made a big batch of chili, the first I'd made this fall, and thought about what nice chili dogs it would make for lunch the next day, and maybe some fries for a fun football snack during the Steelers game on Sunday.

Everyone finally came in, cold and hungry, and we all dished out bowls of chili and sat around the table chatting away. We hadn't really seen each other all week so we had a lot to share and went back and forth to refill our bowls, just savoring the delicious meal and the unexpectedly nice late family supper we were enjoying.

When I went to clean up, there was only about a half-cup of chili left. Not even enough for another serving, much less lunch and a snack and whatever big plans I'd had for quick weekend meals.

This happens to me all the time. I guess sometimes we're just big eaters. Is it inconvenient? Yes, but it was worth having to re-plan my weekend meals for one good meal that nourished body and soul.

Recipe: Chili con Carne

Feel free to tweak away at this. Add more or fewer beans, seasonings, meat, tomatoes, whatever. There are no rules when it comes to chili. I usually double this recipe. Be sure to see the suggested toppings below the recipe. It's fun to let everyone dish out a bowl of chili and garnish it at the "topping bar." My favorite is sour cream.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 small green pepper, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
  • 1 teaspoon cocoa
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper sauce
  • 2 cans [15 ounces] tomatoes [any type that you prefer, I like stewed], undrained
  • 1 can [15 ounces] red kidney beans, undrained

Directions:

  1. Cook and stir ground beef, onion, green pepper and garlic in 3-quart saucepan until beef is brown; drain.
  2. Stir in remaining ingredients except beans; break up tomatoes.
  3. Heat to boiling; reduce heat. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, 1 hour.
  4. Stir in beans. Heat to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer uncovered, stirring mixture occasionally, about 20 minutes.

Suggested toppings: Sour cream, shredded cheese, chopped onion, chopped tomatoes, hot pepper flakes.

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