This story is one of my most precious food memories. I am one of those people who remember the first time they ate a particular ingredient or dish, who gave me a recipe or with whom I was eating. The smell or taste of a dish can transport me right back to that place and time. I have been making this Chili Soup for about 45 years now, and every time I make it I relive this poignant memory.
The summer that I was 19 a friend and I drove from Minneapolis, where we lived, to the middle of Iowa to visit his Great Aunt Ena and Uncle Harry. I had never been on a farm before, being city born and raised, so I was unprepared for the vista of rows of corn that went to the horizon in every direction. Their small two bedroom white clapboard house sat beside the two lane road on a little knoll under a huge shade tree. When we got out of the car I was immediately struck by the silence. There were no sounds of the cars, trucks, airplanes and people that were the background din I was used to hearing.
Aunt Ena and Uncle Harry were in their late 60s; she, gray, plump, in a house dress with an apron; he, a two day grizzled growth of white stubble, white T-shirt, blue denim overalls and the most twinkly blue eyes I’d ever seen. While my friend went in the kitchen to talk to Aunt Ena as she prepared lunch, I chatted up Uncle Harry in the living room.
He offered to give me a tour of his little farm, so we went outside, where he showed me the small weathered farm building that housed their one cow and the few chickens running around. His old worn tractor sat in the yard not too far from the kitchen garden, where he pointed out the tomatoes, beans and onions growing there. He had been working this land all of his life and I could tell he loved every blade of grass and stalk of corn.
Back inside, he told me that at my age he had enlisted in the Army. It was at the end of World War One, 1914, and he got as far as basic training at the nearby Army base when the war ended. He asked me to wait a minute and he strode off into the hallway, where he opened a closet door. He rummaged around for a minute and came back with a photograph, which he handed to me. It was one of those brown-toned photographs of a beautiful young man in a World War One Army uniform, form-fitting jacket, jodhpurs and knee high black boots. Ruddy cheeks, a thatch of curly blond hair and those twinkly blue eyes. “This is you,” I said, “Your eyes haven’t changed a bit. Look how handsome you were.”
I started to hand the photograph back to him and he said, ”No, you keep it. I want you to have it.” I felt overwhelmed to be honored in this way. Thanking him, I put it in my purse.
At that moment Aunt Ena called us into the kitchen for lunch, which included this Chili Soup. It was so delicious, I asked her for the recipe. When we finally said our goodbyes, I watched them through the rear window of the car as we pulled away, standing in front of their little house, waving their hands in the air.
So now, all these years later, I am still making this Chili Soup. The recipe hasn’t changed at all, except for the addition of the ancho chili powder. I usually have some containers of this on hand in my freezer and every time I eat it I am transported back to that visit. And now you, too, if you make this recipe, can share my memory of Uncle Harry every time you eat it.
Chili Soup by Aunt Ena
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion ½-inch dice
1 pound ground beef
1 green pepper, ¼-inch dice
2 cans S&W Chile Beans with juice (not Chipotle)
2 cans S&W Kidney Beans, drained and rinsed
2 cans S&W Italian Stewed Tomatoes
1 64-ounce container Campbell Tomato Juice
3-4 tablespoons chili powder (I used Spice Island)
3 tablespoons ancho chili powder (I used Penzeys)
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon, optional
minute pinch ground cloves, optional
1. In a large dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the diced onion and cook until slightly browned.
2. Add the ground beef, breaking up with a large spoon into small pieces until meat has lost its raw color.
3. Add the diced green pepper, the Chile Beans with its juice, and the drained and rinsed Kidney Beans.
4. Place a strainer over the pot and dump in the two cans of Stewed Tomatoes. Shake the strainer to get all the juice into the pot. Leaving the strainer over the pot, cut the tomatoes into bite-sized pieces and add them to the meat/bean mixture. Discard the celery and other bits in the strainer.
5. Shake the container of tomato juice thoroughly, then add about ¾ of the container to the pot. Check the ratio of liquid to solids and add more tomato juice if desired.
6. Add the chili powders, salt, sugar, red pepper flakes, and the cinnamon and cloves if using, to the soup. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes to blend the flavors.
7. Taste and adjust the chili powders and salt if needed.
8. Serve. Garnish with cheese, onions or cilantro if desired.Print Recipe