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Chili in Formation 

As the weather cools down, how does some delicious duck chili sound?

A few weeks ago, in response to a piece I'd written on the incredible coconut cream pie at the B Line Café, I got a somewhat-censorious e-mail from a woman who said what I had described was NOT a cream pie, but a meringue. She added that the people for whom she has been baking for a number of years would be aghast if presented the meringue.

No sweat, as Cartman might say ... leaves more for the rest of us. It did, however, give me pause in thinking about the traditional and the popular. Sometimes a meringue--no matter how superb--just won't pass muster, simply because it doesn't suit a preconceived notion. But preconceptions, I find more often than not these days, are misconceptions.

Take chili, for example. Word wars have raged about what constitutes true chili, with the pinto bean advocates arrayed against Ranch-style forces, both balefully eyeing the "white" chili world comprised of cannellini and the like. And let's not even spend much time with the questions of meat: beef--ground or cubed, pork, goat or chicken. Then, there are the endless arguments around onions and/or garlic, cilantro and cayenne, tomatoes and Tabasco, a dozen kinds of peppers and on and on and on. If those things aren't enough, we have vegetarian-chili recipes galore, with or without soybean products.

Last month, Andrew and I spent part of an afternoon at a chili cookoff and had the chance to sample a baker's dozen of offerings. There was chili with fruit in it and chili with tiny matzoh balls, chili made with tongue, chilis hot and chilis mild. The worst chili, I think, is benign; there were several of those. And the best was totally unexpected and nontraditional. More than the best of the lot that day, it is one of the best things I've ever eaten.

The chef who created it--Matt Steffen at the Flying V Bar and Grill (Loews Ventana Canyon Resort)--is himself unexpected and nontraditional. A weatherman during his five-year stint in the Navy, the 27-year-old Bay Area native came to Tucson barely five years ago to work at the Flying V in his first restaurant job. After doing a little of everything while working for Chef Joe Trevino, Steffen took over the Flying V six months ago. Quiet-spoken and seemingly shy, he is clearly proud of the restaurant and the team of which he is a part. He's also keenly observant and an admirable multitasker--during lunch recently, which he prepared and helped consume, he was on top of a dozen little details in the dining room and kitchen while never missing a beat in the conversation. This is a guy who never thought about cooking as a profession--and he loves it!

"If I don't feel stressed, I don't feel like I am doing my job. When I'm doing a plate, I want it to be the best. I play with the plate so that it looks too good to eat ... but, you get to!" he says with a laugh. "I'd like to be able to take a picture of it, frame it and put it on the wall with my signature." His favorite things to have on hand are poblanos and chipotles, tomatoes, dried chilis and stock--mostly veal. As for the tools of the trade, he values the convection oven, his mesquite grill, lots of cookbooks and a quality set of knives. He is also, by the way, in the market for a girlfriend.

This month marks the transition to a menu that reflects Steffen's taste, interests and creativity. Expect locally grown produce, Southwest-bred flavorings, some Bay Area nostalgia and new takes on old favorites. And definitely order the Carne con Pato (the Duck Chili). You've never had anything like it, and you will be glad you did.

Carne con Pato

  • 1 quart veal stock
  • 2 3/4 pounds duck confit (see below)
  • 2 1/2 pounds tomatoes
  • 1 1/4 pounds Angus beef cubes
  • 1 1/4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small white onion, diced
  • 2 ounces hatch chili, ground
  • 3/4 tablespoon. dry Mexican oregano
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1 habanero chili, minced
  • 1 oz all-purpose flour
  • 1 pound andouille sausage
  • Cracked black pepper to taste
  • Kosher salt to taste
Sauté andouille sausage and reserve the drippings. Pour veal stock in pot. Sautee onion and garlic in drippings and add to stock. Sauté beef in drippings while adding pinches of flour; add to pot. Remove the tomato skins, crush tomatoes and add to skillet with chilis and oregano and simmer. Reduce liquid by 25 percent; stir in tomato paste and add to pot. Add confit and simmer for one hour. Serve and purr.

For the confit

  • 1/4 bay leaf
  • 3/4 tablespoon salt
  • 1 clove garlic, smashed
  • 1/2 shallot, peeled and smashed
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 2 3/4 pounds duck legs
  • 1/2 cup duck fat (or Canola oil)
Sprinkle salt in bottom of large baking dish. Evenly scatter half the garlic, shallot and thyme. Arrange duck, skin-side-up on top, then sprinkle duck with remaining salt, garlic, shallot, thyme and pepper. Best if refrigerated for one to two days.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Melt duck fat in small saucepan. Brush salt and seasonings off duck. Arrange duck pieces in snug single layer on baking sheet. Pour melted fat over duck and place it (confit) in oven. Cook slowly at a simmer until duck is tender and can easily be pulled off bones--two to three hours. Remove confit. Pull meat off bones, cool and store duck in fat. (Will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks if not used immediately for chili.)

And there you have it, folks. It's an incredible taste treat. If you want to be really decadent, take the duck skins, chop 'em up and fry them to crispness--then sprinkle them over the chili before serving. Have fun!

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