Some of what your parents told was wrong, misinformed, or perhaps even self-centered. Remember?
They said, "don't play with your food!"
But what they may have meant to say was, "don't throw your food; especially not at your siblings". Throwing food tended to leave stains on the walls and whelps on your hind end. However, food should be more than mere sustenance, so being playful with it can help you enjoy it.
In that vein, and in the spirit of mid-winter, why not play with chili? A friend granted us some venison so that was the start. We also found some lovely Purple Prairie barley in the pantry so instead of the typical beans as counterpoint for our chili, we decided the nutty flavor of barley would work well against the venison. And lastly, in doing a little reading on the history of soul food we have been making cornbread, in part, because it's so inexpensive to make. So why not combine all these elements?
Initially the food of slaves, soul food went mainstream during the black pride movement of the 60's. Many of the dishes we think of as soul food, such as fried chicken and biscuits, were celebratory meals. The weren't meant to be consumed daily. Meat was rare and the staple protein during the week was cornbread. Soul food restaurants began to offer what had once been meals to gorge on, daily, and in the process began to inadvertently kill people. In the words of some critics at the time, notably Dick Gregory, glorifying soul food didn't make sense. Soul food, in Gregory's mind, was all about killing black folk-twice. A cuisine born of slavery and then glorified into daily use where it again enslaved folks with heart attacks, high blood pressure, obesity, and strokes.
Primarily because poverty knows few bounds soul food long ago crossed the racial divide and many dishes became southern staple - for blacks and whites. As with any other heavy food, moderation is the key to enjoying soul food.
And to free ourselves from this legacy, we decided to incorporate some conceptual Japanese sculptural approaches into our cooking and lift ourselves up a bit.
Venison and purple barley chili with mono-ha cornbread.
First cook the barley. Use vegetable stock to flavor the barley as it cooks; it must be cooked separately from the venison since it takes much longer to cook. Cooking barley is a bit like cooking wild rice because it takes twice as long and twice as much liquid as you initially imagine; usually an hour or more to get the grains to pop. You can cook the barley the day before if you want and refrigerate.
For the venison chili. Saute an onion in olive oil in a heavy skillet until translucent. Add the ground venison and brown.
The next step is crucial to improving the health of this dish. You want to remove as much of the fat from the meat as possible. Here's a good way to do it. As soon as the meat has cooked throughout, add 1/2 bottle of premium ale or lager to the pan to solubilize the fats. Cook over medium-high heat to reduce the liquid by one-half. This will also add a little flavor and then immediately drain the meat (while hot) in fine mesh stainless strainer. Once the meat is cooked and de-fatted, return it to the pan and then add 1 can of diced tomatoes (this helps the meat from now getting dry) and also at this point add 3 cloves of minced garlic and your favorite chili flavorings (i.e. cumin, paprika, pepper, a little salt). If you like spicy chili then add the pepper of your liking depending upon how much heat you want: poblano for mild, jalepeno for hot, habanero for very spicy. Simmer for 10 minutes.
Now combine the cooked barley with the venison mixture to finish the chili. Serve with sculpted cornbread and fresh, or steamed, julienned carrots that have been flavored with a dash of sesame oil and ginger.
Lower image: Nobuo Sekine, Phase Mother Earth, 1968, photographer unknown.