Two winters ago, I wrote a series of blog posts all featuring ground venison, since I’d been given 6 pounds of it from my dad. According to my first post in the series, my plan was to write a different recipe for each of the 6 packages, but somehow I fell off after three. I can’t recall what I did with the other 3 pounds, but I’m guessing it’s pretty likely there was at least one batch of chili in there.
Chili is probably the most common dish made with ground venison- I suspect some people turn to it because the powerful seasonings can mask the venison’s taste, but that hasn’t been a problem for us since my dad’s deer always taste great with no “off” or gamey flavors. We just make it because it’s easy and we tend to have most of the ingredients on hand. However, I never really considered my usual chili (which consists primarily of chopping onions and garlic and opening a bunch of cans) to be worthy of writing down a recipe.
Folks, this batch is a different story. I did rely on a couple canned ingredients, and this is still squarely in the camp of weeknight fare (even with the experimentation factor and my own slow-pokiness, it only took me an hour and a half from start to finish) but the flavors are richer, deeper and, dare I say, more sophisticated than your run-of-the-mill chili. Marvin may have to make good on his mention of taking up hunting himself in order to keep us stocked with sufficient quantities of venison, because rather than quell my cravings, this just made me hungry for more.
When my venison supply was replenished a couple weeks ago, I knew that this was the first dish I wanted to try. My dad’s wife Amy had told me about a pumpkin chili she had recently made for a cook-off (it took second place out of 20- not too shabby!) and I was intrigued. Amy hadn’t used a recipe, but she told me what ingredients she used and I tweaked it to my tastes. For example, her version used chili powder, pumpkin pie spice and a little brown sugar, and included lots of beans, corn and tomatoes. I omitted the sugar, added toasted and soaked guajillo chiles instead of chili powder, and used cumin, allspice and cinnamon for a vaguely Middle Eastern feel. In fact, I can easily see substituting lamb for the venison in this recipe (or grass-fed beef if you’re not a fan of lamb). I also left out the corn and cut back on the beans and tomatoes, wanting the pumpkin, chiles and meat to be the primary flavors.
For garnish, I stole Amy’s idea of reserving a little pumpkin to mix with sour cream, and added cilantro and scallions to brighten things up. Chopped jalapenos would be nice too if you wanted a little more kick. One authoritarian note, though- although I am generally very flexible with my recipes, I have to strongly advise against any temptations to use shredded cheese as a garnish- the flavors wouldn’t work with the cinnamon and allspice. I guarantee you won’t miss it, though.
Pumpkin Chili with Venison
Prep time: 30 minutes active, 30 minutes inactive
5-7 dried guajillo chiles (see note)
2 cups boiling water
2 Tbs olive oil or neutral vegetable oil
1 large or 2 small white onions, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb ground venison, lamb, grass-fed beef, or a combination
1 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp cumin
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 large (29-oz) can 100% pumpkin puree (check to make sure it has no sugar or other spices added)
1 small (14-oz) can whole peeled tomatoes with their juice
1 roasted red bell pepper, peeled, seeded and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 small (15-oz) can black beans, rinsed and drained
optional but recommended garnishes:
Note: 5 guajillo chiles will yield a chili that is “warm” but not spicy-hot; feel free to add more, but I wouldn’t go too hot because you’ll overpower the other spices. You could also substitute dried ancho chiles if guajillos are not to be found.
1. Heat a cast iron or other heavy skillet over medium heat. Toast the chiles in the dry skillet, turning frequently and taking care not to burn them. Remove the seeds and roughly tear the chiles into pieces; place in a blender. Pour over the 2 cups boiling water and replace the lid; allow to soak while you prep the vegetables.
2. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy, lidded pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook a minute more.
3. Increase the heat slightly and add the meat, salt, and all of the spices except the cocoa. Cook until the meat is browned- this will vary depending on your choice of meat; venison is very wet so it takes longer, but keep going until the liquid has evaporated. Meanwhile, process the chiles and water for 30 seconds in the blender.
4. Add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hands as you add them to the pot, and all but 1/3 cup of the pumpkin puree; add the cocoa powder and stir to incorporate. Strain the chile water into the pot with a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth, pressing to extract all the liquid (guajillo skins are very tough; if you use ancho chiles you don’t need to strain them). Add more water to reach your desired consistency, allowing for some evaporation (I added about a cup).
5. Cover and reduce heat to a very low simmer; cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a splash of water if it looks too thick. About halfway through, add the black beans (canned beans often verge on overcooked, so I prefer to add them toward the end).
6. Taste the chili for salt and adjust as needed. Whisk the reserved pumpkin puree with a cup or so of sour cream. Serve the chili garnished with pumpkin sour cream, a generous sprinkling of cilantro and a few scallion slices.