Small, Good Things: This-Is-Not-That Chili

Bison Chili with Black Beans

Bison Chili with Black Beans

“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”

That is a grammatically and linguistically correct — if strained — sentence.

Structurally, it employs three definitions of buffalo, two nouns — Buffalo, the city, and buffalo, the animal — and one verb — to buffalo, meaning “to alarm or overawe” (possibly from the animals’ reputation for mass panic).

Complicating matters further, buffalo as a noun is singular and plural. Thus, the line conceptually parses like this: [Those] buffalo(es) from Buffalo [that are intimidated by] buffalo(es) from Buffalo intimidate buffalo(es) from Buffalo. 

Who cares, you ask? The free-range linguist or a wayward philosopher, perhaps, but what’s that got to do with the recipe offered here?

Absolutely nothing!

The sentence just came across the transom — it has its own Wikipedia page! — while I researched alternatives to beef for a classic cowboy chili, because chili seemed the perfect comfort food for this bleak mid-winter and the recent arctic temperatures.

I considered buffalo an agreeable substitute for a home-on-the-range, manly American bowl-of-red, only to discover that there are not now — and never were — buffalo in the land where the deer and the antelope roam.

The ruminants we call “buffalo” are actually bison. Buffalo live in Africa (cape buffalo) and Eurasia (water buffalo), while the bison is our native American bovine. That’s actually a bison on the Buffalo nickel. No bull! Bison are larger, heavier, with smaller horns, distinctive humped shoulders and pelted bodies, less laconic and possessive of an unpredictable nature (i.e., they can be buffaloed). 

Bison roamed the plains in vast numbers: They were a primary food source for Indigenous Americans and treated as sacred to ensure their abundance — until herds of European settlers drove them to near extinction in the 19th century. Their numbers fell from 60 million to about 400,000 today.

Bison is easy to source locally — Foodtown in Cold Spring stocks D’Artagnan ground — but better yet, for chili, Marbled Meats regularly stocks bison stew meat from Fossil Farms, a New Jersey supplier of sustainably sourced varietal game and alternative meats, in one-pound, frozen packs.

We start there with our basic Texas cowboy chili — nothing to it but garlic, onions, meat, cumin and chili powder (not chile, but that’s a whole other story…). I add a bit of Mexican oregano and a couple of ounces of diced bacon, because, well … pork. Organic beef stock (or even bone broth) provides the liquid base, and — risking the ire of alleged Texan traditionalists — I included beans, because, well … beans.

As it happens, I had a bag of primo frijol negro de Vara Chiapas black beans from Rancho Gordo, which would be the gold standard, but any good-quality fresh-dried variety will do, and can provide an alternative and/or adjunct to the beef stock. 

A tablespoon or so of cornmeal thickens the broth before serving (masa harina, made from nixtamalized corn, is best) provides a nice finish and a hint of corn flavor.

Garnish with the usual suspects — lime wedges, diced red onion, avocado, fresh cilantro — and on the side, plenty of La Milpa de Rosa tortilla chips (also available at Marbled Meats). I guarantee no one will be asking, “Where’s the beef?!”

Bison Chili with Black Beans

4 to 6 servings

  • 1 cup dried black beans, cooked (to make 2 to 3 cups) and drained (bean cooking liquid reserved)
  • 1 pound bison stew meat (substitute beef, if you must); cut to 1-inch cubes
  • Olive oil
  • 3 to 4 ounces thick-cut bacon, cut to ¼ inch dice
  • 1 large onion (white preferred; yellow by default), diced
  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano
  • ¼ to ⅓ cup quality chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • Optional: 1 to 2 cups organic beef stock or beef bone broth
  • Optional (but highly recommended): 1 tablespoon masa harina
  • Garnishes: diced red onion, diced avocado

1. Warm 2 tablespoons olive oil in a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add half of the diced bacon and render for 2 minutes. Add onions and cook, stirring, for 5 to 7 minutes, until colored. Add garlic and Mexican oregano; cook for another minute or two. Remove to a bowl and reserve.

2. In the same skillet over medium heat, warm 1 tablespoon olive oil and render the remaining bacon for a couple of minutes. Raise heat to medium-high and add the bison cubes in one layer and cook, stirring regularly, to brown. When just barely colored (having lost any trace of red or pink), add chili powder and ground cumin. Stir for a minute or two to incorporate. Add reserved onions and enough beef stock/bone broth and reserved bean liquid to just cover. Adjust heat to a low simmer and cook for 1½ hours, adding more reserved bean liquid as necessary to keep simmering.

3. Add beans and more bean liquid to achieve a just-barely soupy consistency and continue simmering for ½ hour. Just before serving, sprinkle masa harina over the pot and stir to incorporate. Simmer for another 5 minutes.

4. Serve hot in individual bowls with the garni of your choice.

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