When my grandparents were in graduate school at the University of Kentucky, they were—of course—homesick Texans. But they soon figured out that they could feel a lot closer to home if they indulged in that Texan classic, Frito pie.
Frito pie—if you are a deprived soul that has never eaten one—is simply a pile of Fritos topped with chili, cheese, diced onions and sometimes, if you're feeling flush, pickled jalapenos and sour cream. In Texas, it’s a mainstay at Friday-night football games, county fairs, school-cafeteria lunches, church youth-group suppers and yes, even at home.
Typically, it’s served in the bag—you just open up an individual-sized Frito package, ladle on the chili and dip in with your spoon. Though I find when you’re eating it at home, a bowl is an acceptable vessel for serving it as well, though some people may argue that is just a bit too fancy for this humble dish.
Now, as my grandma recalls, Fritos weren’t widely available in Kentucky in the late 1940’s—it was still mostly a Texan brand. And forget about even finding that other common ingredient for Frito pie—canned Wolf Brand chili. But they had a Texan friend at school that on trips back home to Corsicana would load up his car with bags of Fritos and cases of chili and bring these treasures back to Lexington. A Frito pie feast would then ensue.
I think those of us who are no longer in Texas can relate to filling our suitcases with beloved foods unavailable in our new home. Fortunately, however, Fritos are now found everywhere so if I get a craving I don’t have to go far. But canned chili? I don’t even bother with the stuff they sell in New York City as it’s always made with beans and without heat or flavor. Nope, when I make my Frito pies, I instead top it with a chili made from scratch.
Frito pie is a simple dish, which means I don’t want to spend too much time in the kitchen putting it together. And sure, my usual Texas chili is an all-day affair, slow-simmered cubes of beef richly flavored with a variety of chilis and spices. But for Frito pie, I instead make a one-hour chili from coarsely ground beef. And while it might not be as complex as my other chili, I find that it's still spicy enough to be a fine complement to a pile of corn chips.
When was the last time you had Frito pie? I have to admit that I don’t eat Frito pie nearly as often as I should. But I think my grandparents definitely had the right idea, as tucking into a bowl with friends is a superb way to celebrate home.
One-hour Texas chili, suitable for Frito pie.
2 pounds beef, coarsely ground (you can ask your butcher to do this)
6 ancho chiles, stems and seeds removed
2 morita chiles, stems and seeds removed
4 pequin chiles
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon cumin plus more to taste
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground clove
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons corn meal or masa harina (optional, but will thicken chili if needed)
Juice of one lime
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or bacon grease
In a large skillet, preferably cast iron, heat the ancho and morita dried chiles on medium-high heat about a minute on each side. Turn off the heat, fill the skillet with water and let the chiles soak until rehydrated, about half an hour.
In a large pot or Dutch oven, in 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, cook the onions until translucent, about 10 minutes. Throw in the garlic and cook for another minute. Place cooked onion and garlic into a blender.
Drain the chiles from the soaking water and add them to the blender along with the chile pequin (you don’t need to pre-soak these little chilis). Add the cumin, oregano, clove, cinnamon and one cup of water. Blend until smooth.
Form the ground beef into little balls, about the size of a 1/2-inch marble (This does not need to be perfect, so don't spend too much time doing this. The purpose is to emulate chili chuck, a very coarse grind of beef sold in Texas). In the same large pot, heat the meat, while stirring occasionally, until lightly browned on each side, about 10 minutes. Add the chile puree and enough water (or beer, if you prefer) to cover the meat (about four cups), heat on high until boiling and then simmer uncovered on low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
After 45 minutes, add salt and black pepper to taste and feel free to add more cumin if you feel the chili needs it. Also, if the chili isn't thick enough for you taste, slowly stir in the masa harina. Add the lime juice and then cook for 15 more minutes.
4 cups of Fritos
4 cups of one-hour chili
1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 cup of diced onions
For each Frito pie, ladle one cup of chili over one cup of Fritos, top with 1/4 cup of shredded cheddar and 1 tablespoon diced onions.
Of course, these measurements can be altered to suit your appetite. And I have to admit that I don't usually measure out my Fritos and chili when making Frito pie.