Venison Chili (with Vanilla and Cocoa)


Venison Chili
The flavors of chili

Bow hunting season is less than 2 weeks away. And I am ever so hopeful for a good harvest this year. It is really time too make room in the freezer and use last year’s harvest… and with weather being now markedly – and blessedly – cooler (especially at night), what’s not to like about a good batch of venison chili?

You don’t often see cocoa and vanilla bean called for in chili, but it’s a great combination with chile peppers. We are so used to cocoa and vanilla in sweet recipes that we too often overlook how well they work in savory dishes. In fact, in their native Central America, they weren’t used for sweets. It’s the European palate that added sugar and milk to cocoa to turn it into chocolate as we know it today — and used vanilla for dessert.

If you do not have venison, use fully grass-fed, grass-finished beef – the kind that ‘s on pasture their entire life, and if you can, not Angus but a breed with a more robust flavor, like Texas Long Horn, Scottish Highland or Red Devon. They are perfect for that recipe. But – like venison, they are super lean, hence the need for ground pork (which is also sold as plain/unseasoned bulk sausage).

Venison Chili with Vanilla and Cocoa
Serves 8 to 10

  • 1 dry ancho pepper
  • 2 to 8 dry cayenne peppers – to taste
  • 3 tablespoons lard (more as needed)
  • 1 pound unseasoned ground pork (aka bulk sausage)
  • 3 pounds venison (or pastured ground beef or bison)
  • 1 large onion, diced finely
  • 1 large bell pepper, cored, and diced finely (the color’s your choice)
  • 1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
  • 4 large plump garlic cloves, minced finely (green germ removed if any)
  • 4 tablespoons paprika (I really like the smoked one)
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (or ½ dry)
  • 2 14-oz can diced tomatoes (I use 2 pint-jars of home canned whole tomatoes, chopped finely)
  • 4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
  • ½ vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
  • Tomato juice as needed
  • Salt to taste
  • Chopped cilantro to garnish

Remove stem end and seeds of the chiles. Cover with boiling water. Let stand 30 minutes. Puree in the food processor with 1 cup of the soaking water. Reserve any remaining soaking water.

Melt 1 tablespoon lard in a Dutch oven. Add ground pork, brown over very high heat, breaking the meat in small pieces. Don’t overcrowd the pan to avoid steaming the meat – better to do it in several batches. And make sure it’s really crispy, so use high heat.

Once pork is browned, remove with a slotted spoon. Add 2 tablespoons lard, brown the beef as above, in several batches, until it has plenty of crispy bits – breaking the meat apart as you cook it. Use a thin metal spatula to scrape and flip the meat. Add more lard as needed. Remove the meat once browned, adding it to the cooked pork.

Lower heat to medium, add onion, bell pepper and whole cumin seeds to pot. Cook 8-10 minutes, stirring often. Add garlic, paprika, coriander, cumin and thyme, stirring well after each addition.

Add pork, beef, chile puree, diced tomatoes (and their juice) to pot. Stir to combine well. Lower heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes.

Add cocoa. Scrape seeds from vanilla bean and add them (along with the bean) to the pot.  Salt to taste. Add soaking water from chile and/or tomato juice as needed: I like a thick chili, but you may prefer it more stew-like. Simmer for at least 2 hours. 3 is better

Serve with rice or soft polenta. Garnish with chopped cilantro. I also like to offer small bowls of finely diced red onion or shallots, spring onions, diced fresh tomatoes (if in season) or tomatillo (ditto), diced avocado tossed with lime juice. Once in a while sour cream or grated montery jack. But plain is fine….

Locavore log: chiles, pork & venison, vegetables & herbs. Sometime coriander too.

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