Chili: A Cold Weather Comfort

Being a year-round resident of Door County, visitors often ask, “What do you all do here in the off season?” My standard answer to this question is:  “It’s my favorite time of year. There is time to reflect, time to reconnect, time to be still, time to get out and enjoy the quietness of the county and truly take in the beauty. No traffic to manage, no lines to negotiate. The first born in me loves the feeling that bubbles to the surface, simply not having to share.”Len Villano

On a certain level I feel Door County winters are our little secret; a solo walk on a deserted beach in the middle of February is one of Door County’s greatest offerings (shhh, don’t tell). During winter there are so many opportunities to play in the outdoors, socialize with good people, watch a Packer game, be warmed by a fire – the list goes on and on. There is time in the off season to be fully present in my kitchen, cook amazing food and invite the people I love to my home to share a meal.

Chili, one of my favorite cool weather comforts, was first concocted (according to one source) around 1850 by Texan adventurers and cowboys as a staple for hard times when traveling around Texas. They pounded dried beef, fat, pepper, salt and chili peppers together into stackable rectangles, which could be easily rehydrated with boiling water. This amounted to “brick chili.” It’s said that some trail cooks planted pepper seeds, oregano and onions in mesquite patches (protection from foraging cattle) to use on future trail drives.

Being such a versatile dish, chili quickly spread across the U.S. and has evolved as a regional dish. I recommend sampling the many variations on your travels. You will not be disappointed and quite possibly will be surprised by what you receive in your bowl. Chili also is frequently incorporated into “cook offs,” so check out Fish Creek Winter Festival if you want to get your chili on.

What better way to revive your senses and warm your belly and soul from the inside out? Chili!

Len Villano






Roasted Chipotle Black Bean Steak Chili

2 lbs. flank steak

Dry spice rub*

1 pint roasted tomatillos

1 large yellow onion

3 large cloves of garlic

2 bell peppers (red or yellow)

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons cumin

3 teaspoons chili powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 bottle dark beer (porter or stout)

8 cups roasted pepper puree

2 cans of black beans, rinsed

2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce

1 large can of diced tomatoes

Garnishes: fresh cilantro, avocado, lime, lime

sour cream*, and grated soft white cheese (Monterey Jack or farmer’s cheese)

Rinse the steak and pat dry. Rub the meat, both sides, with the dry spice rub; I use my hands for this step. Place the steak on a hot grill and cook approximately 15 minutes per side. The steak should be medium rare (it will cook more when added to the chili). I roasted the tomatillos on the grill at the same time the meat was cooking. Turning often, they take about 15 minutes.

While grilling the meat and tomatillos, sauté the onion, garlic and peppers in olive oil in the kettle over medium high heat. Stir often, sauté until the onions become translucent. Add the cumin, chili powder and salt to the kettle, stir. Pour in the beer, stir. Add the roasted pepper puree and tomatillos. Stir and simmer on low heat.

When the steak is cool to the touch, cut into bite size pieces and add it to the pot. Stir in the black beans, chipotle peppers and canned tomatoes. Allow the chili to simmer at least 30 minutes for flavors to meld. Serve in bowls. Garnish with chunks of avocado, fresh lime, lime-infused sour cream, fresh cilantro and shredded cheese. This dish can be made the day of or a day ahead to allow flavors to blossom. Makes approximately 8 servings.

Roasting the Peppers, Tomatoes and Onions

Len Villano







Using a grill or oven:  Place a mixture of peppers (hot and sweet varieties), tomatoes and onions (skins on) directly on the grill grate or on a sheet pan in a 375˚ oven. The skins will blacken and the flesh will soften. This process takes about 30 minutes on the grill or up to an hour in the oven. Turn the vegetables often. The flavor will develop a layer of smoky sweetness. Allow time to cool, discard all the blackened skin and puree everything in your blender or food processor. I used 8 to 10 peppers, 5 to 6 tomatoes, and 4 onions to make 8 cups of puree. Make ahead and freeze, use when needed.

Dry Spice Rub*

3 tablespoons Kosher salt

1 tablespoon black pepper

2 teaspoons cumin

3 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon coriander seed

1 tablespoon adobo powder

Place all the spices in the food processor and mix.

Lime Sour Cream *

1 cup sour cream

zest of ½ lime

juice of ½ lime

Mix together in a bowl.

Photography by Len Villano.