It’s birthday season at my house, which means I’m scrambling to find recipes to feed lots of children. All evidence to the contrary, they cannot live on pizza delivery alone.
When I was young, my parents refused to order pizza delivery. I think it’s because Dad couldn’t bear to pay someone to do something he could do himself. Since he was more than capable of transporting an 18-inch-square cardboard box, kids dining at my house endured lots of frozen circles topped with something that resembled cheese, except in its refusal to melt or bubble.
My birthday parties were different. Still no pizza delivery, but Mom always elevated the cuisine in some memorable way. One year, she commissioned an R-rated baker to design a “boob cake” shaped like a voluptuous polka-dot bikini, to celebrate puberty at my thirteenth-birthday swim party. (If only I could find that baker’s phone number today; I’d love to see her cakey take on perimenopause.)
An Upgrade from Boob Cake
Then there was the birthday swim party when Mom served Chili in a Bag. People are still talking about it. Also known as Taco in a Bag, Frito Pie or Walking Taco, Chili in a Bag is practically ubiquitous these days, particularly on menus that skew toward irony. But back then, it was positively zany to ladle warm chili into a small bag of corn chips, top with taco accoutrements, and eat it straight from the disposable pouch.
Before you ask about the risks associated with BPAs, toxic glue or yellow and red ink leaching into the food, let me disclaim that it was the early ’80s. Everyone was more concerned with stagflation and nukes than with free radicals, so the subject never came up.
I do, however, remember heated debate about whether to tear the top of the chip bag apart and serve upright, or to snip the bag on the crease and serve on its side. For the record, the latter method works better; it creates a wider “bowl,” and you don’t have to dig as far to reach the chips.
Choose Your Chips and Get Cooking
On the matter of corn chips, I prefer Fritos. But Doritos, Tostitos and other -itos will get the job done, especially if you smash them down to spoon-size.
As for the chili, that’s what brings the Slow Cooker Odyssey to this Island of Summer Birthday Nostalgia in the first place. Let’s make chili.
There are as many chili manifestos out there as there are barbecue creeds, so let me open by saying I’m not remotely chili-dogmatic, except that my family renounces beans and is not particularly heat-tolerant. Furthermore, I generally cook using what’s on hand, so my chili varies batch to batch, depending on whether I have tomatoes that are diced, pureed or fresh; bell peppers or green chilis; or tomatillos of any kind. I’m stingy with oregano and liberal with paprika, or vice versa. I am pro-cinnamon and cocoa-curious. I might add coffee, beer or beef broth, if I need some extra liquid.
I can’t stress enough the loosey-goosey nature of chili manufacturing at my house, especially when it’s going into a bag of chips and under a blanket of cheese, guacamole, salsa, sour cream, green onion, shredded lettuce, olives and more. What’s important here is this: You can make chili in the slow cooker without browning the meat and draining the fat! Then you can serve it without ever dirtying a bowl!
Consider the recipe below simply a mild and beanless place to start. And please share your signature tweaks and twists, in the comment section or in The Lounge.
If you think a meal served in a disposable snack bag sounds vulgar, you are not alone. My children completely recoiled at the idea of Chili in a Bag when they first heard it. So did I, when Mom proposed it for my birthday swim party. But 35 years later, I’m waxing nostalgic about climbing out of a cold swimming pool to be handed a dry towel and a warm bag of chili, and how it was The Greatest Thing Ever. Meanwhile, my son has requested Chili in a Bag as the meal for his next big party, in lieu of pizza delivery.
Slow Cooker Chili
1 pound lean ground meat (As lean as you can find. I used 96% lean.)
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
4-6 fresh tomatillos, diced
6-ounce can tomato paste
4-ounce can mild green chilis
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt to taste
Pile all ingredients in slow cooker. Cook at LOW for at least 4 hours, stirring occasionally.
To serve: Let chili cool to a temperature that is comfortable to hold. Slit a snack bag of corn chips along the side crease. Scoop chili into bag and top with shredded cheese, salsa, guacamole, tomatoes, sour cream, shredded lettuce, cilantro, and other favorite taco toppings.