On wintry nights, while snow banked against the front door, my mom made chili to eat out of small clay bowls with lids, bowls I still have. We dove in, using saltines as spoons to gather the spicy meat, the sweet tomatoes, the soft red beans. This was not food for guests; this was for family.
So, I was surprised when I found my mom’s chili at Creekside Tap House on Beverly Road. Head chef David Wilson’s version is thick with ground beef, kidney beans and tomatoes like my mom’s. But Wilson spins into originality with bell peppers, corn, carrots, sour cream, jalapeños for extra bite, and, yes, local beer.
“We feature a brewery every month, so we deglaze the chili with whatever beer we’re featuring,” says Wilson, who loves to eat the chili on nachos with a side of coleslaw for its creamy crunch. “In January, it will be Green Man beer, probably ESB. The beer adds flavor and balances out the sour cream.”
I moved on to Rosetta’s Kitchen’s vegetarian chili, not optimistic that a chili lover raised on a ground-beef version would be happy. I took a bowl home and parsed it among friends. What? It was as rich and hearty as if it had been made with a side of cow.
“I grew up in a vegetarian household in Old Fort, North Carolina, so I learned how to make things rich and Southern without the meat,” says Rosetta Buan, owner of Rosetta’s Kitchen on Broadway.
She did indeed: Her complete-without-meat chili is full of black beans and organic corn, chopped onions and green peppers, and a sweet but potent heat from chipotle peppers.
“We have a customer who always tells me how good the chili would be if I dialed down the heat,” says Buan, who recommends eating her chili with cornbread. “But it’s his favorite dish that he’s been buying for 12 years. “
In the stew
On a pepper roll but moving on to stews (after all, chili is nothing but a Texas meat stew with ground chili peppers), I found a New Mexican Hatch green chile stew at Zia Taqueria on Haywood in West Asheville. Robert Tipsword, the restaurant’s operating partner, likes it best with iron-seared flour tortillas that soak up the fiery sweetness of the broth.
“The stew is the greatest way to let Hatch green chile be the star of the show,” says Tipsword. The taqueria offers vegetarian and pork versions, both featuring red bell peppers, onions, potatoes, carrots, cilantro, roasted corn and a house-made seasoning.
If chilies’ heat isn’t what you’re after, Asheville offers tamer but still warming stews. For instance, once a week, cook Emily Cadmus at Loretta’s Café on Broadway offers a beef stew plump with potatoes, carrots, celery and onions, seasoned with garlic, thyme and marjoram.
“We roast our own beef and make beef stock with a Highland Oatmeal Porter that deepens the flavor and enhances the beefiness,” says Cadmus, who grew up on a sheep farm in Asheboro, North Carolina, eating lamb stews.
Every Friday, Loretta’s also offers Louisiana gumbo — a stew thickened with okra, shredded chicken, Andouille sausage and a house-made roux. “We sell out every week,” says Cadmus.
Unsurprisingly, Brunswick stew is on several Asheville menus, its origins an ongoing argument between North Carolinians and Virginians. Creekside Taphouse offers its version — a meld of smoked pork and chicken, their stocks sweetened with creamed corn, fire-roasted tomatoes, a touch of vinegar and house barbecue sauce. “This is the original chef’s grandmother’s recipe, who I think was from North Carolina,” says Wilson.
But the stew that made me most want to unpack my clay bowls was the rabbit ragout (the French version of stew) at Jack of the Wood downtown on Patton. Ladled on top of a plump fried potato cake and nestled next to a handful of fried kale chips, this combination of brined rabbit, onions, roasted garlic, mushrooms, carrots, scallions and Green Man porter thickened with flour made me thankful for hunger and happy that my husband concentrated on fish and chips instead of sneaking from my plate.
“The rabbit comes from Imladris Farm in Fairview, which also sells jams and preserves,” says Jason Brian, executive chef of Jack of the Wood. “I want to make rabbit mainstream, and it’s very pub-like. Serving game is an English and Gaelic pub tradition. But we add our own Southern influence with the barbecue-spiced kale chips. Their sweet and smoky flavor offsets the richness of the bacon fat and rabbit broth.”
Eating that ragout, I felt comforted — as a child might — that something so seemingly simple could taste so good. These stews and chilies make it easy to feel that way — foods of fire, warmth, clanking spoons and mop-up breads. Meals that don’t show off but take us home, clay pots or no.