I don’t know if this is a regional dish, but from what I’ve read chili pie —or Frito Pie as it was called when I was a kid —is not universally known. This is a classic festival food, a staple of festivals, flea markets and food trucks. In the festival version I ate as a kid, a small bag of Fritos was slit down the side, then a scoop of chili was ladled on top, then grated cheddar cheese and finely diced white or yellow onions were sprinkled on top. Traditionally the proportion of Fritos to chili was about even and the portions were small so that it could be eaten quickly before the chips got soggy. I tend to overload the homemade version with chili which results in having to add more chips to get that characteristic crunch. When I was a kid we’d sometime make this at home using canned chili without beans. You can use chili with beans if that’s what you’ve got on hand, but it’s better and if you omit the beans. I have already written about the bean-no bean controversy and posted my chili recipe which is made with beans. I alter that recipe slightly when I make chili without beans, taking down the seasonings a notch because without the beans the amount of chili is less.
A note about nomenclature: This was always known to me and everyone I knew as “Frito Pie” for most of my life. Then at some point I started noticing “Chili Pie” instead of “Frito Pie” turning up on menu boards at festivals. I don’t know why the name was changed unless it’s some copyright or trademark issue about selling food with the Frito brand name attached to it. Fritos are unique and you really can’t make anything like Frito Pie unless you have that crispy corn crunch of original Fritos. Anything else is just chili with chips. 😉
Vegetarian Chili without beans
My Crockpot is a 6 qt: adjust recipe accordingly for the volume of your slow-cooker.
3 med (14.5 oz) cans whole tomatoes
3 cups water
2 pkgs. Smart Ground
2 med onions, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, run through garlic press (or finely minced)
3 Tbls chili powder or crushed dried chile petine
1 tsp ancho chile powder
1/2 tsp habanero powder
1 tsp black pepper
1-2 tsp cumin
salt to taste
1/4 cup cornmeal
First a few notes about seasoning. If you use 3-4 Tbls of regular store-bought chili powder you will get a mildly seasoned chili. If you’re unsure about the heat, this is a good place to start, adjusting amounts to suit your own taste. I like to either supplement store-bought chili powder (I use Mexene) with small amounts of additional ground dried chilis (such as ancho and/or habanero listed above) or when I have enough of them I just use ground dried chile petines which grow wild in Texas (and my garden). They make a good chili seasoning. Again, if you’re not familiar with them, use sparingly. The heat and general seasoning of chili is very much a personal choice and I encourage you to experiment.
Put all the ingredients—except the cornmeal—into Crockpot and stir well. The whole tomatoes should be smashed with a wooden spoon or otherwise broken up into smaller pieces. (Note: If you use canned diced rather than whole tomatoes the flavor and consistency of the chili will be substantially different.) Cover and set the Crockpot to High, which is 4-6 hours on most Crockpots. (You could cook it on Low for longer, but I never do.)
About an hour before the chili is finished cooking, gently sprinkle in 1/4 cup cornmeal, a little at a time, stirring as you do to prevent lumps. (This is a thickener.) This final step may be considered optional, depending on how you like your chili. More than 1/4 cup cornmeal can be used, depending on your preferences. Thicker chili seems to me to work better for things like Frito Pie and chili dogs.
My Crockpot is programmable and rolls over to “warming” after the cooking time is finished. If yours isn’t automatic and you’re not quite ready to eat, turn the Crockpot from High down to Low (or off) after 6 hours, maximum.
For Frito Pie, serve over a generous amount of Fritos with grated cheddar cheese and diced white or yellow onion on top (some people consider this optional because it’s just too onion-y). If you have green onions on hand, they can be used instead of the diced onion. It’s not traditional, but heck, we’re not using meat in the chili, so I think we can further bend tradition if you want to use green onion. 😉 For further thoughts on the whole chili tradition — and why I think invoking tradition is pointless — see The Chili Controversy. 😀