Let’s be honest – Chili Wheat is not a particularly appetizing name for a supper dish. It sounds like it ought to be a snack food or some kind of hipster breakfast cereal. Or maybe even a bad joke. The truth is more mundane: think Chili Mac but with wheat instead of macaroni. To understand why this peculiar combination would come to pass we need to know a little more about this recipe’s origin story.
Chili Wheat comes from a community cookbook compiled by an Oklahoma Latter-Day Saint congregation in the late 1970s. Emergency preparedness and food storage are an important part of Latter-Day Saint culture – not a religious tenet as much as an organizing principle. At the time this recipe was written Latter-Day Saints were encouraged to keep a year’s supply of non-perishable food on hand to hedge bets against emergencies or unexpected job loss. Self-reliance remains an important governing principle in the Latter-Day Saint faith, but the specific imperative to store a full year’s worth of food has softened quite a bit. Whole grain wheat was and is a fixture of many food storage plans. It’s versatile, nutritious, and lasts more or less forever. Even still, proper maintenance of one’s food supply requires regular consumption and replenishment, which means you need to learn to cook with what you’ve got. And while I suspect that the original purpose of storing whole wheat was to provide a source of flour for bread and pancakes, never underestimate the resourcefulness of a restless home cook. I strongly suspect that Chili Wheat is an attempt to do something different with the surfeit of wheat in one’s food supply.
The recipe itself is conceptually simple, and similar in principle to a lot of Carter-era hamburger casseroles. The wheat is steamed or boiled in the same way that one would prepare rice or oats, and a homemade chili is spread on top. Sprinkle some cheese and bake and – voila – Chili Wheat. Mess with the seasonings a little bit and you could just as easily have Goulash Wheat or Taco Wheat or Italian Wheat. To duplicate this recipe properly you’ll need “wheat berries” – essentially raw wheat grains stripped of the tough, inedible hull – but there are many other forms of wheat that will work just as well. You’ll want to avoid flour or cream of wheat, but cracked wheat, bulgur, or freekeh are acceptable substitutes so long as you adjust the amount of water and cook times accordingly. When I made this last for my family I tweaked a few things, such as the meat:wheat proportion. I also had a little bit of extra espresso-cardamom rub on hand from Sunday’s pork roast and substituted it one for one with the chili powder. And in almost every recipe I have that calls for green bell pepper I use a mild green chili pepper instead such as a pasilla or Anaheim pepper. I like green bell peppers just fine when they’re raw, but can’t abide texture or flavor when they’re cooked.
And the family absolutely loved it. The chili on top isn’t terribly special, and a step down from the homemade variety that usually comes out of our kitchen, but the wheat adds a nutty flavor that kind of makes you crave just one more bite. Based on the portion size alone I would have expected this to feed eight handily, but the four of us home that night managed to plow through nearly the entire thing. I even found myself going back to carve just a little bit more wheat out of the bottom. Even if you’re not into the whole emergency preparedness thing I still highly recommend cooking with whole wheat. It’s high in fiber, nutty and delicious, and has an impressive shelf life.
Chili Wheat, like most casseroles, can be a meal on its own. If you’re a sucker for veggies like I am, pair it with fresh baby carrots, a simple green salad, or even some frozen green beans. Enjoy!
- 2 cups whole wheat berries (see note)
- 6 cups water
- 1 ½ lbs ground beef (80/20 works best)
- 1 large onion (diced)
- 1 mild green chili pepper (such as pasilla or Anaheim)
- 1 tbsp cardamom-espresso rub (or chili powder)
- 1 can diced tomatoes with chilis (such as Ro-tel brand)
- 1 8 oz can tomato sauce
- 8 oz shredded cheese (cheddar or Mexican blend)
- Preheat oven to 350º F
- if using bulgur or cracked wheat adjust water accordingly and cook as per package directions.
- In the meantime, brown ground beef in a large dutch oven over medium heat. When ground beef starts to give up its fat add onion and chili pepper. Saute until onion is flaccid and translucent and you can smell the cooked chili pepper. Stir in rub or chili powder and saute for another minute or so.
- Add diced tomatoes and tomato sauce and heat through. Then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until the wheat is done.
- Spread the wheat in a 13x9 casserole dish into an even layer.
- Spread the "chili" over top.
- Top with cheese and bake 20-30 minutes until cheese is melted and lightly browned.