It’s been called both a “bowl of blessedness” and the “soup of the Devil,” and it’s the stuff of legend.
Frank and Jesse James reputedly downed a few bowls before pulling some of their heists -- and supposedly spared one town because of it. O. Henry spun a short story around it, and Will Rogers allegedly judged a town by its quality. It’s said Eleanor Roosevelt tried -- without success -- to get the secrets of one recipe, and that Lyndon B. Johnson remarked that the kind concocted outside his home state of Texas was “usually a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing.” Not even Elizabeth Taylor was immune -- she had whole quarts packed in dry ice and shipped to Rome while she was filming “Cleopatra.”
I’m talking about chili, and I’ve been a devotee of the stuff for years now. There’s nothing better when you’re entertaining a crowd. And I don’t know about you, but I’ll be hosting a little football party on Sunday, and I plan to fix a big pot the day before. All I have to do is let it reheat while I entertain and watch the game and, voila! Dinner is served. No stress.
Chili is a wonderfully simple, no-fuss dish. Meat, generally a somewhat tough cut of beef or pork, is spiced with chiles and stewed -- slowly -- with a few choice ingredients. The results are magical: a richly flavored dish (neither soup nor stew, chili is in a category all its own) that only gets better with time. Fix it a day or two ahead, cook it slowly, then let it sit awhile before serving, giving it proper time to mature and develop. A good chili ages like a fine wine.
That’s not to say chili is without its drama. Some people have an almost religious zeal about their chili -- and any deviation from the one true recipe is heretical. Still, the variations are endless. From the classic Texas beef-lover’s “bowl of red” to a New Mexican “bowl of green,” it’s a dish that’s arguably been adopted in some way by every state in the Union.
There are all-meat and all-bean varieties, as well as recipes for white chili, “Yankee” chili, wild game, turkey and even seafood chilies. Some chilies are proudly rated for their heat (“four-alarm,” “code red”). There are chili societies -- the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) and the International Chili Society (ICS) -- and chili cookoffs -- the CASI has held its annual event in Terlingua, Texas, since 1967.
And then there’s Cincinnati-style -- as if the chili alone is not enough, this may be served “five-ways” with, count ‘em: spaghetti, chili, beans, chopped onion and shredded cheese. Since we’re a nation united by variety, move over apple pie -- chili is the true All-American dish.
The earliest chilies were probably borne out of necessity, using some of the oldest tricks in the book: Cooking tough meat until tender and spicing it so it tastes good.
According to the legendary chili historian Frank X. Tolbert, some of the earliest chilies evolved on the trails, from dried beef packed with fat, seasoned with salt and spiced with dried chili peppers. Historian Everett DeGolyer called it a “pemmican of the Southwest.”
Eventually, in the 1880s, chili moved to town, as brightly dressed “chili queens” set up their stands at dusk in San Antonio, their colorful lamps leading customers to the wonderful smells wafting from chili that had been simmering all day.
The ICS speculates that, in competing with each other, these chili queens are probably responsible for improving chili and bringing it closer to what we know today.
This classic Texas bowl of red, or something like it, is my personal favorite recipe. This is a meat-lover’s chili -- no beans allowed.
I start with dried whole chiles, which I stem, seed and rehydrate. Sure, you can use packaged ground chile, but there will be a night and day difference in flavor.
Like all ground spices, chile powder can oxidize and lose intensity as it sits, making for hollow flavor. Dried whole chiles are rich with flavor and not too much work if you’re passionate about the end product.
Meat versus beans
I trim and cube several pounds of chuck roast. You don’t have to go for a high-priced cut; choose a cheaper piece that is tough and has a lot of internal fat for the best flavor. You could grind it, but I prefer cubes for their texture and appearance.
Render a pound of bacon in a big heavy pot, preferably cast iron. Leave a little of the fat in the pot, and puree the fried bacon with the rehydrated chiles to make a paste to add to the sauce. Pork is not usually found in Texas red chili, but the bacon helps thicken the sauce and lends so much flavor.
Stew the chili with onion, garlic and fresh-roasted chiles. I also add tomatoes -- that’s discouraged in certain schools too, but the acidity helps brighten the chili and focus all those flavors. And I throw in a beer -- a good dark stout -- to lift the flavors a little more.
Cook the chili at a low simmer until the meat is tender, about two hours. It’s great served right away, but like most soups and stews, it improves overnight in the fridge.
If you like to add beans, go ahead -- this is your chili. But throw them in toward the end; you don’t want to overcook them or they’ll turn to mush.
On the other hand, a bean-based chili can be surprisingly rich and full-flavored as well. I sometimes like to make a mixed-bean chili with hominy. It’s a colorful dish with a ton of flavor, rich and hearty. And no one would know it’s vegetarian unless you mentioned it.
Or you could take the chili method down a different path entirely. My lentil chili draws from a North African inspiration, using Merguez sausage and harissa (a hot, North African chili paste) for flavor. I balance the heat with fresh ginger, lemon, cinnamon and turmeric, and finish the chili with chopped fresh parsley and a sprinkling of cilantro. The flavors kind of explode in the mouth -- bright, fresh notes balanced with subtle but intense heat.
It’s not traditional, but it’s good. And whatever your preferences, at the end of the day, it’s all about good chili, whether you’re from Coleman, Texas (reportedly Will Roger’s favorite chili town), or Fort Worth (that little town supposedly spared by the James boys).
As Pat Garrett, famous for killing Billy the Kid, supposedly once said of the outlaw, “Anyone that eats chili can’t be all bad.”
Place the dried ancho, guajillo, New Mexico and chipotle chiles in a medium bowl and cover with the boiling water. Keep the chiles submerged until they rehydrate and are softened, about 15 minutes. Drain, reserving the water.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the cubed beef with 4 teaspoons salt, 2 teaspoons black pepper, the cumin, oregano and coriander. Toss, making sure the beef is evenly coated and the spices are evenly distributed. Set aside.
Roast the fresh chiles: Place the poblano and jalapeno chiles on a rack set over a gas stove-top burner heated over high heat. Roast until the skin on all sides of each chile is charred, about 5 minutes, turning frequently. (If you have an electric or ceramic stove top, roast the chiles in the oven using the broiler setting until charred on all sides.) Wrap each pepper in plastic wrap and set aside until the peppers are cool enough to handle, then peel the skin (the skin should stick to the plastic wrap). Rub the plastic wrap against the skin to loosen and remove it. Do not rinse the peppers to remove the skin, as rinsing will remove flavor. Stem and seed each pepper, then dice the peppers into one-fourth inch pieces. Set aside.
In a large, heavy-bottom pot (preferably cast iron) heated over medium heat, cook the bacon until the fat renders and the bacon is crisp, about 10 minutes. Strain the bacon to a small bowl and set aside. Drain the fat, leaving 3 to 4 tablespoons in the pot. Discard the remaining fat, or save for another use.
Place the bacon and rehydrated chiles in a blender or food processor. Process until the bacon and chiles are pureed, adding a little of the reserved water (from the rehydrated chiles) as needed to thicken the puree to a paste the consistency of wet cement. Set aside.
Brown the beef: Heat the bacon fat over high heat until very hot, then sear the beef until browned on all sides (the beef will not be cooked through). The beef will need to be seared in batches, about one-third at a time (sear only enough beef as will fit in a single layer in the pot at a time). Remove the browned beef to a bowl using a slotted spoon and continue until all of the beef is seared. Set aside.
To the pot, add the onions. Cook over medium heat until the onions soften and just begin to color, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the diced poblanos and jalapenos, as well as the minced garlic and achiote paste, if using (be sure to mash the paste well until thoroughly incorporated and there are no lumps). Continue to cook until the garlic is aromatic, 2 to 3 minutes.
Stir in the tomato paste and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring frequently, until the tomato paste thickens and darkens slightly, leaving a thin film on the bottom of the pan. Watch carefully and continue to stir, making sure the paste does not burn.
Immediately stir in the beer, using a wooden spatula or spoon to scrape any flavoring from the bottom of the pan. Stir in the diced tomatoes (with juice), then stir back in the browned beef.
Stir in the beef broth and celery salt and bring the mixture to a gentle simmer. Stir in the bacon and rehydrated chile paste. Cook, uncovered, until the beef is tender, about 2 hours, stirring frequently. Add additional beef broth as needed to thin the consistency, and check the seasoning occasionally.
When the beef is tender, adjust the chili with a dash of Tabasco or vinegar -- the acidity will help to lighten the chili, distinguishing the flavors. Serve immediately, or give the chili time to allow the flavors to mature. The chili will keep for up to 1 week, covered and refrigerated.
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