For delicious chili, build on basics and go from there

March 23, 2011
Chili purists insist the only things that belong in chili are ingredients you would be able to collect while you were out on a cattle drive in the 19th century: fatty meat, wild onions or leeks and chili powder. BY JACK CLEMONS

As you may know, my husband Jack takes the wonderful photographs you see on the page with Cape Flavors (yes, I might be slightly biased). Each weekend as Monday approaches he starts asking what we’re doing for the article. Once we have a theme and a set of recipes in mind, he begins planning the layout for plating the feature dish on an ideal background. In the meantime, I test the recipes to make sure they’ll work. Unless I write down the details of the ingredients and the specific amounts, I wouldn’t be able to include a reproducible recipe (although every cook knows that a recipe is like a yellow traffic light – just a suggestion you may want to consider).

After we chose chili as this week’s theme, I made the version you see in the photo. Then I realized I should label the image “What’s wrong with this picture?”  I’m not referring to the quality of the photography but to the dish itself. Chili purists insist the only things that belong in chili are ingredients you would be able to collect while you were out on a cattle drive in the 19th century: fatty meat, wild onions or leeks and chili powder. In modern times other ingredients have been added to chili recipes – beans, tomatoes, peanut butter, chocolate, bird tongues – but they may not necessarily improve the end product.

Let’s start with the meat. Do not consider ground beef or packages of beef that is ground more coarsely and labeled “chili beef.” Choose a slab of chuck or another cut of meat that is less tender and highly marbled. Cut off a small piece of fat and chop the meat into a half-inch dice. In a large Dutch oven or stockpot render the fat you’ve trimmed from the meat, cooking it on a low heat until it becomes liquified. Then add the meat pieces and brown them a little. Toss in whatever onion, garlic or leek gleanings you’ve collected to enhance the meat’s flavor. Once the vegetables have softened, stir in the seasonings and let the mixture cook for a few hours.

Of course, it’s at this point that the purists’ suggestions are abandoned and the tinkerers and fiddlers step in to add their own flourishes. While there are countless regional differences in chili – everything from how much tomato to which variety of bean – the signature ingredient is chili powder.

The basic version of chili powder is made of ground chili pepper mixed with cumin, oregano and garlic. And like the infinite tweaks on recipes for chili, there are countless variations of chili powder, some of which contain additional spices and flavors such as jalapeno, cinnamon, celery, peanut butter or chocolate.

Now that you have endless choices, how do you make decent chili? I would recommend beginning with the cattle drive version, allowing it to cook low and slow for hours, and maybe waiting until the second day to serve it. Choose the basic chili powder from your favorite spice vendor and keep it simple. Once you have a taste of the authentic, you are well prepared to start adding your personal touches, from beans to corn to whatever secret ingredients help cooks win chili cook-offs.

How do you serve chili? The easiest way is to ladle it into a bowl and offer refried beans or cornbread as a side. Hot dogs are vastly improved by a generous spoonful of chili, and if you find yourself in Cincinnati, you will discover chili (as they know it) is always served on a bed of spaghetti. In the meantime, practice adding your own secret ingredients and developing your favorite version of beef adorned with chili powder.

And, if you trust your hand at chili (real or embellished) and can see what’s wrong with the picture, I would love to hear from you.  Happy trails!

Chuckwagon Chili
2 lbs fatty beef
2 minced garlic cloves, minced
1 chopped onion
4 T chili powder

Trim a bit of fat from the meat and place it in a Dutch oven or stock pot. Over low heat, render the fat until it is liquid. Coarsely chop the beef into a medium dice and add it to the pot. Cook, stirring often, until the beef is browned. Toss in the garlic and onion; cook until softened. Stir in the chili powder, cover the pot and continue to cook for several hours. The chili is ready to serve when the meat is fork tender and a thick sauce has formed (thin with beef broth, if desired). Serve with refried beans and cornbread.

Not Really Chili
1 T olive oil
1 chopped onion
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 lb ground chuck
16-oz can diced tomatoes
16-oz can beans (kidney or pinto)
5 T chili powder

Heat the olive oil in a deep skillet or Dutch oven. Add the onion and garlic; stir over low heat until translucent. Crumble the beef with a spatula into the pot and cook until no longer pink. Stir in the tomatoes and beans (without draining). Sprinkle in chili powder, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. Serve garnished with sour cream, cheddar cheese and chopped jalapenos.

Cheating Chili Stew
1 T olive oil
1 lb beef chuck
1 t pepper
2 T flour
1 chopped onion
2 minced garlic cloves
14-oz bottle chili sauce
4.5-oz can green chilies
1 C peeled diced potatoes
15-oz can tomatoes

Dredge the beef in pepper and flour. Heat the oil on low and add the seasoned beef. Cook until browned, stirring often. Add the onions and garlic; cook until softened. Stir in chili sauce, green chilies and potatoes. Simmer over low for about 5 minutes; stir in tomatoes, without draining. Continue to simmer for another hour, until sauce has thickened and meat is tender. Serve garnished with shredded cheese, chopped onion and sour cream.

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