Take the chill off with chili.

From S., 5 January 2010, A great bowl of chili – hold the beans?

Q: Freezing cold on the East coast. I was looking forward to a big bowl of chili. The problem I have is that most chili has (1) too many beans (2) is too runny and (3) lacks any real spice (heat) that doesn’t impose a vinegar flavor. What should I do?

A: Thanks for your question. So you’re not a fan of the beans? I have good news for you. Chili is about the chile peppers and spices, not the beans, which are good, but optional.

Here’s a question: what do we mean when we talk about chili? To Texans, chili traditionally means cubed or coarsely ground beef, chiles, spices, and no tomatoes or beans – any moisture comes from beef broth. In New Mexico, chili verde is chunks of pork, various green chiles, and spices, and no tomatoes or beans. In the midwest, where I’m from, you’re more likely to find the chile made with ground beef, tomatoes, and/or beans.

Unless you’re actually cooking for Texans, or for a chili cookoff where regional peculiarities matter, don’t worry about these differences. Cook what you like. In my case, that happens to mean chunks of beef, tomatoes, black beans, and a great variety of chiles. For you, it might be ground beef, tomatoes, and lots of chiles. Here are both recipes – try out the one that suits you and don’t be afraid to add more or less chile or spice to your taste. In the following recipes, I recommend toasting a larger quantity of chile and spice – start by adding a third, and then, as the dish simmers, taste it and add more. You can store any remaining chile and spice in a tightly sealed jar for future use.

Different dried chiles add different tastes – smell them, and you’ll see.

* Ancho are rich and sweet, with a prune-raisin-fig flavor, and only a mild heat. They have a completely different taste from their raw counterpart, the poblano.
* Chipotle, or smoked dried jalapeño, contribute heat and smoke, but they also lend tobacco, nut, and red fruit qualities.
* Guajillo are not smoked, but have a smoky quality and tangy, sundried tomato notes.
* Dried habanero, although they enjoy a reputation as one of the world’s hottest peppers, provide aggressively grass-green, bright citrus notes as well. The vegetal green quality of habanero can overwhelm so use discretion if using habanero.
* Pasilla are fruity and spicy, with rich overtones of chocolate and raisin.

Try to buy dried chiles from a market with high turnover. Central American markets sell large quantities of many of these chiles – and many more – and even supermarkets in areas with a large Central American population carry a wide selection. If you want to order online, one of my favorite sources for chiles and other spices is The Spice House, with retail outlets in Milwaukee and Chicago.

Hot and spicy chili

If you like your chili really spicy, leave in the seeds. If you like it milder, remove the seeds before grinding. Chipotles in adobo are widely available and sold in small cans – you will have leftovers, and these freeze well for future use.

2 lbs beef chuck, plate, skirt, or flank (or combination), ground
one large onion, diced 1/4″
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 each ancho and guajillo chiles, stems removed (if using preground, use 1 1/2 tbsp each)
2 each pasilla and New Mexico chiles, stems removed (if using preground, use 1 tbsp each)
4 dried chipotle, or two chipotles in adobo sauce (if using preground, use 2 tsp)
2 tbsp cumin seeds (if using preground, use 1 tbsp)
1 tbsp coriander seeds (if using preground, use 1 1/2 tsp)
1 1/2 tbsp dried Mexican oregano
2 bay leaves
1 28 ounce can tomatoes
salt and pepper
vegetable oil

Toast the cumin and coriander in a dry skillet, shaking the pan or stirring with a wooden spoon, over medium heat until just fragrant. Grind in a spice grinder. Toast the dry chiles in the same pan until just fragrant, turn over and repeat, and then grind (with or without seeds) in a spice grinder. You may need to break the chiles in to several pieces before grinding.

Place a wide, deep pot with a lid over high heat and, when hot, add a couple tbsp of oil to film the pan. Add the ground beef (in two batches if necessary), and brown the meat. If you browned in batches, return the first batch to the pan. Reduce heat to medium and add the onion and garlic, and cook until the vegetables are tender. Add about 1/3 to 1/2 the ground chile and sauté a minute until fragrant; add about 1/3 to 1/2 the toasted spices/oregano, and sauté a minute more.

Add the tomato to the pan and bring to a simmer. Add the bay leaves, 1/2 cup water, and cover and simmer one hour. Taste for seasoning and adjust the quantity of chile and/or spice/oregano as needed. Add the black beans and simmer another hour. Add salt to taste and a grind or two of black pepper.

Serve with minced scallions, sour cream, and/or shredded cheese (asadero or monterey jack are typical, but something sharper like grana padano can be nice).

Beef and black bean chili

2 lbs beef chuck, cut into 1″ dice
one large onion, diced 1/4″
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 each ancho and guajillo chiles, stems removed (if using preground, use 1 1/2 tbsp each)
2 each pasilla and New Mexico chiles, stems removed (if using preground, use 1 tbsp each)
4 dried chipotle, or two chipotles in adobo sauce (if using preground, use 2 tsp)
2 tbsp cumin seeds (if using preground, use 1 tbsp)
1 tbsp coriander seeds (if using preground, use 1 1/2 tsp)
1 1/2 tbsp dried Mexican oregano
2 bay leaves
1 28 ounce can tomatoes
1/2 lb dried black beans, soaked and cooked until just tender, or 2 14-ounce cans black beans, rinsed well
salt and pepper
vegetable oil

Toast the cumin and coriander in a dry skillet, shaking the pan or stirring with a wooden spoon, over medium heat until just fragrant. Grind in a spice grinder. Toast the dry chiles in the same pan until just fragrant, turn over and repeat, and then grind (with or without seeds) in a spice grinder. You may need to break the chiles in to several pieces before grinding.

Place a wide, deep pot with a lid over high heat and, when hot, add a couple tbsp of oil to film the pan. Add the beef cubes (in batches, if necessary), and brown on each side. Remove to a plate. Reduce heat to medium and add the onion and garlic. Sweat the vegetables until tender. Add about 1/3 to 1/2 the ground chile and sauté a minute until fragrant; add about 1/3 to 1/2 the toasted spices/oregano, and sauté a minute more.

Add the tomato to the pan and bring to a simmer. Return the browned meat to the pan, as well as any juices on the plate. Add the bay leaves, 1/2 cup water, and cover and simmer one hour. Taste for seasoning and adjust the quantity of chile and/or spice/oregano as needed. Add the black beans and simmer another hour. Add salt to taste and a grind or two of black pepper.

Serve with minced scallions, sour cream, and/or shredded cheese (asadero or monterey jack are typical, but something sharper like grana padano can be nice).

One thought on “Take the chill off with chili.

  1. Pingback: Lose the chill…with chili. « The Upstart Kitchen

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