The Old Booksmith


Good-Running-Average Chili Recipe


Naturally, there are as many "right" ways of fixing chili as there are chili cooks — but this version works very well for me nearly all the time. I know it might look a little complicated for those of you who are used to just opening a can, and it may seem to have a lot of ingredients, some of which require a certain amount of preparation — but good chili is a serious matter. If it's worth doing (and it definitely is), it's worth taking the time to do it right.

And, frankly, this recipe isn't nearly as complicated (or as silly) as some I've seen, which start with a full-page list of ingredients and continue with six pages of instructions. I don't do competition chili. I make it to eat and, while I'm willing to take some pains, I don't intend to spend a week in seclusion and making sacrifices to the Chili Gods in order to produce it. I also don't have any "secret" ingredients. No red wine, bacon, peanut butter, anchovies, prunes, RC Cola, or anything like that. And the beer, cocoa, and lime juice are pretty common additions among Texas home-type chili cooks.

Anyway, once you get it started, it'll pretty much take care of itself. And by the time it's done, its seductive aroma will have everyone in the neighborhood standing around in the kitchen, spoon and bowl in hand. This recipe, by the way, is sized for a good meal with a few select friends (perhaps six of them), but I generally double, or even triple, it (using my big iron pot) and freeze most of the results as a supply for the next several months. Chili is one of those dishes that tastes even better after freezing, thawing, and reheating. (It's a mystery.)

Here are some preliminary considerations.

Meat

Most often, like everyone else, I use ground beef. It's convenient. However, ordinary fine-ground meat suitable for broiled hamburgers will turn to inedible mush in slowly-simmered chili. Most groceries in Texas, especially the locally-owned small chains, have always carried "chili-grind" meat, which is much coarser. If you don't see it in your part of the world, try asking the guy behind the counter for it. Trust me, any meatcutter knows what "chili-grind" means. That will also guarantee you're getting freshly-ground meat. (But good luck at Wal-Mart.)

Even better, though, if you want to take the trouble, is to use chuck roast, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch cubes. Don't forget to factor in that minor wastage for the size roast you buy. And don't use anything of higher quality than chuck, either. Chili was invented to make use of poor-quality beef on the trail and putting ribeye in the pot is a waste of money — and it won't even make good chili. Anyway, if you're planning to spend much of the day making a big pot of chili, cutting up a chuck roast doesn't take that long and it's worth the effort.

Chiles

Yes, it's perfectly possible to make decent chili using just chili powder out of a jar. But it's far, far better to get hold of some real chilies and do a little prep work. The difference will amaze you. In the old days, I went down to the nearest small Mexican market and picked up a handful of green Ancho chilies, more or less fresh from the field, which I would roast (or char) myself over the stove's gas flame. Or, if that was too much work, I could pick up a few flame-dried Anchos, which usually were threaded on twine and hanging from the ceiling. Nowadays, most stores seem to carry dried Anchos packaged in cellophane, so you're in luck.

Herbs & Spices

I have an herb garden just outside the back door, off the kitchen, where I can pick up fresh, fragrant oregano, basil, parsley, thyme, and rosemary on five seconds' notice. (And it requires almost no care after you plant them; herbs are basically "wild.") When you're seasoning a casserole or a steak or something, fresh herbs make a real difference. But in chili, for the same reason noted for meat, dried herbs actually work better than fresh. They're less delicate, less likely to disappear without a trace.

Beans

Whether to put beans in chili devolves into practically a religious argument among chiliheads. Personally, I like beans in my chili. They add a nice additional taste and texture. However, everyone agrees on one thing:

DON'T COOK THE BEANS IN THE CHILI!

Absolutely never. Chili is chili and beans is beans. They must be cooked separately and only be introduced to each other at the table, or perhaps on the kitchen counter. There are lots and lots of pinto bean recipes out there that will work just fine, but my favorite, hands down, is the Threadgill's Texas Chili Beans recipe included on my Veggies page.

Okay, here are the ingredients:

2-3 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil (not olive oil — not with chili)
2 medium onions, chopped fine
6 medium-sized dried Ancho chilies (about 1-½ oz, total weight)
6 garlic cloves, minced (yes, 6 of them)
4-5 small jalapenos, cored, seeded, & minced
3 tablespoons chili powder (Gebharts's brand is traditional, and the best. This amount is for hot chili; adjust up or down to taste.)
1 tablespoon ground cumin (a purist would use cumin seeds, toast them, and grind them up, but that's too much work)
2 teaspoons dried oregano (Mexican, if you have it)
½ teaspoon cayenne
2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 lbs chili-grind beef (85% lean is good) -OR- about 3-½ to 4 lbs chuck roast, trimmed of fat & cut into 1-inch cubes
1 can (28-oz) tomato sauce (if I'm making a double batch, I use 1 can of sauce & 1 can of diced tomatoes, including the juice, which improves the texture)
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 bottle (12-oz) beer, allowed to warm to room temperature (I use Corona, since this is Tex-Mex, and you should plan to consume another couple of bottles while you cook, naturally )
4 tablespoons masa harina (NOT cornstarch unless you're absolutely desperate)

And here's what you do with them:

Ancho prep: Toast chilie pods in the oven at 350° until they become fragrant and puffed-up, about 6 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Remove stems and seeds and mince the pods as fine as possible. NOTE: I strongly recommend that you wear rubber kitchen gloves (one of those things it's always useful to have in the drawer) when you're working with Anchos and jalapenos. You have no conception of the agony you're be in for if you prep chilies barehanded and then inadvertently rub your eyes.

Using a large, heavy Dutch oven or (preferably) a large cast iron pot, heat oil until it shimmers but doesn't smoke, 3-4 minutes. Add onions, Anchos, garlic, and jalapenos and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and just beginning to brown, about 8-10 minutes. Increase heat to MEDIUM HIGH and add the meat. Add chili powder, cumin, oregano, cayenne, cocoa, salt, and pepper. Brown lightly, stirring frequently, 5-6 minutes. (NOTE: Too much meat dumped in there all at once won't brown properly. If you don't use a big-enough pot, you may have to brown half the meat, set it aside, then brown the other half.) Drain off fat.

Add tomato sauce, lime juice, and beer. Turn heat way down low and simmer steadily, stirring at intervals, until meat is tender and juices have darkened, about 2 hours. During this time, you want the chili to thicken slightly, but not reduce too much. If necessary, you can add additional beer, a small splash at a time, to maintain proper consistency. ("Proper" in this case means whatever looks and tastes right to you. But keep in mind that chili is a type of stew, not a soup.)

When you get near the end, prepare the final step — the masa. This is absolutely essential. Really. Chili has to be thickened — "tightened," as they say. Cornstarch will fulfill that function well enough, but masa has its own flavor to impart to the chili. To my mind, the aroma of masa in the mix, like the aroma of cumin, is one of the identifying qualities of proper chili.

Since you probably won't find a lot of uses for masa harina other than chili (unless you cook Tex-Mex at every meal), just buy the smallest box or package you can find. Then store it in the freezer in a couple of Zip-Loc bags and it'll keep a long, long time. And weevils don't like freezers.

So: In a small bowl, stir the masa gradually into ½ cup water to form a smooth paste. Increase the heat of the chili to MEDIUM, slowly stir in the masa paste, and simmer until thickened, another 5-10 minutes.

Serve immediately. When you and your friends are full, let the rest of the pot cool down some, then cover and refrigerate. (If you're using a large cast iron pot, you will want to decant it into smaller containers.) From the refrigerator, chili is good for 3-4 days. Or you can freeze it immediately in portion-sized containers or Zip-Loc bags and it'll be good for 4-5 months.

Slow-Cooker Option

After you've browned the meat with all the chilies, onions, garlic, herbs, and so on, transfer the meat to a slow cooker. Add the tomato sauce and the other ingredients, except the masa. Cook on HIGH for about 4-5 hours. Then do the masa step. This will allow you to leave the house for awhile, but you'll miss the aroma from the pot wafting through your life. Don't deny yourself that. Take your time and watch television while the chili simmers on the stove, and go back and stir it and taste it during the commercials.