Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chili School

Every fall, I find myself inundated with fresh vegetables, and invariably some of them go to waste because, seriously, what am I supposed to do with 15 zucchini, Mom? Enter chili, the harvest stew of the gods...

Chili is pretty much omnipresent come autumn, and for good reasons: it's simple to make, it's cheap, and it's delicious. Everybody has their own chili method and everybody will claim that theirs is the best, hence the invention of the chili cook-off. The big, dirty secret is that chili is a lot like pizza: it's pretty much always good, no matter what you do to it.

I don't want to get into all the rhetoric that goes along with chili. The Texas purists (dare I call them "puritans") will tell you that chili with beans is called "bean soup," not chili. To hell with that; try as you might, you're probably not going to fuck up your chili. All these rules were meant to be broken, but it is a good idea to have a solid grounding in what makes a good chili before you go overboard with your special recipe.

Anything that wishes to be called chili con carne will require these 3 things:

Meat. Carne. You can use pretty much anything you want. Beef (as pictured above) is probably the most popular, but plenty of great chilis have been made with pork, lamb, chicken, turkey or even game/roadkill meats like venison, rabbit, or squirrel. Generally, the cheaper the better: tougher cuts respond better to slow stewing than tender cuts. Also, don't be afraid to mix meats for interesting flavor combinations.

One big question is whether to use ground meat or small chunks. Either way is fine: it basically just becomes a texture question once you get to the finished product. I actually like to use both in the same stew.

Chili peppers. People can get really intimidated by this part, especially if they're afraid of hot peppers. You can use dried ground powder, but having big chunks of peppers in your chili is just a lot more visually and texturally appealing. And you don't have to use super hot peppers: the poblano (also called ancho when dried) is a great flavorful option that isn't too hot. Red and orange bell peppers can give you a nice sweetness and depth of flavor. Personally, I like really spicy chili, and I had just happened to come across some garden-fresh habanero, jalapeno, and cayenne peppers (seen above).

Secret hobo spices. You can really use just about anything to get a unique flavor out of your chili. Those puritans will tell you that a pre-made chili powder is cheating, but I find it to be a good starting point; you can always add flavors to suit your specific taste. Pretty much every pre-made chili powder is going to include dried ground chiles, cumin, oregano, garlic powder and salt. That's an acceptable base, but creativity is king when it comes to chili: don't be afraid to experiment. Chili is all about combinations of flavors, so play with sweets (sugar, fruits, chocolate), tarts (vinegar, hot sauce, beer), salts and savories.

So now I'm going to walk you through how to make a batch of traditional Texas red chili con carne. This recipe is probably different from anything you've been offered before, as it contains not only no beans, but also no tomatoes. It's amazingly simple and delicious. C'mon, let's go!

First, chop your meat into small chunks, about the size of a pecan. I'm using stew beef, usually cut from the shank, plate or brisket. These are tough cuts that generally aren't good for much else besides stewing. You'll want to use about 1 pound of meat for every quart of chili you want at the end.

Sear your beef until it turns slightly brown on the outside. The insides will still be raw, but don't worry: they'll cook through in the stewing process.

Add your ground beef and mix it well. I like to use ground beef because it's generally fattier and releases more beef flavor into the mix than chunks alone. Traditional chili recipes call for suet (raw beef fat), but I find this to be a better alternative.

Once you've got some fat in the bottom of the pot, add your peppers and saute them lightly, just enough to release their oils into the meat mix. I put an onion in here too, though it's considered to be a filler ingredient by those Texas chili snobs. I like onion. Fuck 'em.

Garlic time. Same deal as with the peppers, lightly saute to release its essence. I like a lot of garlic in my chili: I'll probably use 1.5-2 cloves per pound of meat.

Add spices. The biggest key here is to remember that the only way to "un-hot" chili is to dilute it, which will mess with your consistency and texture. You can start light and add more spices as you go. I'm making 3 quarts of chili, so I started with 4 teaspoons of chili powder, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of cumin, 1 teaspoon of oregano, 1 teaspoon of cayenne, and a jigger of hot sauce. Remember, I like it spicy, so these measurements might be too much for you, lightweight...

You'll need to add some fluid to stew all these ingredients in. Water is commonly used and will do just fine. For this batch, I used a 12 oz. bottle of beer. I wouldn't use anything too fancy: really hoppy beers will just make your chili bitter. A good old American lawnmower lager like Budweiser is just fine.

Simmer that mixture for a while. The longer the better, but at least 2.5 hours or until the meat chunks are cooked through. Don't let the mix boil, or else your meat will get rubbery. Stir it and taste it occasionally. Add spices if necessary. I like to counterbalance the hot spice with sweetness. Brown sugar or molasses are nice. Agave syrup might rock your world.

Toward the end of the stew, you'll probably want to thicken the mixture up. Lots of ways to do this (including crushed tortilla chips), but the traditional way is to add masa (corn meal flour). This works the same way as making gravy: add masa a little bit at a time and let it simmer in. The flour particles will thicken as they heat. Don't add too much or else you'll have chili paste and you'll have to dilute it with water.

Your chili is not ready to eat yet. Not even close. Take it off the stove, seal it up in tupperware and refrigerate it overnight. Don't touch it until dinner time tomorrow. All those flavors need to coalesce together. I don't know what the science behind this is - shit, it might just be voodoo magic - but it works. I've eaten chili right out of the cooking pot and again the next day after refrigeration, and it's always better the next day. Put it away. Don't be tempted.

Make your self some cornbread. Chili's perfect compliment. Sweet starch to partner with your spicy stew.

Time to eat! Texas chili isn't necessarily the most beautiful dish, but it's damned tasty.

Look at that spoonful: a chunk, some ground, a couple pepper pieces... YUM!

Time to make more...


Emily said...

Great pictures and instructions! I am one of those blasphemous vegetarian chili makers, but I appreciate your post anyway.

Peter said...

Might I suggest a small can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce to deepen the smoky/spicy of this already tasty chili? And an ounce or two of 100% dark chocolate thrown in for good measure. I haven't made chili for a long time that wasn't being used for a queso dip, and now thanks to you it has become my mission. (But seriously no tomatoes? If you say so...)

Lucé said...

Ack! So much raw bloody meat! haha...I love the post anyways, great instruction and detail.

jon said...

i like a few dashes of cinnamon in mine for that "this-is-so-good-but-what-the-fuck-is-in-it?" reaction.

justin said...

peter, that's a great suggestion. i usually don't like smoky flavor in my chili, but it's certainly not a bad choice. i guess my biggest problem with it is that a lot of people who use chipotle peppers tend to overdo it, making the smoke all you can taste.

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