Monday, January 16, 2012


I'm not taking that class in regional American cooking. It's expensive - more than buying some cookbooks and learning on my own. Then, there's that part about certain regional American cuisines that I'd either never make or transform into something healthier and above all tastier. Chili, however, is not one of these things.

A great bowl of chili is a meal in itself. There's enough heat to wake things up without going so far as to inflict pain - but chili heat is an individual thing. One person's wonderbowl could be another's gut burning instrument of torture.

People really get passionate about the stuff, like they generally don't about, say, meatloaf. Here in California and the West, chili cookoffs are big events. People argue over which peppers to use, beans vs no beans, how herbal, should coffee and chocolate be ingredients, should the meat be ground or chopped... luckily there's no one definitive chili recipe.

I made white chili a few months ago, using fresh Hatch peppers from New Mexico. Now, in the midst of winter, it's time for the more traditional red version. I like meat and beans, several kinds of chili and quite a bit of herbs. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, a bit of celery and stop. Nothing else is necessary.

The peppers bring so much flavor and complexity that adding all kinds of secret ingredients would just be overkill. Sweet-hot, smoky, fruity... it's all there ready to be coaxed out.

So, here it is: my entry into the chili Hall of Fame. Or just a good bowl of red. The Hall of Fame can go elsewhere, since this started as simple cowboy food and all that highfalootin' nonsense just gets between a man and his food.

  • Chili cascabel, dried (Not too many. Substitute ancho if you want things sweeter)
  • Chili morita, dried (You could use chipotles, but these are better. Careful! Hot!)
  • Chili Hatch, dried - New Mexico, hot.
  • Chili Hatch, dried - New Mexico, mild
  • Pinto beans
  • Garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  • Roast cumin, roast coriander seeds
  • Sage (fresh or dried)
  • Oregano, dried (or Mexican oregano)
  • Bay leaf, if you feel like it
  • Onion, dice
  • Celery, diced
  • A strip or two of bacon, roasted in the broiler
  • Flame-roasted tomato (canned).
  • Beef chuck roast, diced and browned in the broiler. If you're going more cowboy and have a bigger budget, use buffalo meat and add a bit more sage.
  1. Soak the beans for a few hours. Some people soak overnight, but I can't really tell a difference.
  2. Get the broiler hot in the oven.
  3. Place the diced vegetables on a parchment-lined sheet pan and broil them until they start to brown a bit, even burn a bit on the edges. Reserve.
  4. Place the meat on the sheet pan and broil until brown, turning to get lots of caramelization. Reserve.
  5. Do the same with the bacon. Reserve.
  6. Slice the chili pods so they don't hold air and place them in boiling water. After about 10 minutes of boiling, they should be soft. Take them out to cool - and don't throw away that chili water!
  7. When everything is browned, place it in a pot and add cold water.
  8. Drain off the water from the beans and add them to the pot.
  9. Remove the veins and seeds from the chilis, place them in a blender and add some strained chili water - just enough so you can blend everything together. Save any excess chili water. This also works with an immersion blender and it's easier to clean up.
  10. Add the puréed chilis to the pot.
  11. Put the garlic in the blender, add some strained chili water and purée it. You can't have too much garlic - even a whole bulb is not too much.
  12. Add the herbs and pepper, but not the salt.
  13. Start with high heat to get the water hot, then reduce to a mere simmer.
  14. Taste to see if you need more herbs. If it's too hot, well... oops. Too late now.  Chilis are supposed to be good for you, so enjoy the burn. The only thing you can do is rinse more beans and add them along with more water. You could also add meat - but at some point you'll have a huge amount of chili and if you're a wimp it might still be too hot. Next time, make meatloaf instead - or add the chilis a little at a time, tasting for heat in between. All chilis are different so this is the only safe method. You can also eliminate the hot New Mexico peppers in favor of milder varieties.
  15. When the beans are just about cooked, add the salt. This supposedly gives you tenderer beans, but there's really no consensus on this at all.
  16. Skim off any scum that forms on the surface of the water.
  17. Keep simmering until the beans and meat are tender - probably about three hours. The goal is to use low heat to gently melt all that connective tissue in the meat, and get those proteins into the liquid where they'll do interesting things. 
  18. Once everything is tender, adjust the salt to your taste and eat. 

Don't eat too much. Chili is never at its best the day it's cooked. If your intestinal system permits, have another bowl tomorrow. And the next day. By then, you'll start to know just how the cowboys felt.

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