Chili is the quintessential American food. It melds old and new world ingredients into a product that can be as straightforward or complex to cook as you wish and has a nice balance in both flavor and nutrition. Our definition of chili is: A thick soup or stew made with dried ancho chile powder, tomato, and beans and/or meat. You can make thick soups and stews with chopped or ground meat and/or beans, but if it does not contain the ground chile peppers, it's not chili. And it is the distinct flavor of the chile pepper that separates meat chili from some kinds of barbeque or sloppy Joe. It is, by the way, the presence of tomato, chile pepper, beans and meat that makes this dish a balanced meal. Served with a bit of cheese, it has so many nutrients that one could survive indefinitely on the stuff.
The fastest way to 'make' chili is to buy a can of the stuff and fix it. For instance, Hormel Turkey chili is relatively low fat and it contains many of the ingredients of good chili. It just happens to taste... well I cannot describe it in polite terms at a family rated site. But a few simple things will improve it immeasurably. First, add a teaspoon of Penzey's Chili Powder or use Ancho Chile Powder. The former contains Mexican Oregano and a number of other things in addition to the chile powder. Next, add a dash of salt, some pepper, a tablespoon of olive oil. This olive oil is vital, because the flavors of the chile pepper turns delicious when heated in oil a bit above boiling. And for this reason you may not want to mix in the oil and chili powder before microwaving. Cover with plastic wrap to protect the microwave from exploding beans.
Microwave for about two minutes. Some may wish to improve it further by placing a corn tortilla, some cheese, and another tortilla on top before microwaving. One may also choose to add oregano, rosemary, smoked pepper either sweet or chipotle, cayenne, salt, pepper, tomato paste, minced garlic. In most cases the tiniest hint will suffice. Other possible post-cooking additions are listed at the bottom of the page.
Almost any commercially available chili in a can can be improved materially by the addition of these ingredients. Those who live alone and love chili will find this the most convenient way to eat chili. One could, I believe, survive for some time on instant chili and a baked potato.
A Pot of Chili
What is the secret to good chili? There are two big secrets: it must have layer upon layer of flavor, and it must cook for a very long time. The layers of flavor come from the meat, vegetables, and spices. Remember that the first thing you notice about a soup or stew is the last thing added. So it is important to keep adding things from time to time. I prefer to add most herbs near the beginning since the need to work their way into the meat. Most fragrant spices would get added near the end.
It is a major misconception that you can get great chili by throwing things in a heated pot and waiting until it's chili. Waiting is crucial: but it's not enough. All ingredients have to be properly prepared first, and this includes roasting vegetables and browning meat. If all ingredients have been properly cooked before being tossed in the chili pot, the stew can be eaten with as little as two hours of simmering, but chilling it overnight in the refregerator always improves it. Remember to correct the spice/flavor near the end of simmering or after reheating.
There are many chili competitions around: some allow beans, some eschew them. Some require meat. Others prohibit it. Here are some general chili preparation rules.
- If you make chili with meat, brown the meat in small batches with ample amounts of olive oil or ghee. Don't cook it grey. Cook it brown. Brown is where the flavor of meat is. It is not called 'browining' for nothing. If you use tofu, same rule. Some chili recipies rely on shredded meat. The method is to braise or boil a hunk of meat in the water, stock, tomato, and spices used to make the chili, then shred it with a fork. The collagen goes into the water, thickening it nicely. The meat has less browned flavor but it can be more tender or have a more subtle mouth feel.
- Make stock from bones and vegetables. Sure, you can use water; but real stock will give the chili a round, rich mouth feel and a depth of flavor that you cannot otherwise get. You might be able to approximate it with gelatin and Bovril or boullion, but you probably don't want to. Some chili is made with beer. It adds body, sweetness, and floral notes in addition to the earthy yeastiness. These flavors almost disappear in the background, but they really can help, especially if you are not using stock.
- Caramelized onion is crucial to the success of many soups, but only in French Onion soup is it more important than in Chili. Chili requires the deep, browned sweetness that only caramelized onions can provide.
- Hide the vegetables. Chili is not a vegetable soup. If you like corn with chili, serve cornbread. (Corn goes particularly well with peppers and meat.) If you like spinach, serve a salad. Mushrooms can live happily in chili, but they need to be chopped finely. And they are properly sauteed under intense heat to bring out their meaty flavor. They need to meld with the chili like everything else.
- Tomato sauce and paste are necesssary additions to chili; it's best to strain out any seeds. And if you blend them up until smooth, you may put in roasted carrots or celery. In fact, these can be roasted along with the onions and the bones to make the stock. Celery, however, does pull chili in an unusual direction, so use it sparingly.
- If you use fresh tomatoes: definitely use ripe Italian Roma tomatoes, blanch for 60 seconds, and strain out the seeds. Even better, roast the tomatoes until the skins can be popped off - 350F for 30-45 minutes. If you use canned crushed tomatoes, strain out the seeds. Do use tomato paste.
- One possible recipe starts with
- 24 oz ground or chopped meat browned
- a quart of good stock + some water or beer
- 24 oz red kidney beans and their liquid
- two caramelized onions and
- two roasted carrots blended smooth with stock
- 22 oz crushed tomatoes, sieved
- 6 oz tomato paste
- 2 Tbs ancho chile pepper
- 2 tsp chipotle chile pepper
- 1/2 tsp dried mustard powder
- 1/8 tsp cayenne
- 1/2 tsp black pepper ground
- 2 Tbs chopped garlic heated in olive oil
- 2 Tbs olive oil
- 1 Tbs balsamic vinegar
- 2 Tbs molasses
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- 2 tsp ground cumin, toasted
- 1/8 tsp cloves
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon.
- 1 tsp salt and/or 1 tbs tamari
- The coriander, cumin, garlic, and olive oil would be added to the meat as it is browning. Coriander and cumin are improved by modest roasting, and their action is to improve the flavor of the meat. The molasses goes in just before simmering, it has a positive effect on the flavor of the beans, but it needs lots of time to act. The aromatic spices get added near the end. Add black pepper while browning, while simmering, and near the end.
- I believe that beans are necessary for great chili. They certainly enhance its nutritional value. And they add interesting color and texture. Try using both red kidney beans and black beans, for instance. Or use cannelini beans, turkey, turmeric and mustard and a modest amount of tomato paste to make a bright orange chili.
- I happen not to like the effect that green bell peppers have on chili. If you do use them, please roast them and peel off the skins first. This will go a long way toward removing their 'soapy' flavor. I'd rather see roasted Poblano or Anaheim peppers. Their dark green is more interesting, and they bring a little heat. They would look especially good in a bright orange chili(above) But if one is roasting fresh peppers, anyway, why not roast a habanero. Beneath its searing heat lies a heart of gold. The flavor is golden, buttery or nutty. Wear latex gloves as you remove the ribs and seeds.
- Add other spices. The best additive might be Chipotle Chile powder. This adds smokey and hot flavors. Both are required for premium chili. Mustard adds a nice hot/astringent property that is valued if the chili is a little greasy or is made with pork. Turmeric will help in this area as well. It will also enhance the orange coloration of the chili. Roasted coriander and cumin add depth, so does tamari.
- If the flavor is not too jazzed up with oregano and marjoram, cloves can add a fragrance and zip that is totally unique; but be careful since it can be really bitter. Allspice or cinnamon can also add interest. They are best added near the end of cooking.
- Add herbs. Marjoram, oregano, parsley, and thyme can be used. Usually, their flavors work best if they are well-absorbed by the meat, so add to meat near the end of browning. If game meat is used, one might use a strong herb like sage or rosemary. Remember that you will want to decide early on whether to make the soup 'herby or spicy.' Generally, strong herbal flavors do not work well with spices like cloves, cinnamon, allspice, so choose one or the other.
- Cook chili uncovered on low in a very heavy -bottomed pan for a minimum of two hours, stirring occasionally. Taste before serving, and add flavors that punch it up a little. A little balsamic vinegar, a dash of cayenne, more black pepper, some pulverized dried shallots, a bit more roasted garlic paste or tomato paste, a little more chipotle chili, some Worcestershire sauce, a few dashes of Melinda's hot sauce. These are all possible last-minute additives. The last-minute additions are crucial in developing a layered quality to the flavor, but choose at most three or four.
- And remember that tomatoes are acidic, so the best pot for chili is an enamelled pot. 18/10 stainless will work if it has just once been seasoned by boiling vinegar in it for 10 minutes and then it has been thoroughly cleaned with soapy water and a nylon pad. This treatment is necessary any time the pot has been scoured with a metal pad. I am convinced that anything else will taint the flavor with a metallic taste. Don't use aluminum unless you like ugly food, horrible flavors, and risking the long-term mental health of your fellow diners.
- I have seen moles in chili recipes. The dark, earthy flavors of sesame and chocolate coupled with the sweet and spicy flavors of raisins, almonds, cloves, and cinnamon can really work well in chili, especially ones with some heat. Just don't use that God-awful stuff sold in stores as 'mole.' Make your own using a Rick Bayless Recipe. Or just add some of the mole ingredients. And if using mole, go light on the bitter herbs oregano & marjoram; eschew sage & rosemary.
We could write a recipe; but chili, like the best of American art forms - jazz, post-modernist painting, and political rhetoric - is highly improvisational. It has an underlying structure which is fixed, but its implementation is different each time. In my mind, this is a necessary quality in chili.
Half the fun in eating chili is dressing it up first. It turns out that a number of foods are ideally suited to complement chili.
- Sour Cream
- Onions, Scallions, or Chives chopped
- Cheese melted on top or into the chili.
- Green Chile peppers, pickled i.e. pickled jalepenos
- Green Tomatillo salsa
- Pico de Gallo - minced tomato & onion with cilantro and lime
- Grated Monterrey Jack Cheese
- Whole Wheat Crackers
- Chopped Black Olives
- Avocado & Guacamole
- Artichoke Tapenade
- Spinach Salad with Mushrooms
- Melinda's Hot Sauce
- Crusty Garlic Bread
The following foods are excellent go-withs, one at a time.
- Corn Bread fresh baked or toasted, with butter
- Baked Potato
- Toast with butter, cheese, and Marmite
- Flan or icecream. (afterwards)
Perhaps the best idea is to serve chili in a very large diameter bowl, sprinkle grated cheese over all but the outside margin, then add a dollop of sour cream in the center and top with a pickled jalepeno pepper slice. Sprinkle a teaspoon of chopped black olive and/or chives over the melting cheese.
Eat well and prosper.
Online Chili Recipes and Sites
Lookd's Chili Recipes
Mega-Zine Chili Recipes
CMU Chili Recipes
Recipe Source Chili Recipes
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.