Friday, March 13, 2009

The perfect bowl of Red!

Does such a thing even exist? Or is it the mythological Holy Grail of chili heads everywhere?

We've had some 60 degree days this week and even though it's 39 degrees as I type, there are some trees starting to bud. So Spring is coming and Winter is on it's way out... (not soon enough! I may have been known,in the past, as Eddy the Yeti for my love of snow and winter but wheelchairs and snow do not mix!)

So even with Spring upon us and Summer's humidity and cooling bills roaring down the tracks in our direction, I am still clutching tightly to my cast-iron Dutch oven and wooden spoon (chili stick) in pursuit of that perfect bowl of Red.

The more I try the more I have come to realize that simple is best and less is more. As an old friend who is a food critic and editor for our local rag (It's Gannett owned) recently put it:

There's a certain beautiful purity in its authentic treatment.
Well Eric is a journalist who gets paid to talk purdy. Me, I'm just a hack blogger who likes to eat but we are both saying the same thing. Minimalism. Original, Texas chili was little more than meat and chilies. I've had Lamb and Black Bean Chili, Cincinnati Chili, Chili made with smoked brisket and even Vegetarian Chili! (talk about an oxymoron). Don't get me wrong, they can all be done very well but I wanted to get back to the roots of chili. Meat; venison or beef and cubed not ground! Ground beef is good, it's much easier and much quicker to prepare but some chuck cut into 1/2 inch cubes and simmered for two hours is so worth the effort. Chili Powder; lots of chili powder. Good chili powder, not the McCormmics from ACME but good quality stuff like Gebhardts or Pendery's from Texas or else stop at one of the ubiquitous local Mexican markets and buy yourself some dried Ancho, etc., and grind it up at home in your coffee grinder.

Then... just keep it simple! I prefer cubed meat to ground but cubed meat takes more preparation and longer to cook, so as opposed to almost no prep time and 20 minutes simmering, cubed meat will require dicing the meat and two hours or more of simmering. It can take a little time to cut 3-4 lbs of chuck into 1/2 inch cubes. It's worth it!

Basic chili:
  • oil

  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

  • 1-3 onions

  • 3 lbs cubed chuck

  • 2 tablespoons cumin

  • 5 tablespoons chili powder

  • 2 teaspoons salt

  • 2 tablespoons paprika

  • cayenne pepper to taste

  • 1 6oz can tomato paste

  • 4 cups water

  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano

  1. Poor a little oil in a heated skillet or Dutch oven. Saute the garlic and onion until soft.

  2. Add the beef and brown on all sides.

  3. Add the spices and tomato paste, stirring well.

  4. Add the water and bring to a strong simmer for 15 minutes.

  5. Reduce the heat and simmer about 2 hours until the beef is tender.
It should be "good 'n thick." If not either use some flour or masa harina to thicken it up. Masa harina is corn meal that can be found in most markets now. If you can't find any mas harina, crumble up a handful of tortilla chips until really fine and stir that into your chili pot.

That is a basic pot of chili. To go from there you can substitute a number of items for the water, such as beef broth, tomato juice, V-8, beer, etc. You can also mix your chili powders (try some chipotele chili powder for a smokey, earthy flavor.) If you must you can add diced some green and or red peppers but before you do that try some chipotele peppers or chipotele in adobo sauce.
Also you can add tomatoes in almost any form if you like. But remember, authentic chili should get its color from the chiles not from tomato and paprika.


Ok, here's my take on beans. I don't mind beans and have been eating them in chili for years but for many people beans are a deal breaker. Beans should be prepared on the side and added by choice. Besides, beans don't always hold up so well in the pot.

One last hint:

Chili gets better in the pot after it has sat in the fridge overnight. The leftovers are almost always better than the first serving. (a tip for anyone entering a chili contest, cook it a day or two in advance!)
For futher reading:
The Ultimate Chili Book by Christopher B. O'Hara
A Bowl of Red by Frank X. Tolbert
The Great Chili Book by Bill Bridges

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