There are few dishes that unleash so much passion as chili. I don’t know exactly why, but even in remote places far away from any putative birthing place of the dish, I’ve seen people holding strong opinions about chili, although it is not part of their culinary traditions. Don’t get me wrong, I find it fantastic that a dish managed to make its way everywhere in the world and that cooks claim it their own and re-interpret it, re-invent it and thrive to improve their recipes. Who knew that a dish of such modest origin could become one of the most popular meal around the world?
Nobody is certain of the origin of the dish however. According to this site, chili originated in the region of San Antonio (Texas) and was popularized at the end of the 19th century by “Chili Queens” (who wouldn’t dream to be called that, frankly?). Then at the beginning of the 20th century chili parlors (chili joints) appeared in Texas, and they are said to have saved many a worker during the Great Depression. According to Wikipedia, as chili parlors would open outside Texas, the dish started to develop in different styles depending on the states. Chili became so popular that soon competitions would be held all over the country and even internationally to determine who is the best chili cook. In 1977, chili became the official dish of Texas.
A huge point of contention is the nature of the ingredients one should put into their chili. It seems that no one agrees on any of the ingredients, save perhaps for the chili part, obviously. What meat should be used? If beef seems the most common, pork is also widespread, or a mix of both, chicken is perfectly acceptable, venison is great. Some people don’t eat meat though, and have been very successful with vegetarian versions. Are tomatoes necessary? It depends! If you feel the meat may turn out dry, then please add some. But you could also pour beer in your chili to the same effect while yielding very different flavors. It’s up to you. Then there is the question of beans. The consensus seems to be no beans in the Texas chili – I don’t add beans myself because I don’t eat them, but I have no strong feeling against them. There are great recipes with beans aplenty out there, and they are a staple in any vegetarian recipe. Last but not least are the chili themselves. Which ones should you use? Chipotle? Chile de árbol? Ancho? Cayenne pepper? Guajillo chile? A mix of all? Again, it is going to depend of what is at your disposal and what final taste you want your dish to have. As a rule of thumb, I suggest to use at least one dry variety for a rich and deep flavor and one fresh to add some punch. The choice of which is up to you.
So before you jump on me telling me this recipe is not the “real” chili, or that an authentic chili should have such and such ingredient, but for sure not this one, let me say: you are absolutely right. All of you. And you know why? Because there are as many chili recipes as people cooking and eating it. So, without further ado, here is my recipe, the one that I like to do on a regular basis, that is never completely the same, but always made with heart and tons of spices.
What I do first is I choose different kinds of chili peppers, dried and fresh depending of what’s available in my cupboard or at the store. For this recipe I used anchos, chipotle and jalapeños, but you are of course welcome to use any combination you like. I always use chipotle chili though, because I like the smoky flavor they give to the dish.
I cut the dried ones in small pieces, and roast them in a cast iron pan without any oil for a couple of minutes, I then add cumin seeds and coriander seeds and continue to roast the spices for about 30 sec. (beware of not burning them).
Set aside the roasted chili and seeds in a small bowl, add some paprika powder, oregano, and whatever spices you like to put in your chili.
Then it is time to fry your bacon and onions, and bell peppers and jalapeños.
When the vegetables are soft, put the content of the pan in the slow cooker. It is now time to roast the meat.
In order to get a chili with a perfectly cooked meat, i.e. falling apart but not drained of its juices, it is imperative to cut the meat in big chunks, very big ones actually. As you can see in this picture, the beef I used is extensively marbled. It adds a lot of flavor to the chili, but also, of course, a lot of fat. Feel free to choose a leaner cut of meat if you’re not comfortable with such amounts of fat.
Brown the meat on the larger sides of the chunks only (no extra flavor is obtained by browning it on all sides, the meat stays juicy, and the time saved is precious). If you don’t believe me, go to the excellent site Serious Eats, and read in particular their post about boeuf bourguignon, where the author explains why you shouldn’t cut your meat before searing it. My method is a bit different, but the result is more or less the same. So, as I was saying, take your big chunks of beef and brown them in the same skillet that you already used for the chili peppers and the mix of bacon, onions and bell peppers.
Once the meat is browned to your liking, add it to the slow cooker, along with the roasted spices, the paprika, oregano, and some crushed garlic cloves.
You’re almost done! Add a box or a can of crushed tomatoes, some liquid smoke if you want to enhance the smoky flavor of the chipotle (I usually don’t like to add it, but it may be useful if the chipotle you have happen to be a bit weak on the smoky side). Add salt and pepper to taste, and turn your slow cooker on low for about 8 hours (or overnight) or on high for 5 hours. This yields a chili with a moderate heat but deep and hearthy flavors. If you want to give more kick to your dish, add cayenne pepper (fresh or powdered), or tabasco sauce.
Serve with the toppings of your choice. I love fresh cilantro, red onions, and sometimes cheddar, but also fresh jalapeños, spring onions or cottage cheese.
Ingredients for 8 persons:
1,5 kg beef (choose preferably a meat meant for stews, with fat and gelatinous parts)
100g green bell pepper (1 small to medium)
100g red bell pepper (1 small to medium)
100g onion (1 big)
500g crushed tomatoes
5-6 garlic cloves
2-3 chipotle chili
2-3 ancho chili
2-3 fresh jalapeños
1 tbs. cumin seeds
1 tsp. coriander seeds
2 tbs. paprika
1 tbs. smoked paprika (optional, but it adds a bit of depth to the dish)
1 tbs. dried oregano (if you can find the Mexican kind, it’s even better)
Preparation: 20 mn
Cooking time: 5 to 8 hours
Macros per serving: 435 kcal.; protein: 38; carbs: 7; fat: 28.5
Heat up a cast iron pan to medium heat. Cut the dried chili peppers in small bits or slices, and roast them during 2 mn, to enhance their flavors. Don’t burn them! Add cumin seeds, roast for 30 sec., then add coriander seeds and keep roasting for 30 sec. more. Again, be careful of not burning the spices. Put them aside in a bowl, add your other spices and oregano, mix it all and let the residual heat extract the flavors.
Chop the onion and the bacon, and put them in the pan at the same time. Let them brown for 5 mn. It doesn’t matter if the onion is not cooked through, it will finish cooking in the crockpot. Cut the bell peppers and jalapeños in small cubes, add them to the pan, stir and let cook for a few minutes more, until the vegetables have released part of their water. Put the content of the pan in the slow cooker.
Put the pan back on the stove, and cut your meat in 8 to 10 big chunks. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of not cutting it in small pieces if you are going to cook it in the crockpot. Sear the meat in two or three batches (searing too much meat at the same time releases too much water and starts to cook the meat instead of coating it with the golden crust that gives it all its flavor). Brown each chunk 2 mn on its two larger sides, and once they’re done, put them immediately in the slow cooker.
Add your mix of chili peppers and spices to the slow cooker, the crushed garlic cloves (you can just crush them with the flat side of a chief’s knife) and the crushed tomatoes. Stir a little bit to distribute evenly the ingredients. Set your slow cooker on low if you are going to cook the chili longer (about 8 hours or overnight), or on high for 4 to 5 hours of cooking.
When the chili is done, let it cool a little bit if you have time. Then stir carefully with a wooden spoon and a fork. The meat should be tender enough to fall apart. Rectify the seasoning if needed, and add more oregano if you wish (oregano’s subtle flavor tends to fade when heated so it might be a good idea to reserve a bit for serving).
Serve on white or brown rice if it’s your thing, or nachos and raw vegetables as I usually do. Cucumber, bell peppers or cauliflower are good pairings. Add toppings of your choice, like red onions, fresh cilantro and jalapeños, cheddar or cottage cheese, whatever floats your boat really.
Last time I had this chili, I served it with protein pancakes and cottage cheese, so everything is possible!