A chili is a Tex-Mex variation of the classic beef stew. Perhaps the best-known member of the family is the Hungarian goulash. Chili can be thin enough to drink or hearty enough to stand a spoon upright.
At the base, you have the hearty punch of concentrated, well browned onions. This provides the deep yet slightly sweet undertone found in good chili, goulash or north Indian curries. For added flavor, the onions may be browned in bacon fat or lard. Garlic is optional. After the onions cook, the base is infused with spicing, which for chilis is traditionally chili powder and cumin seed. Chili powder itself is just a mixture of paprika and cayenne pepper.
To the base, tomatoes are added, and here techniques range from the traditional goulash approach of some tomato paste combined with stock to using a bushel full of fresh tomatoes. I tend to use chopped, canned tomatoes for convenience (my supermarket always has them), control (I can use as much of the juice as I want for concentrating tomato flavor) and consistency (they always taste the same).
From this stew base, it's traditional to add cubes of some sort of stewing beef, like chuck. It's also traditiaonl to pre-brown these cubes (not cook them through!) before adding them to the stew. While cooking, the beef will release a lot of flavor into the chili.
If you want to start a fight, take a stand on whether chilis have beans, and if so, which kind. Dark red kidney beans are most common. Cook them until almost done (or get them out of a can and rinse them), and then add at the last minute to the chili. You want to cook them through just enough to soak up the chili flavor, but not enough to get mushy and dilute your stew (especially important if you omit the meat).
Having said all that, here's how I do it. I don't use measures, so the amounts are approximate; actual measures should depend on how hot your peppers are, how fresh the paprika is, how spicy the garlic is, how sweet the onions are, and what you want for a final result. I'll try to describe the effect I'm after as I go along. I rarely make it exactly the same way twice, but I always try to follow sound methodology.
Nothing makes cooking go easier than a good mis en place. That's French for having your shit together ahead of time. Once I've made a recipe a couple of times, I can leave some of the prep for while other things are cooking. You'll have plenty of time here while the onions cook down and while the tomatoes stew. When trying a new recipe, it's safest to do it all ahead so you can concentrate on cooking when you need to. And that means laying out spices, etc.
The following order makes sense due to times involved:
Put the pan over medium heat and drop in the bacon. If the bacon's especially lean, you can add some vegetable oil (canoloa or other flavorless oil works best -- don't use olive oil, which smokes too low and imparts too much flavor). Cook, stirring, until most of the fat is rendered and the individual bits are becoming tough. You can remove the bacon solids if you want a more refined chili, or you can leave them in. If you remove, them, by all means cook until crispy to render all the fat. If there's not enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan after rendering the bacon, add vegetable oil.
Drop the whole roasted cumin into the pan and cook for a minute or so. The idea here is to infuse the oil a bit with the flavor.
The onions are the most critical step. Bring the heat up to the point where the onions make a good sizzling (not popping) sound. Add them slowly, a less than full layer at a time at most to the pan, and cook until they give off most of their liquid before adding more. Like other veggies, you don't want to crowd the pot or they'll steam rather than cook. Cooking some more than others is not an issue. It's the cooking on high-ish heat that'll impart the caramelized richness you're after. It might take five or six batches to do this, but it's very important; this is why many recipes don't scale well.
When all the onions have been added, cook down through the translucent stage, through the soft stage, through the golden brown stage, all the way to darkening. They will have reduced a lot at this stage, but don't worry, all you're losing is water, not flavor. This concentrates the flavor, and you can always keep adding onions. It can take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes to do this depending on the heat and the size of your pan. Don't cook them too hot, though, or they'll fry rather than reducing.
If you want solid onions as distinct entities in your chili, reserve as many as you want to add after the other onions are pretty much where you want them. Cook them through to the soft stage before proceeding.
When the onions are done (or nearly done once you get more practice), add in the garlic paste and cook through until incorporated. Again, the goal is to infuse the oils you're creating.
After the garlic's cooked through, add the chili and paprika. Stir for a few seconds until integrated and cooked through. Don't overcook here, or the result will be bitter; err on the side of caution at first. Also, until you have a good gauge on your chilis, don't add them all at this phase. You can add them later if you want to spice things up. As they cook, they tend to release more spice into the chili.
Next, you want to drop in the tomatoes and bring everything to a slow simmer. If they're canned, there'll be less water to cook off. If they're fresh, cook them a layer at a time to allow the water to release. This stage of cooking is critical, and you want a good long time to stew at a low simmer. You should strive to cook the tomatoes down to almost a paste. Then, if you want a thinner chili, dilute with water (or a light vegetable, chicken, beef or veal stock if you're so inclined) and bring back to heat. This guarantees an appropriate amount of cooking and will leave the flavors integrated.
At this point, you can set the chili aside.
About 10 to 20 minutes before you're ready to serve, bring the chili back to a low simmer and toss in however many beans you want. Cook until they're cooked through and have soaked up the flavor; sample as you go along and you'll get a good feel for it after one batch.
I tend to add a bit of salt as I go along, because it helps me judge the other flavors. But if you're better at this than me, you can just wait until the end. In any case, go very light on any salt ahead of time, because the tomatoes will cook down.
A shot of acid, from either a lemon or a lime, can be a welcome brightener. This is especially important if the tomatoes are a bit blah.
If the tomatoes are themselves crazily over acidic (very rare, especially if you shop in American supermarkets), you might even need to add a bit of sugar to balance. If you're adding sugar, do it as soon as possible to allow it to cook down and integrate. And don't add too much.
An easy technique is to cut off the top and bottom, and cut in half lengthwise (through the top and bottom). Then peel off the skin and any outer green layers. Then lay out flat side down on a chopping board, and cut radially in the size you want, without going all the way to the end. Then, when you cut them the other way, they'll stay together. When you get to the end, flip it over and dice away.
I prefer white onions, but you can also use yellow. Don't use red onions or sweet (vidalia) onions.
Heat a medium skillet or cast iron pan over medium heat until warmed. Drop in a handful of cumin seed and shake them around so they don't stick in one place. Smell them before you start and as you go along. When you notice a distinctive sharp smell after 10 to 30 seconds, you're done and should shake them out immedidately into a cup or something and set aside for later.
I like to pan roast garlic. It mellows the sharp flavor and adds a substitutes a layer of smoky, caramelized complexity over the top. Put a layer of tin foil in a skillet, and lay out the cloves of garlic, still in their inner skins. You can also do this in a medium oven in a pan. Cover, and heat through. Roast until black spots develop on the skins. These should be large black blotches; don't stop when the black spots are only pin-sized. Then rotate to other side until also blackened on that side. When they're done, they'll be soft. Feel ahead of time and as you go along (you want to choose garlic that's as firm as possible). If black spots develop, but it's not soft, turn down heat, leave covered, and roast until cooked through and soft. When you're done, you can allow it to cool, then peel. Cut the cloves in half lengthwiseand peel out any green center bits (they're bitter and you should always do this with garlic). Then mash; the garlic should be soft enough that just a side of knife will reduce it to a paste. Roasted garlic will keep, covered in a fridge for a couple of weeks.
Chipotle peppers are smoked, dried jalapenos. You're looking for ones with deep red color, but they're hard to find. Like dried mushrooms, they can be reconstituted by soaking them in hot (not boiling) water. You can rinse them first if you're finnicky, but any grit should come free in the soaking. I do this in a glass with another glass on top (also filled with warm water) to keep them submerged. After about half an hour to an hour, they should all be soft (usually, a batch will soften up at different rates, and sometimes contain one that doesn't get beyond tough when soaked). Then cut off the cap, slice in half lengthwise, and scrape out the seeds. Then mince finely and set aside until use. It'll keep this way for at least a day or two.
This isn't hard, but I rarely bother. You can presoak if you like, up to 24 hours in advance. Rinse thoroughly and add to boiling water. Simmer until al dente (they should be very firm, just slightly softer than crunchy). They'll finish cooking in the chili.
If you're using fresh papers, it brings out their flavor to pan roast them. Get a skillet hot, cut them in half, seed them, and press them down on the skin side first. They'll start to blister and pop, and your goal is to remove most of the liquid from them before cooling, chopping and adding. They can also be toasted in an oven the same way you'd toast an egglplant or red pepper (pimento).
You can add other classic mirepoix veggies to the onions, such as carrots or celery. Treat it like a classic stock, and you won't go too far wrong.
If you want to intensify the beef or other meat flavors, or just add a little vegetable depth and complexity, you can use a stock to thin the final result after cooking down the tomatoes. This is the traditional goulash technique.
Although onions are traditional, shallots or leeks will also work. Shallots are a bit more concentrated than onions, and leeks a bit more fruity and more vegetal. Leeks also won't cook all the way down. You can also add green garlic, or any other exotica from the allium family you find in front of you.
A goulash is just a chili where the spices used are caraway seeds and lots of paprika rather than cumin, paprika and chili. Of course, the traditiaonl goulash is based on beef.
You can use beer to thin the chili if you like. It'll add a bit of yeasty depth to the mix, and has a particular affinity for beans.
North Indian curries follow the same pattern, but for spices use combinations corriander seed, fenugreek, clove, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, and more. And you'll find lentils or chick peas instead of black beans or kidney beans. If you find yourself tempted by ginger or any of these other ingredients, study an Indian cookbook to see what meshes.
You can add in finely chopped fresh chilis at the point you're using onions. I prefer the long red finger chilis (you get them in Indian markets and some mexican ones), but you can also use serrano or jalapeno or even cayennes if you can find them fresh. I'd stay away from habaneros unless you know what you're doing; they're ferociously concentrated in terms of spice and add a highly fruity overtone that can dominate a dish.
You can, of course, substitute the traditional dried cayenne pepper for the chipotle, in which case, it should go in for a quick cooking with the paprika. Chipotles provide a sharp smoky bite and a pure jalapeno heat. Dried pasilla is more raisiny and darker/muskier in flavor, with less heat; I prefer it to chipotle in black bean soup. Anchos are also raisiny, but without the muskiness of pasillas. I don't care for habeneros in either dried or fresh form in my chili; I find both their heat and fruity flavor overwhelms just about anything else.
For the tomato base, opinions and taste vary wildly, and it's possible to use anything from just a little bit of tomato paste and some stock (the classic goulash approach), to a whopping great load of freshly picked tomatoes. Remember that no matter how watery your chili looks at any moment, it can always be reduced by simmering. And remember not to add too many at a time. One way to speed things up is to roast fresh tomatoes in the oven on lowish heat (175 to 200 or so) for an hour or two; just cut them in half and add a bit of salt and pepper. You can keep adding tomatoes or simply add some tomato paste if you're not getting enough tomato flavor.
If you don't ever add beans or meat, the result is a wonderfully spicy chili sauce that works very well on burritos or steaks. You can make it more refined by pureeing and straining. This is particularly good on grilled skirt steak, the highly flavorful cut of meat used in the traditional mexican carne asada.
I like to make chili gazpacho. Take the ingredients above, with an extra can of tomatoes and no meat. Add them all together (after prepping according to instructions) with a strong shot of lime and cider vinegar. Soak for six or eight hours, blend in a blender, and strain in a very fine strainer. Wonderful.
You can make a nice tomato soup by following all the instructions above. After you cook the tomatoes down, you'll need to thin them out to soup consistency. After you do that, strain through a fine strainer. This makes a nice braising sauce for meat, by the way.
Follow the above instructions. Use only a quarter the amount of tomatoes specified. Add chicken stock to thin to desired consistency. After cooking the beans through, blend all or some of the soup. Blend all or some of the beans. If you blend just some, it'll thicken the soup and leave it rustic. If you blend it all, you'll get a nice fine consistency. The more you blend, the more muted the flavors become. If you need to, add more stock. Then just cook down Those Braun blending sticks are nice for a partial blend, but you'll need a blender or food processor to take it to a fine puree.
More varying opinions here. I like chives, scallions or red onions. Scallions are very attractive if you cut on an extreme bias -- use the green and white parts. You can also garnish with a sprig of cilantro, just the leaves, or a dice. Make sure the veggies are dry before chopping, or they'll all stick together. If you must wash them, do ahead of time, towel dry and allow to air dry.
Don't even think about it. But if you can score a good nan bread, it works very well on the side, as does a crusty italian bread, a nice sourdough, or just about anything else.
The British take their chili over rice. At least get basmati, cook it up light and fluffy, and pretend it's a curry.
The odd folks who live in Ohio just this side of Kentucky eat their chili over spaghetti, with cheese melted on top. Go figure.
This chili works well when put in ramekins with cheese over the top. Use a mild mixture of cheddar, monterey jack or a light mexican cheese. Put under the broiler until bubbling and starting to brown to give the right presentation.
A nice salsa fresca is an appropriate topping. Peel, core and seed fresh tomatoes, mix in some red onions in a small dice, some finely diced fresh chilis, and either lime or cider vinegar to taste. Don't be tempted to go sweet and sour by adding sugar more acid (lime/vinegar). One presentation I like is with a blob of salsa right in the middle and with a huge tortilla chip sticking out the top. You can make a huge tortilla chip by quickly frying a corn tortilla cut to the appropriate shape and then drying on towels.
Chili leftovers form the base for chilaquiles, the mexican version of lasagna. That recipe is very involved, and I suggest Deborah Madison's The Green's Cookbook or Rick Bayless's Authentic Mexican. The poor man's version is based on my undergraduate roommate Troy Augustine's "Frito-chili pie". Troy's version involved layers of fritos, velveeta and canned hormel chili, done in a toaster oven with a layer of sour cream over the top. You can make a classier version with some nice tortillas (get some good freshly fried ones or fry your own), some monterey jack and/or cheddar cheese, and chili leftovers. Top with sour cream and a layer of salsa and put it in a 400 degree oven until bubbling and the sour cream has solidified, about 45 minutes.
It doesn't work for me, but I've seen others do it. Put it in a bottle and squirt it out in fancy patterns if you like. On the other hand, I love sour cream that's been cooked into a chilaquile topping.
It's fair game to add herbs. Cilantro (fresh corriander) is one I like, and I chop it and add it about halfway between the beans and the finish line. It cooks quickly. Just make sure the cilantro is not bitter. It's best to add it as an herb a bit at a time to taste.
OK, when I started making chilis in 1983, I used ground beef and a "five alarm" mix. I just don't find that meat adds much to my chili. I prefer to have the chili over a nice carne asada, if meat must be involved, or to simply serve it very hearty as a side dish (you can cook it down so it won't run at all).
The classic meat for chili (or any stew) is beef chuck. It's well marbled, and takes on a good consistency when stewed. You can also use lamb (shoulder), pork (again, shoulder is good), or any other kind of meat. Just don't get a "high end" cut like sirloin, fillet, strip, skirt, or even ultra-lean ground beef, because they don't work well in stews (though see the note at the end).
Beef isn't the only alternative. Ground pork, ground lamb, or some combination of pork, lamb or beef will also work and add some complexity.
The classic technique for meat is to brown it first on all sides, on medium-high heat. Heat it enough to bring out the nice flavors, but don't try to cook it through -- that'll happen in the stew. You can do this while the onions or tomatoes are cooking. You can add the meat either just before or just after the tomatoes. Some would have you brown the meat with the onions just after toasting the spices. Some would have you just toss it in unbrowned along with the tomatoes.
The critical point is that if you cook the meat in the chili, you'll start to infuse the flavor with the flavor of the meat, just like in a stock. The longer you cook it, the more flavor is drawn out of the meat and into the liquid. Tradition gives a fairly long stewing for chilis or goulash, but it's your call.
It's also your call as to how much fat to leave in. You can brown and drain the beef, or add as little or as much of the fat as you like. I prefer bacon fat for flavor. Lamb fat is particularly distinctive tasting. Duck fat is not unheard of in goulash.
Another technique is to use your favorite meat technique, like grilling or roasting, then chop it up and add it at the end. This is the technique used in the Indian Tikka Masala ("Tikka" means grilled, and "masala" means stewed!) dishes, which have the meat (typically lamb or chicken) done in a tamdoori oven, and then added to the curry later. This leaves the sauce tasting pure and sharp, and leaves the meat itself well flavored.
This may be a bit off topic, depending on where you draw the line, but at one point, this was my third favorite dish in Pittsburgh and the first I had to try to reverse engineer at home. (I knew I'd never approach number one, Tessaro's hamburgers, but I'm now honing in on number two, Sichuan House's caramel corn-like General Tso's chicken). I found this white chili dish in Pittsburgh's Mad Mex Restaurant, run by the so-called Big Burrito group, who were the only decent restaurateurs in the "tri-state" area apart from Tessaro's. It was still on their menu as of summer of 2001.
Anyway, here's what you do. Follow the recipe above, substituting tomatillos for the tomatoes, using oil instead of bacon fat, and substuting chick peas for the beans, and adding the optional cilantro at the end. Just make sure to peel and wash the tomatillos well.
You can also substitute chicken for the chick peas. Brown the chicken, but be careful not to dry it out. It'll cook through in the stew. Light or dark meat will work here, but light meat gives the better color.
There was also a chicken-based white "chili" at a joint in Pittsburgh that I liked, but it was a gravy-based concoction, and an altogether different beast.
You can skip the garlic. Otherwise, it's pretty bare bones, and you'll be left with something that's not quite a chili. But from my heady Indian-inspired grad school days when I couldn't add enough spices, I read an article on an airplane in a GQ magazine that said if you want to improve your chili, try leaving something out. You can see I've heeded their advice.
I see far too many "three been chilis" on menus. You can definitely add multiple beans, you can use three meats, or whatever. But it's usually just a distraction. Don't try this until you can make a plain chili that makes people happy. Black beans and light kidney beans make a nice combination.
You can also use mixtures of dried and/or fresh chilis. Again, it's harder to control and predict the results, and is best left until you have the basics under control.
That's up to you, but for me, it's a matter of balance. If you want to get scientific, check out the Scoville scale.
OK, it's not absolutely out of the question to add all the oddball stuff the British were prone to throw into chili: sweet corn, peas, zucchini, etc. Just don't call it chili.
The following books have all helped me immensely in my continuing quest for the perfect chili.
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