Chili tastes are highly personal, often inflexible and loaded with preconceptions — the political party of culinary offerings.
For some people raised in Texas, the notion of beans is akin to cat food, dismissed with derision as filler. Some chili cooks believe flavor rises and falls on cumin levels; others say the story begins and ends with dried chilies. Some like a rich beefy stock, and there are those who extol the entanglement of bacon.
Poultry and venison have their place (beef purists blanch), and vegetarian chili is met largely with guffaws except by the people who smilingly bring it to potlucks, an act that seems to stem from their childhood issues often associated with snack cake deprivation.
Yet just as much of our nation craves bipartisanship on the major policy debate of the day, so, too, do many chili lovers wish to end the crazy decades of rivalries. They believe it is time for us to embrace every form of this warming bowl of red soul food, be it venison-laced, processed cheese-topped, bean-adorned, beer-laced, spicy or mild. My husband has even learned to live with beans. He just does not discuss it.
“I don’t disagree with anyone’s chili,” said Robb Walsh, a Texas food historian, the author of “The Tex-Mex Cookbook” and a restaurateur. “If you are making a one-pot meal and you want to put beans in it, that’s fine. If chili is part of your cuisine, like Tex-Mex, there are other things you will want to do. It’s not as if any of this is some sort of wild-eyed opinion.”
Actually, depending on who’s talking, that is exactly what it is. But never mind. The history of chili, as with many American dishes, is a matter of debate and has evolved with the contributions of several cultures.
Chili as we now know it (meat flavored with chilies and other spices) appears to have taken off in the mid to late 1800s through the “chili queens” who dished out the stuff on the plazas of San Antonio.
A similar stew to those ladled out by chili queens made a grand debut at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, complete with the addition of ancho chilies, Walsh said. Chili powder emerged in the 1900s, giving kick to the dish in new forms. The Tigua Indians are credited with a chili heavy on chili powder and thickened with masa harina.
It was all about beef at first, aided by the supply of those Old World cattle via the Spanish conquest. But somewhere someone started dumping in beans, and other additions like tomatoes and peppers sneaked in. Greek immigrants, perhaps puzzled by the flavor of the cumin, added new spices, like cinnamon and cloves, giving birth to Cincinnati chili, extolled by residents there.
While judges and chili contest winners vary in their opinions of what makes a winning bowl of chili, on two things they agree: it must have beef, and chilies must be present and accounted for up front.
Chili powders, derived from a variety of ground chilies and sometimes spiked with other spices, are crucial to a chili’s heat, flavor and intensity. “Some use anchos, some use a blend of different peppers,” Hudspeth said. “It’s all about what that cook’s particular palate is and the tweaks they make to the powders throughout the year.”
The issue of beans has been resolved over the years by the International Chili Society, which oversees roughly 150 cook-offs a year and which has broken its contests into four categories: traditional red chili that may contain no “fillers” or even garnishes; chili verde, which generally contains pork or chicken with tomatillos and green chili powders; salsas (if they say it’s chili, I guess it is); and home style, a chili that is permitted to contain anything from the cook’s pantry, a sop to the undisciplined chili maker (I’m raising my hand here).
Just Good Chili
Adapted from Jennifer Steinhauer
Time: Between 2 hours 15 minutes and 3 hours 15 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings (about 8 cups)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ground bison or ground dark turkey
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 12-ounce bottle of beer
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
a cup strong brewed coffee
1 tablespoon tomato paste
f cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon chili sauce
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
Half a serrano or other hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped, or to taste
1a tablespoons ground cumin
1a teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
2 15-ounce cans kidney beans
1 15-ounce can cannellini or other white beans
1. Place a Dutch oven or other large pot over medium heat. Add the oil and heat until shimmering. Add the meat and sauté until browned, then transfer to a plate.
2. Add the onion to the pot and stir for 1 minute. Take 2 large sips from the beer, and pour the rest into the pot. Stir in the tomatoes, coffee and tomato paste.
3. Add the brown sugar, chili sauce, cocoa powder, hot pepper, cumin, coriander, cayenne, salt and kidney beans. Return the meat to the pot. Reduce heat to low and simmer, partly covered, for 1 hour.
4. Add the white beans to the pot and simmer over very low heat, partly covered and stirring occasionally, for 1 to 2 more hours. (Longer cooking improves the flavor.) Adjust salt and cayenne pepper as needed and serve.
Classic chili con carne
Adapted from “Texas Eats,” by Robb Walsh
Time: 3 hours (15 minutes for the chili powder, 45 minutes to assemble the chili and 2 hours’ simmering)
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
For the chili powder:
3 medium dried ancho chilies, stems and seeds removed, spread flat
a teaspoon cumin seeds
a teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
f teaspoon garlic powder
For the chili:
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
8 ounces bacon
3 pounds boneless beef chuck, buffalo or venison, cut into f-inch cubes
1 pound (2 medium) white onions, chopped
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
a teaspoon dried thyme leaves
a teaspoon salt
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1g cups beef broth
1 28-ounce can puréed tomatoes
2 ancho chilies, stems and seeds removed
1. For the chili powder: Place the chilies flat in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat and cook, turning as needed, until lightly toasted. Transfer to a plate to cool. Put the cumin seeds in the hot pan and stir until fragrant. Transfer to a bowl to cool.
2. Using scissors, cut the chilies into small strips. Using a spice grinder or a clean coffee grinder, grind in batches into a powder. Pour into a bowl. Grind the cumin seeds into a powder and add to the bowl. Add the oregano and garlic powder. If the mixture is still coarse, grind again until fine. Reserve 3 1/2 tablespoons for the chili; save the rest in a jar.
3. For the chili: In a Dutch oven over medium heat, stir the cumin seeds until fragrant, about 1 minute. Pour onto a work surface and using a small, heavy skillet, crush them coarsely. Set aside.
4. Return the pot to medium-high heat, add the bacon and fry until crisp, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain.
5. Increase the heat to high. Working in small batches, add the beef cubes to the pot and cook, stirring, until well browned on all sides. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the beef to a bowl.
6. Reduce the heat to medium, add the onions to the remaining bacon drippings and sauté until lightly browned, about 8 minutes.
7. Add the crushed cumin, reserved chili powder, paprika, oregano, black pepper, thyme, salt and garlic and cook, stirring often, for 1 minute. Crumble in the bacon and add the broth, tomatoes, 1 cup water, anchos and the browned beef. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil, then decrease the heat to low, cover partly and simmer for 2 hours, until the meat is very tender. Add water as needed to maintain a good chili consistency.
8. Remove the anchos, purée them in a food processor or blender and return the purée to the pot. Stir well, simmer for a few minutes to blend the flavors and serve.