Chili of Excellence

I've been persuaded to part with the essentials of my chili recipe in the interest of World Peace and Harmony among the Nations and Peoples and Genders. There's a lot of misunderstanding about what makes good, strong, and real chili. There's a lot of misunderstanding about what kinds of dishes can legitimately be called chili. And there's a lot of people who don't know why they should care. If you've found this page, you probably care.

If you've ever eaten some offensively hot or offensively acidic or offensively beany dish that was passed off to you as chili, you have my sympathies. You are not alone. Yankees, New Mexicans, and Extra-Terrestrials are all confused about chili. The ET's don't get why so many different things are called chili, chile, or what have you, and the New Mexicans think it's supposed to be a test of manhood to put stuff in your mouth that is calculated to cause you pain. I say let them eat cactuses or bits of broken glass. The Yankees should learn to use the name "Sloppy Joe" for their creations. Much less confusion for the ET's that way.

Now here's the deal: Real Chili, like love, warms your belly without burning your mouth. It's that simple. The main chile pepper you use to make chili is the Ancho, a dried Poblano, though they are sometimes incorrectly called Pasillas. A real Ancho is damn near the size of a bell pepper, fat at the stem and skinny at the tip, where a Pasilla has a nearly uniform cylindrical shape like a New Mexico or an Anaheim.

So the first thing you need to get for Chili is about 3 to 4 Anchos per pound of meat. Prepare them by tearing off the stems, opening them up, and gutting the seeds and crap from the inside. You don't need to wear any rubber gloves to do this, because the Ancho is not nasty and hostile like a damn Anaheim or a Habanero. It's got about 1000 - 1500 Heat Units, compared to 150,000 for your typical Habanero or 40,000 for a Cayenne. This is where the Pasilla confusion comes from, because they've got about the same heat as Anchos, just no flavor.

After you've got your Anchos undressed, you need to soften them up by soaking them with beer. The softening is gonna take about 3 or 4 hours, so you may as well drink some of the beer yourslef, and take your woman to a movie. When your peppers are done soaking, they'll lighten up to a soft rusty color and be all over soft to the touch. At this stage, you can put them in a blender or a Cuisinart, along with some of the beer, and grind them to a paste. This paste is your chili.

To give your chili something to stick onto, you need some meat. Beef, Buffalo, and Venison all make good chili, and like anything else use the best cut you can afford. Personally, I like to use mainly beef with about a fourth of either Buffalo or Venison, but your mileage may vary. The more game you use, the lower the fat content, and the longer it needs to cook to soften up properly.

You should buy your meat someplace where they'll grind it for you unless you want to spend a couple of hours cutting up a hunk of meat into little cubes. No not under any circumstances use "hamburger meat" or anything cut too fine, because the texture is too puny. Tell the butcher you're making chili and you want a coarse grind, the coarsest he can get. Some folks will have him grind it twice at the coarse setting, and this is something to fool with after you've got the spice balance perfected and all.

Let your meat come to room temperature naturally, and cut up some Vidalia onions while you're waiting. These are the sweet yellow onions from Georgia, one of many fine things cousin Jimmy insists that state is good for, like pork ribs, pecan pie, a not-too-bad baseball team, and getting Auntie Jane the heck out of California. The Vidalias have a limited season, but they're so good people will buy a year's worth at a time and tie 'em up in panty hose to preserve 'em.

Sear the meat in olive oil, onions, and garlic about a pound at a time, pouring off the fat when you're done with each batch, and toss it in a good stainless steel pot. After you've got all your meat seared, pour the chili paste in with the meat, along with enough beer to cover the meat by a little. Stir it all up, and turn on the heat. After the meat warms up, and the beer starts to bubble, you add your spices, cover, and simmer till the meat is tender.

Since most of your flavor comes from the chili, the beer, and the meat, don't get too fancy with the spices. Your basic chili spices are cumin, salt, and red pepper. Per pound of meat, you want about a tablespoon of cumin, a half teaspoon of salt, and either a teaspoon of Cayenne pepper or a couple of Jalapenos. A little oregano won't screw it up too bad, either, but no tomatoes unless your chilies were infested with bugs that made 'em too dry or something, and the same for celery, though celery seed is a fine addition to a tuna salad. A little ground Coriander is good in chili as well.

You've also got to have a Secret Ingredient, to give the chili its distinctive, personal quality. Some folks will use suet instead of olive oil, and some will add something like chocolate, honey, or peanut butter. This is OK, and doesn't make them New Mexicans or Yankees, just loopy. Personally, I'd advise you to go for a secret ingredient that's aromatic, and that's all I'm going to say on the subject.

We're working on a vegetarian chili, but can't publish the results just yet, except to say that it will most likely involve tofu, Seitan, and coconut milk. It occurs that the Veggie Chili belongs on one of the Curry pages.

So there you go, pardner, Real Chili.

Richard Bennett