The Chili Bowl
There is always next year
Published: January 26, 2011
So the Super Bowl is just a couple of weeks away. Whoop-de-fucking-doo. Frankly, it’s difficult for me to focus, given that last loss. Some may direct their frustration outward—the opponent is always an easy target after all. But those of us who take ownership of such a loss no doubt will mostly suffer right here (I’m pointing at my heart now), on the inside. The pain will still be fresh. How could this have happened? If only I had done things a little differently. Why did I have to make mine so spicy? But it’s supposed to be spicy, for chrissakes. Maybe I should have used beans? No! Beans are for pussies! But if it meant winning, should I have cast aside my convictions and pandered to those traitorous churls? For there is no dignity in losing. That’s loser talk. And losing fucking sucks. And, um, so yeah, I’m talking about chili now.
More than a year ago, my cousin Jerome, a budding home chef, brought up the topic of chili. Cold-weather food, game-day food, American food, and something I happen to be kind of obsessed with. I explained that chili was yet another dish that did not possess a really “correct” method of preparation. Which was a load of PC feel-good crap, because I knew mine was, if not correct, at least more “real.” And this is because I choose to believe the chili origin story that seems most plausible, which is that the folks who were trekking in the Southwest’s deserts, needing portable, durable sustenance, carried with them a mixture of dried peppers, fat, and meat, which would then be reconstituted with hot water. For me, this was chili primeval—no beans, no tomatoes, no damn baking spices—just peppers and meat. Hard-core, man. Inevitably, as it seems is the case with all chili-related discourse, the conversation turned to smack talk. My cousin had apparently developed an amazing recipe during his deployment in Hawaii. Hawaiian chili? Ha! What, are there freaking mangoes in it or something? Oh Jerome, poor misguided Jerome, you put mangoes in your damn chili.
I promptly challenged my cousin to pit his silly hippie mango chili against my pillar of pepper-and-meat integrity. Surprisingly he accepted. Not surprisingly, in the ensuing cookoff, I won. But not by much, and that should have served to humble me. Alas, it did not.
I’m a competitive person. And of course this part of my nature seeps into my approach to cooking. While I mostly cook to express affection, and I’m usually confident that my shit is at least good, secretly I am disappointed unless the thing I’ve made for you is the best version of that thing you’ve ever had. So when I’m faced with direct competitors, my goal is not victory—victory is assumed. I want to punish them, humiliate them with the vastness of my superiority. The truth is, in the many impromptu food competitions I’ve conducted, the margins have always been distressingly small, but I have always prevailed. Not bragging, just a fact. So fresh off my most recent triumph, I thought it might be fun to test my chili on a larger scale, hence Henry’s First Roughly Annual Chili Competition in November 2009. The concept was simple: No subcategories for any “style” of chili, just bring your top gun and let the people decide. Big mistake.
Now I get that, along the lines of barbecue, chili has regional variations. Unlike barbecue, however, chili can be separated into two main categories—with and without beans, the latter mostly associated with Texas, and the former pretty much anywhere else. A more distinct take is Cincinnati style, which features a set roster of toppings (denoted by the term “x-ways,” x being the number of toppings, from one to five), boiled ground beef, the addition of cinnamon and clove as seasoning, and being served over spaghetti. But generally speaking, chili can be thought of as a stew, usually with meat, sometimes with beans, and either chili peppers or chili powder as flavoring. In fact, it is probably the introduction of mass-produced chili powder, which is basically ground peppers and cumin or other spices, that hastened chili’s spread from the Southwest to the rest of the country.
Here’s the thing: We’re in Baltimore, not Texas. And most people—“normal” people, if you will—don’t really give a rat’s ass about the hard-coreness of chili. They just want it to taste good. The problem is, good and familiar are often closely related, and I knew that mine would probably be the only chili that didn’t have beans. In fact, mine is really just puréed chili peppers and beef, with seasoning. I knew mine wouldn’t look or taste much like any of the other entries. I grappled briefly with the idea of dumbing my chili down, as it were, but decided fuck it, live by the sword, die by the sword.
And in the end, I died by it. The margin was again thin, razor thin—a single gaddang point!—but this time was tipped in favor of one Chad Ellis, who’s been serving his chili for years at his bar, Spirits Tavern. His was a well-balanced, tomato-based (sigh) mixture of various aromatics and meats, including sausage, a definite no-no in a Texas-style, well, anything. But it was the favorite, and a notably complicated version of chili at that. Interestingly, someone eventually had the bright idea to combine all the chili entries together to form a more powerful single entity, which we obviously dubbed “Voltron chili.” And it did indeed seem to be better than any of the chilis alone. A testament to the power of inclusiveness and open-mindedness? Nah, we were all just drunk by then.
While my purist’s version did manage to place second, even without any watering down, that was cold comfort. Because there is only first place and losing. And losing sucks. Perhaps it’s the crippling shame that explains why I’m almost three months late in scheduling the follow-up competition (thus “Roughly Annual”), and not because I’ve been too busy. But it is indeed on, and I will be wielding my unnecessarily and excessively streamlined chili, for better or worse. Hopefully this time the judges won’t be so clueless about what real, hard-core chili is.
Henry’s “Keeping it Real” Basic Chili Recipe
red bell peppers, roasted
beef**, cut into 1-inch chunks, trimmed fat reserved
onions, roughly chopped
vinegar or hot sauce
masa harina or corn meal
neutral cooking oil, like corn or canola—not olive
beef stock and/or beer
crema fresca or sour cream
* It’s difficult to prescribe the exact amount or combination of types to use. Any Latin market and many supermarkets will have a dried chile section with several varieties. I usually use a mixture that is mostly California or New Mexico chiles, which are nice and red and relatively mild, then add some ancho or mulatto for smoke and depth, and either chipotle or dried habañero for heat. As far as amount, I tend to just eyeball it. I’d say ballpark 3 oz. of dried chiles would match up with every pound of beef. Also, I never remove the seeds from my peppers. Doing so may reduce heat a bit, but not significantly—it’s mostly a texture preference. But in this recipe, they get puréed anyway, so leaving the seeds in shouldn’t make a difference. If, however, you want to remove them, simply tear off the stems of the dried pepper and shake them out.
** There are two cuts I like to use, chuck roast and meat from the short rib. Chuck is cheap and has good flavor, but takes longer to cook and will require more trimming (which does, however, give you lots of good fat for rendering). Rib I think has superior flavor and texture, takes less time to cook, and often comes on the bone, which you can use to make stock or to add flavor to the chili directly. The down side is the cost, which is often double or triple that of chuck roast. I prefer chunked over ground beef because it provides more interesting texture.
Note: This is a very basic recipe. To this you could add additional fresh, roasted, or dried peppers, other types of meat, or even beans. I don’t normally add beans, but when I do, I prefer black beans. In the past I’ve added toasted pumpkin seeds to the purée (for flavor and thickening), and have tried using unsweetened cocoa powder and Mexican chocolate (a little cinnamon-y) for added depth. But I like to preserve the flavor of beef and pepper as the main components.
1) Soak peppers in enough hot water to cover, for at least two hours.
2) Coat beef chunks in chili powder and salt—tossing in a large bowl works well.
3) If you have beef fat trimmings, start rendering some in your cooking pot over low heat by adding them to some oil. Render for 20-30 minutes, or until the pieces are brown and crusty, then remove from pot. With a sprinkle of salt, these make a good, if death-hastening, snack.
4) Add onions, some chili powder, and some salt to the cooking pot (still on low heat), and stir until translucent. Remove to a bowl.
5) Heat a large skillet on medium-high heat, add some cooking oil, and when hot (wisps of smoke become visible), carefully add beef chunks, stirring until nicely browned.
6) Transfer contents of skillet, i.e. beef chunks, any resulting liquid, and crusted bits, to the cooking pot. Add just enough water, beef stock, and/or some beer to cover, check for salt, and simmer.
7) Remove stems from the now-softened chiles, and from the roasted red peppers if necessary. Reserve the soaking liquid. Transfer chiles and reserved onions to a blender, or if you’re using an immersion blender, to a medium-sized bowl. A food processor won’t work so well here. Anyway, purée pepper/onion mixture until smooth, adding reserved soaking liquid as necessary to achieve a spaghetti-sauce-like viscosity.
8) Add purée to cooking pot and stir. Add most of the garlic, and adjust seasoning with salt, sugar, and vinegar or hot sauce. Simmer for about an hour if you’re using rib meat, or about two and a half hours if you’re using chuck, stirring often. Toward the end of cooking, add the remaining garlic for some extra punch.
9) When the beef is sufficiently tender, turn off heat, and stir in a little masa harina or corn meal to thicken the chili, as well as to round out the flavor. When desired consistency is achieved, adjust seasoning again.
10) Serve with a little crema fresca or sour cream. For best result, let the chili rest for a day before serving.