October 11, 2021. Dear Kids– Every Dad likes to think his chili recipe is the “World’s Best”, but that’s probably not the case with any Dad chili or really any other chili (except for one I suppose) in spite of the many cyber claims to the contrary. I mean, if we all can’t agree on something as important as climate change, how do we expect to agree on who has the best chili! Now that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying to reduce my carbon footprint or to improve my chili recipe and I don’t think you should either. You both already seem to be doing a very good job reducing your carbon footprint– you certainly remind me about mine often enough- but if you were also interested in working on your chili recipe, why not try this starter recipe and use The Lecture as a guide and let the flavors you like best finish the job.
You first became interested in chili when you were very young because of the Kid Joke (there’s a fine line between a Kid Joke and a Dad Joke- a lot finer than us Dads like to think) you two would often make on our Tuesday rides to gymnastics. As we neared the gym, you would often complain that you were chilly and ask me to turn up the heat in the car. I would respond, probably with a little more grump than needed, by saying, “No!”, because no Dad ever turns up the heat- it’s part of the Dad Code. Then, the uncontrollable laughter would start, as you both would exclaim with delight, “No, look dad- Chili’s!” as you enthusiastically pointed to the Chili’s Bar and Grill near the gym. You were also smart enough not to make the joke every time or you would change the wording (“Dad, it’s cold in here!” “Dad, is there a window open?”) so I’d fall into the trap often. Sometimes I would grow tired of your Kid Jokes (I even had a catchphrase when this happened- “Once is funny, twice is annoying!”), but I never tired of this one because of how much you two laughed whenever you “tricked” me into thinking you were actually cold. Even today, whenever one of you says you’re cold, I reflexively look around for a Chili’s Bar and Grill. It was soon after that when you started requesting the dish that inspired Chili’s Bar and Grill as part of our family meals and the rest is history.
Ironically, it was Mom who first started making our family chili, using the recipe handed down to her from her mom, GM, for the chili and adding a “secret” recipe Mom devised for cornbread that became staples on our fall menu, especially, to go along with football games on Sundays.
From there, a mostly friendly family rivalry started to see who had the best chili and, while we’ve never won a “World’s Best Chili” title, we did place in a few small chili contests. Mom and I finished 1st and 2nd in a local charitable chili battle and .your Uncle even won a local firehouse and a YMCA chili cook off. To be honest, your Uncle’s victories were probably a little more impressive, since all the judges in the contest Mom and I entered worked for Mom.
So with that, I hope you continue the family chili tradition by making chili your way and, who knows, maybe someday you might even have the “World’s Best Chili” !
Diet: Omnivore, Vegetarian Option, Vegan Option
Prep Time: 20-30 minutes
Cook Time: 40-120 minutes
GET YOUR STUFF OUT
- 2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
- 1 large yellow, white or red onion
- 1-2 fresh chiles of your choice, like jalapeño or serrano, trimmed (remove ribs and seeds for less heat) and finely minced
- 2-4 tablespoons of chili powder
- 1 tablespoon of toasted and ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, optional
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 4-6 fat garlic cloves, minced or grated
- 2 pounds ground meat, like chuck, or vegetarian/vegan alternative like “Impossible Burger”
- 12 ounce can of beer of choice, optional
- 28 ounce can whole tomatoes, carefully crushed with your clean hands
- 3 cans (15 ounces or so each) beans of choice- like, kidney, pinto and/or black
- 1-2 tablespoons secret something, like vinegar, nooch, molasses, dark chocolate or cocoa powder, ketchup, ground coffee, fish or soy sauce, optional
- 1/4 cup minced cilantro leaves and tender stems
- any or all garnishes of choice- like minced red onion, thinly sliced scallions, thinly sliced radishes, grated cheese, pickled jalapeños, cubed avocado, sour cream/yogurt
- Mom’s Secret Cornbread (See Lecture for Recipe)
COOK AND PLAY
1. Layers of Flavor- Start With An Onion. Get a big pot, like a Dutch Oven or pasta pot, set on medium heat, with oil in it. Once the oil is moving, add onions and cook until they start to brown.
2. Put The Chill In The Chili. Add jalapeños and cook to soften for a few minutes; stir in chili powder, cumin and, if using, cinnamon for a few more minutes; then add the tomato paste to toast for a few more minutes; and finish it off by adding the garlic for a minute.
3. To Meat or Not To Meat. Add ground chuck or vegetarian/vegan alternative and sear until it browns (cooking times vary depending on meat or alternative, but ground chuck and Impossible Burger should brown over medium high heat in 10-15 minutes).
4. Una Cerveza Por Favor? If you’re willing to share a beer with your chili, dump it in the pot and simmer it for a few minutes until it’s cooked down a bit.
5. More Tomato and Beans, Unless You’re In Texas. Add the tomatoes you crushed and beans and simmer until meat is tender and chili consistency is to your liking- ground beef improves with a lengthy simmer, up to 60-90 minutes, while meat alternatives won’t need as long to tenderize, so it’s just a matter of thickening the chili in this case- about 15 minutes or longer if you like a thicker chili.
6. So Many Garnishes So Little Time. Put pot of chili on a cutting board or other heat resistant surface on your table and surround with toppings, cornbread, bowls and spoons.
Chile or Chili? The “I Instead of E Rule. If you thought the “i before e, except after c rule” was confusing when you were younger, buckle up your seat belts because the “i instead of e, except if it’s a country or sometimes a plant, and sometimes y, rule” is even worse.
Here’s what we know- if you are spelling the southwestern meat and bean stew, the spice blend to make that stew or the fast casual and mediocre restaurant, it’s “chili” with an “i” at the end. If you are spelling the South American country, it’s “Chile” with an “e” at the end. Oh, and if you’re cold, it’s “chilly” with a “y” at the end. Unfortunately, that’s were the certainty ends because when it comes to the often fiery plant used in chili, it could be either chile or chili depending on where you hang your hat. I think “e” is better (Spanish origin) and will use it to refer to fresh or dried chile plants and to distinguish the plants from the dish and the spice blend for the dish, but if you want to use the i, be my guest. The only time it really matters is when you’re in the spice section and faced with a jar of chile powder and a jar of chili powder- chile, with an “e”, powder should only have dried and ground chiles in the jar and chili, with an “i” powder should have a spice blend of dried chiles (usually ancho chiles), cumin, Mexican oregano, garlic and onion, but to be sure, just look at the ingredients listed on the label because, unlike a book, you can judge a spice jar by its cover.
Chiles Can Be Very Hot, Joked The Dad. Once you have the spelling down, you’re going to want to know just how hot those chiles you’re putting in your pot are going to taste, so keep this handy Scoville Pepper Scale Chart in mind so you don’t regret your choices. Also, keep in mind that chiles aren’t only about heat, they also offer different flavors for your consideration, like fruity, peppery, licoricey, rasiny, tangy, but there’s no chart I could find for that, so try as many as you like and let experience be your guide.
Dried Chiles and Chili Powder. The chile in your chili traditionally comes from dried chiles- the most common in commercial brands of chili powders being ancho chiles (a bit of smoke and fruit and mellow heat). Similar to fresh chiles, the flavor and heat level will vary by type, so if you ever want to venture from the flavor of ancho chiles in your quest for the World’s Best Chili you will have to look for chili powders that specify the type of chile as other than ancho in the spice blend on the label or the ingredients list. You could also make your own chili powder, using other types of dried chiles, but I’m guessing you’re a few years, or perhaps even a lifetime away from that. Although, if you’re ever interested, some of the more common dried chiles out there include New Mexico (rather mild and earthy), chipotle (smoked jalapeno, also available in adobo sauce), guajillo (fruity and spicy), mulato (similar but sweeter than ancho with hint of licorice), pasilla negro (hint of raisin), chile de arbol (hot with hint of grassy and smokiness) and/or dried habanero (Very Hot- use sparingly). Consider using a mix of mild, hot and fruity in your search and don’t forget about the ground cumin seed, garlic powder, Mexican oregano, etc.
What About Fresh Chilies? While dried chiles are the star of the show when it comes to chili, that doesn’t mean there is no room for fresh chiles like bell, Anaheim, poblano, jalapeno, serrano, habanero, etc (mildest to hottest). So if you’re up for a bit of fresh flavor with some heat, soften up some fresh chiles (keep the ribs and seeds in the mix for more heat) in your pot after you get your onions going to see what you think.
Veggies Not Named Chiles. As with so many other dishes, chili starts out with some sautéed onions and that’s really all you need, but there’s nothing wrong with adding other veggies if that’s what makes you happy. For a bit of natural sweetness to balance the heat, a half of cup of minced carrots could be added with the onions or for a more vegetable forward chili, you can replace some or all of the meat with corn, diced sweet potatoes, diced butternut squash and/or any other vegetable you think works with chili spices- adding them after the onions and being sure not to over cook them to mush as you cookdown the chili.
The Meat of the Matter. While cubed or ground beef is traditional in chili, you get all kinds of meat in chili these days. While I often like a little pork in the mix- 1 1/2 pounds ground chuck, 1/2 pound ground pork and maybe even a few slices of bacon minced up- you may see parts of most any animal cubed or ground up in the name of chili- venison, moose, buffalo, goat, rabbit, rattlesnake, kangaroo, alligator and the list goes on.
Vegan/Vegetarian Alternative. It’s easy to fall into the trap of plant “meat”, which is exactly what I did for this recipe. While plant meat may arguably be better for the environment, it’s often not much better from a nutritional standpoint than beef (read your labels if you do use plant meat so you know what you are getting). So, while plant meat is certainly easier and while scientist have spent thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to perfect it, which is why I used it here, when you have the time, I would suggest using “meaty” plant alternatives instead, which are both better for the environment and your health. For chili, a mix of mushrooms, nuts and a grain does the trick in terms of flavor and texture, so, for a vegetarian/vegan alternative to the vegan “meat” used in this recipe, try sautéing a pound of minced mushrooms of your choice (cremini and/or shiitake, perhaps) with the onions until they are a nice golden brown and then adding a 1/2 cup of toasted and ground walnuts and a cup or two of cooked farro or other grain during the last 5 minutes of cooking the chili. Let me know what you think.
Beans. Most Texans will give you a hard time if you tell them you put beans in your chili- Texas chili is all meat and Texans make no beans about it, joked the Dad, making beanless chili their official state dish in 1977. Given the pride most Texans take in their traditions and with the relaxed gun laws in the state, I would hesitate to argue the point in that part of the world, but beans in chili are de rigueur outside of Texas. Kidney, pinto and/or black beans are certainly popular, but there’s nothing wrong with creamy cannellinis or really whatever bean(s) you like or have lying around in the pantry. Canned beans are quick, easy and perfectly fine for your chili, but could certainly be improved upon if you had the time and interest to cook dried beans from scratch. Perhaps we’ll get into bean cookery some day on these pages, but canned beans are just fine until then or forever.
Secret Ingredients. Everyone seems to have a “secret ingredient” in their chili, so if you would like one of your own, try out some of these to see what you think- wine, bourbon or other liquor, vinegar, pickle juice, soy sauce, fish sauce, anchovies, miso, Gochujang, Worcestershire Sauce, coffee, espresso powder, chocolate, peanut butter, molasses, tomato powder or something else that’s even more of a secret.
“On Top of Spaghetti……” Also, keep in mind the many fun foods are even more fun with a ladle or two of chili on top- spaghetti (aka Cincinnati Chili), Fritos/nachos, baked potatoes/french fries/tater tots, hot dogs/burgers,macaroni and cheese, etc.
Mom’s Secret Cornbread Recipe. Mom has always made cornbread whenever she or any one else in the house makes chili. At the risk of incurring Mom’s wrath for publishing her “secret” cornbread recipe, here’s what you need to do to make it- preheat a 6” cast iron skillet on the middle rack of a 400° oven while you mix up an 8.5 ounce box of Jiffy corn muffin mix with an egg, 3/4 cup of milk and 1/2 cup of unsweetened applesauce. Use an oven mitt to pull out the rack with the cast iron skillet on it and carefully pour the cornbread mix into the pan, gently push the rack back in so the batter does not splash out and bake until nicely brown on top and a skewer poked into the middle of the cornbread comes out clean, about 20 minutes.
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