Chili: What Everyone Can Cook

Well folks, the title says it all! (of course not really; otherwise, I wouldn’t need to write this post)

In all seriousness, anyone can make chili. I realize this might come off as a bit redundant, given that I myself am a big believer in Gusteau’s trademark phrase from Ratatouille, “Anyone can cook!”. But when it comes to most dishes, being able to cook them correctly (or even well) requires some type of training or knowledge acquisition. There are several preparations in cuisines around the world that leave a shit-load of room for interpretation; curry and chutney come to mind. But fenugreek is a required ingredient in order for a recipe to be defined as curry, and chutney needs to have onion in the recipe to be so-designated. Very few preparations can match the vagueness with which chili is defined.

‘Why is that?’ you ask — because unlike just about any other dish, there is no defined ‘correct’ way to cook it. The main reason for that being that it’s very loosely defined. If you try to use the internet to figure out what defines chili, you’ll quickly realize it is entirely subjective, meaning everyone has their own definition. When it comes to chili, it seems that just about anything goes.

Since this is my blog, I get to tell you what I think the key components of chili are. First of all, chili is a stew composed mainly of meat and/or beans. There should be (as the name suggests) some type of chili pepper (or several!) in some form, as a central flavoring agent. It needs to have tremendous depth of flavor, but those flavors need to be properly married together, and I believe there should be a touch of smoky umami to it. I always consider chili to be tomato based, yet I’ve had some solid green chilis and one or two good “white” chilis before — but I don’t think it’s insignificant that a green or white chili is always specified as such, because otherwise, it’s assumed to be red. Chili should be thick and hearty, making it a perfect thing to make/eat during wintertime, and should be able to be eaten alone, with or without toppings, or even over noodles or rice.

Having established all of that, I will say that some chili recipes and techniques are better than others. Chances are, if you know how to cook, you’ll make a better chili than a complete amateur, just because you know how to manipulate techniques to suit the end. This was never so clear to me than when two friends of mine (who met in culinary school) and myself judged a chili contest that one of their friends was hosting. We marveled at all the creative approaches taken on by the contestants. None were terrible, but I don’t remember us being blown away by any of them either. Perhaps the most common thread was that with each of the almost twenty varieties we sampled, we consciously tried to ignore the things that weren’t done, but that we knew could have been done to make the final product better.

Side note, I can’t talk about chili without at least mentioning a tradition firmly ingrained in my personal upbringing: Every New Years Eve that I can remember involved my mother cooking a pot of chili. Shortly before the ball dropped, she’d put the pot in the garage or on the back deck (because winter in Chicago meant that outside was basically a refrigerator). The following day was spent eating reheated chili on the couch (drinking beer once I was of age), and watching FBS bowl games. My mother’s chili changed a bit year-to-year until about ten years ago when she found a recipe she liked enough to settle on, involving ground turkey and acorn squash. I’ve never been a fan of squash, but mom’s a good enough cook that she made it taste good every year. The point is that chili has a strongly nostalgic place in my heart.

When I’m making chili, it’s slightly different every time, because I’ve never followed a recipe. There are some trademarks that my personal touch will have, but the type of meat, bean, chili pepper, and flavors I use are usually purely based on what I have at my disposal. There are a few things I manage to sneak into just about every chili I make, though: bacon, bourbon, molasses, dried New Mexico chilis and Ancho chilis will reliably be in the credits when I put on a chili production.

Let’s go over the process from my recent batch…

I started off by browning about a quarter pound of bacon (sliced), then removing it with a slotted spoon. Then, in the rendered fat, I browned a bag of stew meat, then removed it also. And finally, a pound of ground veal that was taking up space in my freezer was also browned and removed.

I then reduced the heat to medium-low, and added a bunch of small-diced onions and sweated, allowing their fluids to release, so it could be used to deglaze the pot (if you’re trying this technique, and you’re not getting said fluid to release fast/abundantly enough, you can always just splash some water in the pot and deglaze with that, then allow it to cook off). Once the fond is scraped off the bottom however, I added tomato paste, minced garlic and minced jalapeños, and raised the heat to medium to slightly caramelize the onions, peppers, garlic and paste. Before the tomato paste started burning, I de-glazed the pan with about a half-cup of bourbon (you can also use a good brown/dark beer). Once again, I scraped the fond off the bottom of the pot, and cooked it down until the alcohol cooked off of the bourbon.

Let’s stop right here for a second. Everything that I’ve mentioned so far will become the flavor foundation to the rest of the chili. Getting proper color on your meat, caramelization on your onions/tomato paste, and reduction of the alcohol, provides that depth of flavor I talked about earlier. Many people believe chili can (and should) be made in a crock pot or slow-cooker. It’s exactly because of these steps that I react to that with, “you can, but maybe you shouldn’t.” Now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Next, I added a bit of reduced pork stock (that was also taking up space in my freezer), crushed tomatoes (that I first pureed with a stick blender), and cans of black and kidney beans, in addition to all of the browned meat from before.

At this point, all of the substantive items were in. Now comes the seasoning — the part where people really get to fine-tune things. I don’t know that I recall everything I added, but I do know that I added a healthy amount of kosher salt, as well as smoked sea salt. Then a dash of liquid smoke (a little goes a long way!), and a splash of molasses. Nutmeg, ground Ancho chilis, black pepper, brown sugar, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, cumin and cayenne pepper all made their way into the pot, in varying amounts. I think there were things that found their way in, that I don’t expect everyone to have in their kitchen (cultured fermented chili paste powder, anyone?), but that’s what makes chili unique to the kitchen in which it’s made.

Remember that chili is no different from most other soups and stews, in that the things most recently added will be the most noticeable, but also most fleeting. That being said, different seasonings are absorbed differently by different ingredients. For example, starches absorb more salt than proteins do, so if you are making a Texas-style chili (all meat, no beans), you’ll need less salt than if you are adding beans. Spiciness is never more noticeable than it is just after adding, but it tends to settle down after some time passes, and I’d say the same for acid. For this reason, you should be constantly tasting and adjusting flavors throughout the cooking process, until you believe it’s perfect. Even then, it’s best to eat chili the day after it was made, because it takes about a day for the flavors to come together and harmoniously coexist — or, as a chef would say “marry”.

Regardless of what, how much or how many ingredients you put in, chili should be cooked just like the Beastie Boys tempo: slow and low! Meaning that once your main ingredients are in, lower the level of heat on your pot to low, and let it gently simmer for at least a few hours (stirring/tasting about every 20 minutes or so).

Good luck, and have fun!

Final product!

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