Summer is over, pretty definitively: The mornings are cold and crisp and the leaves are beginning to change colors and the soupy yellow humidity-haze is gone from the air and there's Halloween shit on display in the grocery stores and, uh, like, also literally?—summer is actually over. It's autumn now. There was a solstice and everything.
The point is, it's prime chili-cookin' season, now. Here's the chili column we ran almost exactly two years ago, with some minor changes to reflect how I made some good-ass chili this week (don't worry, the unfair and mean-spirited dig at Cincinnati's signature foodstuff remains unchanged). Enjoy.
It's weird that we fight about chili.
Chili— chile con carne, pronounced with a long, flamboyant, rolling alveolar trill for the "r" sound, if having no mourners at your eventual funeral is more your speed—originated as an invention of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. They had the brilliant idea to fill a pot with a variety of delicious New World stuff (chili peppers, tomatoes, aromatics, spices), a bunch of cheap yet abundant protein (pig snouts, mule tripe, minced conquistador, et cetera), and liquid (beer, broth, water, whatever), and then to let those things all hang out and cook together until the cheap yet abundant protein tasted more like the delicious stuff and less like the zombie apocalypse.
But really, more generally, chili belongs to the even more ancient global tradition of common people filling big pots with whatever the hell they had on hand and simmering it for a long time until the good-tasting stuff and the unappetizing yet protein-packed stuff reached a truce that would only be violently abandoned once they'd reached the lower intestine.
Of course, nowadays we have chili factions (factions!) all around the country, who regularly come together to stage cook-offs during which they butt heads, cross spoons, and presumably engage in menacingly choreographed finger-snapping. The beans faction; the anti-beans faction. The tomato faction; the anti-tomato faction. The five-alarm-insanity faction; the mild-piquancy faction. The Cincinnati chili enthusiasts; those who prefer a foodstuff that doesn't taste like it exploded out of a ruptured vacuum bag. They bicker about it online with the fervor of religious fundamentalists. Over chili. They bicker over chili. Bicker. Chili. They.
Even among the more peaceably inclined, chili is quite possibly the single food about which men are most powerfully impelled to brag, standing beside our buddies/brothers/cousins/neighbors/random strangers whose homes we have invaded, as they stir big bubbling Dutch ovens of the stuff while we wait for opportunities to clumsily shoehorn a detailed description of our own showily elaborate recipe into the conversation.
"Oh, just beef, huh?" we say with practiced nonchalance: "I make mine with ground chorizo, veal, braised spare ribs, diced Serrano ham, pheasant, lamb, and woodchuck, and I roast my own organic bell peppers and a cultivar of habaneros I bred myself over six years of selective horticulture. I call them Bobaneros. Yeah, I harvest them on the full moon and smoke them in a unique Bobanero smokehouse I built in the backyard using seasoned hickory I chopped myself. Then I age them in homemade adobo sauce for exactly 212 days. Oh, do you use white onions? Yeah, lately I've been trying hydroponic Armenian shallots. Hmm. Beans. I don't use beans, as I find them to be …" and so on.
And really, customizing one's own chili recipe is just fine; so is being proud of it. As a dish that originated with regular people using what they had, chili invites exactly this sort of improvisation. It's unlikely that any ancient Mexican tribesman ever said, "Oh shoot, we have only two poblanos, and the recipe calls for three; looks like we can't have chili tonight!" (and not just because of the overwhelming odds against him having been able to speak English). Chili invites us to tinker, to adjust, to personalize, and if the results taste good, to feel good about that. Where we go too far is the point at which our personal preferences tip over into proclamations of the correct way to make it—where "I don't like tomatoes in my chili" curdles into "Real chili doesn't contain tomatoes, you sonofabitch!"
This is because, within the very broad outline—a spicy stew featuring chili peppers as a primary flavoring ingredient— correct chili is defined as follows: It goddamn tastes good, and you didn't give yourself acute dehydration from sweating over whether you were doing it right. Like it better with tomatoes than without? Add tomatoes! Prefer green-colored chili with cilantro and green peppers? Go for it! Think it's wrong to put beans in chili? Die die die die die.
That level of vehemence is only appropriate when directed at the vociferously anti-bean crowd (he says, signing his own death warrant in the entire state of Texas), and here's why. Beans found their way into chili as a protein-packed supplement to meat for people who, because they were poor or because they had no easy local access to meat, could not put much in their pot. Which, since chili is essentially peasant stew designed to dress up the kinds of proteins that can't just be seared and served, makes beans a perfect chili ingredient, and it makes any teeth-gnashing over their inclusion scummy elitist nonsense. Chili would probably taste just splendid with Wagyu beef, king crab, sturgeon roe, and the last goddamn panda cub in the world, but nobody takes up the pitchfork and storms his neighbor's castle for using regular humble ground chuck in chili. And anyway, beans taste good and add some welcome heft to the dish, so shut up.
(Note please that this is not the same thing as arguing that chili must contain beans. The precise point is that chili may contain beans, and that if you don't like beans you may decline to put them in yours, and that if you feel it necessary to browbeat people who put beans in their chili, you may fling yourself into a volcano and leave the world no worse off for the loss.)
Chili abides our personalization, as well as our concessions to circumstances like not being able to get our hands on as much meat as we'd like, or being morally unable to consume meat, or not particularly enjoying foods spicy enough to corrode diamonds; that's no small part of what makes it so great. All it asks of us is that we round up some chili peppers, some protein, and some liquid, and we give them time to get to know each other. Beyond that, we've got free rein to customize to our delight. Chili—the cultural institution, not the specific recipe, but sometimes that, too—is a grand monument to heterogeneity. Let's celebrate it for that, and quit with the fighting.
Here's one way to make chili. This may not be the absolute best way to make it; I've made it this way before, but I may not make it this way next time. It's just one easy way to make very tasty chili, and it demonstrates that chili can happily and deliciously accommodate a middle path between extravagant orthodoxy and just dumping a packet of store-bought "chili seasoning" dirt onto a sizzling raft of frozen ground chuck and walking away to finish watching Two and a Half Men reruns.
To begin with, brown a couple of pounds of ground meat in the bottom of a heavy pot. Yes, you can cut a fancy steak into cubes and use these, or you can barbecue a pork shoulder for 12 hours, or you can braise chicken, or, like, stuff a whole living cow with chili peppers and wait for the poor thing to cook from the inside out, if it pleases you. But for this version of chili, just buy two or three pounds of ground meat at the grocery store and brown them in a pot, willya? Beef's fine; ground pork is lovely; turkey is also absolutely wonderful as long as it's not the bone-dry 99-percent-fat-free stuff, which, depending on how long you cook it and how often you stir it as it cooks, will turn into either shoelaces or sand in your pot.
Now that your meat is browned, go ahead and chuck your vegetables (and, OK, yes, technically peppers are fruit) in there. You'll want chopped onions (lots), minced garlic (also lots), and sliced or diced or chopped bell and chili peppers (lots and lots). One easy way to avoid having to spend a lot of time chopping onions, crying, mincing garlic, and muttering vile profanity under your breath because mincing garlic is miserable, is to buy a tub or two of pico de gallo at your grocery store and dump them into your pot here. Nobody's going to arrest your for it, or even be able to tell the difference.
Pico de gallo also contains chili peppers, but not quite enough, and it won't help you in the bell pepper department at all. Chop some of those and throw them in. Take the seeds out of the chilis (I recommend good old jalapeños here) if you prefer to cut down the spiciness of your chili; leave them in otherwise. A good rule that will produce tasty chili is to use at least one pepper per pound of meat; decide for yourself whether those'll be bells or hotter varieties or some combination thereof.
Stir your vegetables (and fruit yes OK they're fruit shut up) into the meat a little bit and give them a minute or two to heat up and start smelling good. Now, add spices. This is a good place to do so because you haven't added liquid yet, which means it will be easy to smell the spices when they heat up, and you can use the smell to gauge the proportions and balance things out to your liking. Add salt, cumin, some kind of powdered hot red pepper (cayenne works great, but be careful), smoked paprika if you have it, and yes, regular non-hot chili powder (ultra-orthodox chili fundamentalists: "Nooooooooo!"). Store-bought chili powder, as the frothing lunatics currently sharpening their serrated hunting knives as they read this can attest, will add virtually nothing to the flavor of your chili, but it will add something to the aroma, and it will attractively deepen the color of the chili.
Now it's time to add one can of tomato paste. At my local supermarket, tomato paste comes in two different can sizes: small and absurdly small. Get the non-absurd can. Stir this into your meat-and-vegetables(-and-fruit)-and-spices mixture. If your pot is hot, as it should be, the tomato paste will begin to caramelize, quickly, especially on the bottom of the pot, where it will stick and burn if you walk away for more than a few seconds.
Speaking of which, you probably have a healthy amount of stuff stuck to the bottom of the pot right now, blackening away. For that reason, and because it is delicious and because everything is better when you add booze to it, you are now going to add beer. And when I say beer, what I really mean is a big 24-ounce bottle of cheap-ass Corona. Although it is disreputable Mexican burro-piss, you are not going to complain, because when you're going to cook it for several hours, beer is beer, unless it is Guinness, in which case it is pudding, and we are not making pudding. Pour the beer right on in there, and use a big wooden spoon or a sturdy heat-resistant rubber spatula to scrape (and scrape and scrape) the bottom of the pot: the black stuff should loosen up almost immediately. The black stuff will make your chili taste even better.
You're almost ready to walk away from your chili and spend the next several hours sneaking back and stirring it as a pretext for licking the spoon, but first, squirt one big generous squirt of sriracha into the pot and stir it in. Oh man, you have just offended the shit out of some chili dorks.
If you're worried that between this, the chili peppers, and the ground red pepper, you've made your chili too spicy, don't be: The sriracha won't actually impart much heat to the pot in the end. But it will add some really bright acidic pepper flavor and make your salivary glands tap dance gleefully, and that is good.
Now, bring the chili up to a steady simmer, lower the heat, clamp on a lid, and walk away for a while. An hour, maybe? Hour and a half? Fuck, what am I, made of clocks? I don't know. A while. You want the meat to tenderize and the flavors to meld for a while, and you want them to do that more quickly than the liquid evaporates, for now.
After the unit of time we're calling something between an hour and 90 minutes but really represents a good-faith effort to leave your chili alone to simmer under a cover for a while, you may return, remove the lid, and add beans. Two cans of dark red kidney beans, right in the face, you anti-bean psychos. Liquid and all. Bump up the heat for a few minutes to return the chili to a steady but gentle simmer, then lower it again so that it stays there.
And now, leave the lid off and walk away again. For a couple of hours at least. Come back every now and again to stir your chili, making sure that nothing's sticking too egregiously to the bottom of the pot, but otherwise leave it alone. The beans will absorb some of the liquid; much of it will evaporate. Eventually your chili will have thickened into, y'know, chili. That means it's ready to eat. Grab a ladle and as many bowls as you have people. Spoons, too.
As with the making of chili, people have their preferences for how to eat it. With crumbled crackers or cheese or sour cream or chopped cilantro or chopped raw onions, or on top of cornbread, or with biscuits, or on top of pasta, or on top of a hot dog. Or a sausage. Or with tortillas. Or with tortilla chips. With eggs. On bread. On French fries. Unadorned. In prison. While wrestling an alligator. I recommend, well, all of those, except for prison, because chili is good, and prison is not.
Shredded pepper jack cheese, chopped cilantro, tortilla chips, sour cream ... I like those because I like them; if you don't, use something else, or nothing. Use what you like, unless you like motor oil. The only thing you must have with your chili is hearty appreciation for a dish that so generously welcomes you to futz around with it, a dish that can at once be authentically itself and expressively yours without holding a grudge or tasting like crud. And now dig in.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Sam Woolley.