I think I can state with only a small amount of hyperbole that the greatest contribution the state of Texas has ever made to North American culture is the dish known as chili con carne. From the wagon train cooks who helped feed the cowboys on the old cattle trails, to the chili parlours peddling bowls of ‘Texas red’ that sprang up in the early 1900s, chili con carne (or simply chili) has become as much a staple of American cuisine as apple pie, hot dogs, and excessive portions.
Among chili aficionados, debates rage endlessly about the authenticity of such ingredients as beans and tomatoes, which region can lay claim to the first known recipe, and whether ‘Cincinnati Red’ is really chili at all (it isn’t). Chili recipes are guarded with the ferocity of government agencies protecting national secrets; and those individuals who compete regularly in major chili cook-offs are as tightlipped as a button man in the Mafia.
Why all the fuss over a humble spiced stew? Because chili is really emblematic of American ideals. It’s all about choice, and how you exercise that choice. You can make your chili as simple or elaborate as you want. Freedom baby, it never tasted so good. Most people can agree on certain ingredients though: meat (usually beef), chile peppers, and some type of beans. The preparation is pretty standard as well; slow cooking chili for hours until the meat is melt-in-your-mouth tender.
The recipe I’ve always used is basic, but delicious. I’m not a big fan of so-called five alarm chili, or really anything that is so hot that I can only taste my tongue corroding. I prefer my chili to have a nice heat that slowly builds with each spoonful. Remember, adding chile peppers is like adding salt. Once you’ve added too much, it’s very hard to take it away. The one thing I recommend is to use an inexpensive cut of meat, such as flank steak, or outside round. You’ll get more flavour than you would from using ground beef, and it’s more economical than pre-cut stewing meat. If you’re vegetarian, I suggest using firm, smoked tofu, which will approximate the flavour and texture of the beef.
Chili Con Carne
(Prep time: 10 minutes. Cook time: 1 1/2 hours. Serves: 4-6)
- 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 1/2 lbs flank steak or outside round, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped (approx. 2 1/2 cups)
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups celery, chopped
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
- 1 green pepper, seeded and chopped
- 1 red pepper, seeded and chopped
- 1 tbsp ground cumin
- 3 tbsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 2 tbsp Italian seasoning
- 1 tbsp ground coriander seeds
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2 L water
- 1 398 mL can crushed tomatoes
- 1 1/2 tbsp kosher salt
- 2 540 mL cans red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
- 2 bay leaves
Brown the beef in a large pot over medium-high heat for 3-4 minutes. Add the vegetables and garlic, and cook with the beef until they have begun to soften, approximately 5 minutes. Now add all the spices, sugar, and vinegar to the pot, and cook with the beef and vegetables until they are fragrant, about 1 minute.
Now you can add the water, tomato purée, and bay leaves. Simmer the chili over low heat for 1 hour. While you are waiting, get into a flamewar with someone on Reddit over whether the correct spelling is ‘chili’ or ‘chilli’. (From what I can gather, both are acceptable. I tend to use the single ‘L’ spelling, because ‘chilli’ just looks weird dammit!) After an hour, add the beans to the pot, and simmer for another 20 minutes. You could add the beans when you add the water and everything else, but I like my beans to still have a bit of texture and firmness. Some of you may be wondering why we are using canned beans instead of dried beans? There are two reasons: first, dried beans take a heck of a lot longer to cook than canned beans. Second, dried beans might not go bad, but they can get old, and when they do there is no amount of soaking or cooking that will make them soft. If you’re not sure about the turnover of the dried legumes at your local grocery store, go with canned beans.
Now that your chili is ready, you can use it any way you desire. Top it with shredded cheese, chopped cilantro leaves, sour cream, minced raw onions. Serve it with corn bread muffins, rice pilaf, roasted potatoes, corn on the cob… The possibilities are endless!
So the next time it’s cold and dreary outside, pull on your favourite PJs, curl up on the couch, and enjoy some ‘Netflix & chili’. (But without the inevitable disappointment at the end of the night.)