Never do I feel more tormented as a cook than when I’m making chili. What should be a simple preparation instead incites a stressful inner dialogue.
It begins at step 1 when I’m prompted to sauté a bell pepper. But they’re not in season, I say. It continues when cued to add the can of beans and low-sodium chicken stock. But homemade is so much better, I challenge, regretting not having any on hand. When it’s time to add the tomato sauce, I bemoan. Why don’t I know a nonna with a pantry stocked with jarred sauce made from homegrown tomatoes, I wonder.
I envy people who say, “I’m just making chili,” because if ever I am just making chili, it’s because I’ve made a series of compromises. It’s because I’ve convinced myself that Michael Pollan won’t know if I use this California bell pepper just this once. It’s because I’ve assured myself that with all those spices and fixin’s nobody will know I used canned stock and beans.
But I can’t help but feel I’m on a slippery slope. What will I be doing next? Buying chili concentrate and reconstituting it with water?
I recognize this may all sound a little ridiculous, and I’m happy to report my neurosis is subsiding. Over the weekend, in an effort to prepare for the impending holiday madness—the house guests, the impromptu gatherings, the low energy, the time crunch—I made a few batches of chili and found a bare-bones recipe I will turn to again and again. It’s thick, smoky, and beefy, and comes together in about an hour. It has a nice kick thanks to a generous amount of chili powder and a pinch of cayenne and does not rely on prepared tomato sauce, which can taste overly sweet, for flavor—crushed tomatoes (the Cirio and Pomi brands in particular) provide a nice balance of acidity and sweetness. A blind taste test proved that canned black beans work as well as beans cooked from scratch, and onions, which sweat and stew with the spices in the first step, provide enough flavor and texture on their own, rendering peppers, mushrooms, or other vegetables unnecessary.
I confess I’ve yet to try canned stock, but I feel encouraged by these baby steps. Soon, I have no doubt, “I’m just making chili,” will be rolling off my tongue.
A Few Tips:
The aromatics: At a minimum, use onion and garlic. Peppers and mushrooms will add another dimension of flavor and will give the finished chili a heartier texture, but they can be omitted.
The spices: At a minimum, use cumin, chili powder, and something with a kick like cayenne or pepper flakes. Coriander and oregano are nice additions. Toasting seeds (such as cumin and coriander) and grinding them yourself will offer even more flavor as will making your own chili powder.
The beans: Cooked from scratch and homemade stock are best, but store-bought is fine.
The tomatoes: Homemade tomato sauce or purée is best, but jarred or crushed tomatoes are good substitutes.
One last note: Remember, chili is forgiving, and the seasoning can be adjusted at the end. If the chili tastes a little flat, add more salt and a splash of vinegar. If it’s too acidic, add a pinch of sugar. If it needs more heat, sprinkle in some cayenne. Remember, too, chili isn’t complete without the fixin’s: grated cheese, diced raw onion or sliced scallions, cilantro, tortilla chips, sour cream, fresh lime.
- 3 tablespoons grapeseed or olive oil
- 1 to 2 onions, chopped fine (about 2 cups)
- 1 red or green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces, optional
- Kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, plus more to taste
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste or ketchup
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 1/2 cups chicken stock, homemade is best
- 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked beans, any kind you like, or one 15-oz can beans, drained and rinsed
- 15 ounces can crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce
- 1 tablespoon vinegar, optional
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar, optional
- Grated cheese, chopped cilantro, chopped scallion or onion, for garnish
Tell us: What makes your go-to chili recipe your, well, go-to?