Heirloom Recipes

Anytime, Anywhere Chili From My Mom, Pantry & Usually Freezer, Too

January 17, 2017

My mom's a fierce, capable woman who can’t be bothered with finicky recipes or friends, and a savvy, no-nonsense cook who seeks efficiency and convenience at absolutely no expense of flavor. If she cares about you, she’ll feed you the best meal of your life. This chili has been in constant rotation for decades. Any questions?

Look into my freezer right now and you’ll find deli containers of chili my mom made me the last time she visited. She made it when I was at work one day, in my ungenerous kitchen, and was pissed because she couldn’t find the kind of salsa she likes to use in the recipe. (I can’t tell the difference, happily shoveling it with scrambled eggs for breakfast, all on its own dinner after dinner.)

Head to my 90-year-old grandma’s house and you’ll find the same chili in her freezer: It’s one of the few things she’ll still eat, her body and mind duking it out—and both losing. Making chili is one of the few ways I think my mom can still feel helpful.

Shop the Story

Or ask my don’t-cook, can’t-cook relatives, Brian and John: Even they've learned how to make the chili, somehow following my mom's texted, shorthand instructions. Simmer. Eat.....

This chili has stuck around because it's the product and rescuer of real life. It would never have survived Mom's bullshit meter if it involved chocolate or stout or even chile peppers. It’s made with stuff she stockpiles in her pantry so that she’s always ready for chili duty: any sort of canned tomato, salsa, hot sauce, and ketchup. Plus beans, meat, spices, and garlic and onions. That’s it. She says the ketchup makes the chili have the right consistency no matter how little time you have to simmer it, and the salsa and hot sauce bring the heat and smoke in a form that you can purchase nearly anywhere.

But don’t expect her to wax on about it. When I asked her what’s the wackiest place she’s made it or the randomest person who’s asked for the recipe, she reminded me that cooking, not words, is her preferred language:

No answer for both. Stop trying to be clever.
My Mama Bear

So just make the damn chili, people, will you?

What's always lurking in your freezer? Tell us in the comments below.

Order Now

The Dynamite Chicken cookbook is here! Get ready for 60 brand-new ways to love your favorite bird. Inside this clever collection by Food52 and chef Tyler Kord, you'll find everything from lightning-quick weeknight dinners to the coziest of comfort foods.

Order Now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Sarah Martin
    Sarah Martin
  • Veratrine Flipflop
    Veratrine Flipflop
  • Kristen Miglore
    Kristen Miglore
  • Kenzi Wilbur
    Kenzi Wilbur
  • Smaug
Editor/writer/stylist. Author of I Dream of Dinner (so You Don't Have To). Last name rhymes with bagel.


Sarah M. January 23, 2017
I'm cooking the chili right now. I picked up another TJ's salsa, since they were out of the Autentica. It seems like a lot of cumin, no? But, I trust your mama. I'll let you know how it turns out.
Ali S. January 23, 2017
I hope you like it! You can always start with less cumin and add more to your liking.
Sarah M. January 23, 2017
Ali, I was wrong to doubt your mama. The chili was delicious. I loved it. My husband loved it. It was a perfect amount of cumin. Thank you for the recipe.
Veratrine F. January 17, 2017
Your mom is right about Pace. Awesome salsa. Not that stuff made in 'New York City?!!' Seriously, Pace does a good job. TJs does 2 things poorly every time: salsa, and soup. I don't get why--it seems like these are both achievable, but, no.
Kristen M. January 17, 2017
Sheri makes me smile.
Kenzi W. January 17, 2017
I love your mom's answer to your question.
Smaug January 17, 2017
The large chiles bred in Mexico over the millenia are, as a group, a truly unique contribution to the world's flavors, unapproached by anything from the rest of the world. These flavors are what set Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine apart from anything in the world, and are, for example, the very backbone of chili. Where the notion that it's a sort of spicy tomato sauce came from I don't know, but such recipes, while they may be perfectly decent as food, are not chili- we shouldn't be going out of our way to devalue words- a whole generation is working at it assiduously as it is
Jaye B. January 27, 2017
My Mom's chili is my favorite, too. It's basic so you can improvise if the mood strikes, but I usually don't. The one thing I never change is McCormick Chili Seasoning Mix that I think is a perfect blend of spices and sometimes I'll use a combination of the original, mild & hot versions. It also has wheat flour which helps thicken without changing flavor. Growing up, we always ate chili with oyster crackers. Now, I like to put some Fritos in the bottom of the bowl, ladle on the chili, and top with shredded lettuce and cheddar. Final dollops of sour cream and/or guacamole are optional.