Story and photos by Meda Kessler
These are the things we know about chili.
If there’s a magic number associated with a bowl of red, it’s 50. When the temperature drops below the half-century mark, someone somewhere is going to pull out the spices and the big pot.
The acceptance of beans separates the world from Texas. Debates over said beans often are more heated than any political confab.
It’s a dish that’s deeply personal, with some holding their recipes close to their hearts.
When you break it down, chili is not a complex thing. We’re talking meat, tomatoes, chopped onion, maybe some garlic, spices and chile powder. But the mix can yield magical results. We consulted home cooks, chefs and people who like to eat more than cook about the alchemy of the dish.
It does matter. Ground beef is inexpensive and cooks up fast. There’s no need for that all-day simmer. But a “chili grind” is a better choice and yields a more flavorful bowl. So does beef chuck, which requires a longer cooking time to tenderize. If you think using a pricey steak will make your chili taste better, save your money.
WILD CARD Add pork or a bit of ground sausage to your mixture. Venison is tasty; find some hunting friends who’ll keep your freezer stocked. Use turkey if you’re not a beef eater; all those spices make that low-fat stuff actually taste good.
Oregano and cumin are staples. You can buy blends or make your own, adding chile powder, garlic powder and onion powder and even a little cayenne to the mix. Experiment and taste what works for you.
THE MAGIC INGREDIENT
If you think there’s only one kind of chile powder — red — think again. Better yet, take a trip to Pendery’s World of Chiles & Spices and gaze in awe at the wall of chile blends. Buy a few and test them out. Buy a few more until you find your favorite.
WILD CARD Instead of only using cumin powder, we toast some whole seeds and toss them in for extra punch. A good-quality smoked paprika offers a big burst of flavor. Some people swear by a dash of cinnamon, but we’ve never been tempted.
Tomatoes are the only veggie that should go in chili. Don’t chop up a random squash or okra (that’s for your gumbo) just to clean out the fridge. We like a mix of diced tomatoes (canned is fine) and paste to add thickness and flavor. You don’t need to be picky about brands here.
These can be controversial although not as much as the beans-no-beans issue. Everyone was pretty much in agreement that you should fix your bowl the way you like it because it’s your bowl of chili. It’s convenient to set up said toppings buffet style so others can make their own selections, too. From the veggie world, it’s nice to include chopped onions (green and white), sliced jalapenos for the fire breathers out there, and chopped cilantro. Cheese is a nice touch; we like a sharp cheddar and a pepper jack. Sour cream? We say yes, as there’s something about a cool dollop that goes so well with spicy chili.
WILD CARD Try avocado, sliced black olives or corn kernels (another controversial addition).
For some, cornbread is a must. But there are times when good old saltines will do. Some like oyster crackers, others prefer corn chips.
WILD CARD We’ve been known to mop up our bowl using flour tortillas or toasted baguette slices.
It’s a bonus to have enough chili for another meal. We like it with our scrambled eggs, baked potatoes, on a burger or mixed with noodles for a classic chili mac.
White bean chili, chicken chili, vegetarian chili: We’re equal opportunity chili lovers and welcome all types of chili to the table. And true confession: Our version uses Dijon mustard and red wine as the second ingredient. We probably won’t win any kind of cookoff, but we’ll settle for “I’ll have seconds, please” any day.