There are times when I think about what inspired the creation of the many things we eat and drink. For instance, every alcoholic beverage had to have started out as an accident. "Fermentation" began life as "Damn, I forgot about that barrel of soggy grain! Why's it bulging?" The Egyptian created beer thousands of years ago. Fed to worker on all those future desert monuments and King Tuts mini-storage, it probably started out as a watery soup no one would eat. But given a few days in the desert sun, and POOF! BEER!
Chili started life as a mixed bag mess of things left around. Then one day, a genius now lost to history threw everything he had lying on the floor of his chuck wagon into a pot. It probably tasted terrible at first, so our mystery "food Edison" began to add things to enhance, and then hide certain tastes that might get him hung from the nearest tree. You have to remember, refrigeration wasn't something that was around back in the discovery days of Chili, so meat would have its moments after a few days. I'm thinking the number of flies buzzing around the chuck wagon decided when it was time to cook Chili?
The concoction known as Chili has changed through the years. Gourmet chefs have added their versions to this American Southwest classic, but the very best examples of Chili you'll find are at "Chili Cook-offs" that happen around the country. I encourage you to attend one of these events whenever you can. They are beyond fun, but make sure to hide a roll of Tums in your pocket.
Not long ago, I was asked to be a judge for a HUGE Chili cook-off here in New Mexico. Now there's something you need to know about the nature of culture of Chili: It differs from state to state. In my experience, the further south and west you go, the hotter this dish will be. A cook off in Maine is going to be a mild walk in the park compared to New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. The Southwest loves it's hot peppers to the point of absurdity. New Mexico grows some of the hottest chili peppers you will find on the planet, and I was un-lucky enough to taste a batch of chili made with Trindad Scorpion chilies. I wanted to slap the smile off of the contestant's face as I gasped for air and reached for the fire extinguisher hanging near his booth. Instead, when I recovered my composure - and made sure I still had a tongue - I croaked "Too salty", and staggered away.
Another thing you should know about cooking chili is it can get hotter - spicy-wise - the longer it cooks, especially if you use dried chili components. Chilli isn't something you cook in the 'ol slow cooker for a day. It takes around 1 1/2 to 2 hours to hit the right mark. I've also found letting Chili cool overnight in the refrigerator, and serving it the next day makes for a smoother blending of the um-teen ingredients most people throw in as they cook-taste-cook-taste.
Here's a recipe I found not long ago, that kind of blends in the gourmet, with the country classic tastes you've come to love when it comes to Chili. Go a bit light on the cocoa. While this ingredient will make the chili purist cringe, it's actually a perfect compliment to chili peppers and can smooth out the volcano-like spicy-ness. Whatever you do, don't over salt your chili. Add salt in to taste, and disregard any recipe that says add a certain amount.
If your chili is a tad thick, use beef broth to thin it, and not plain water. If it's too thin and soupy, I like to take sourdough bread and toast it brown in the oven, then use a fine cheese grater to make bread crumb-powder. Sprinkle the crumbs in and stir while you're doing it. When it's about 2/3 of the thickness you want, stop adding bread crumbs. The crumbs will soak up more liquid and you'll have the perfect chili. If you want this recipe hotter, grab your favorite chili pepper and slice it thin after removing the seeds.
6 slices bacon
2 pounds ground beef chuck
1 large onion, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Kosher salt (to taste)
1/4 cup chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 12-ounce bottle amber beer
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes, crushed by hand
1 1/2 cups low-sodium beef broth, plus more if needed
2 15-ounce cans black beans, drained and rinsed
1 tablespoon hot sauce
Shredded cheddar cheese, sliced scallions and/or sour cream, for topping (optional)
Cook the bacon in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat until crisp, 6 to 8 minutes per side. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate and let cool, then crumble and set aside. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon drippings from the saucepan (reserve the drippings). Increase the heat to medium high, add the beef and cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate using a slotted spoon; wipe out the pan.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the reserved bacon drippings in the saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and bell pepper and cook, stirring, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and 1 teaspoon salt and cook 2 minutes. Add the chili powder, cumin, paprika, oregano and tomato paste and cook, stirring, until the tomato paste is brick red, about 6 minutes (add a splash of water if the mixture begins to stick). Add the beer and simmer until almost completely reduced, about 3 minutes.
Stir in the beef and any juices from the plate; add the cocoa powder, tomatoes, beef broth and beans and bring to a simmer over low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the chili thickens slightly, about 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Stir the hot sauce into the chili and season with salt. Add some beef broth if the chili is too thick. Ladle into bowls and top with the crumbled bacon, cheese, scallions and/or sour cream.
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