Chili: love it or hate it, beans or no, ground meat or chunks, tomato or brown gravy.
There is no escaping the fact that we as a nation and the Southwest in particular worship the stew and the fruit/vegetable/spice that is the genus of the dish. Chiles are the backbone of chili, and not at all named after the South American country of Chile, although the origin of the pepper is said to be Bolivia, which is very close to Chile.
Fall always brings me around to peppers both sweet and hot and the dishes that are made with these fruits. As I walked through the Sunday market, there was a scarcity of corn, and green beans, squash and eggplant, but not of chilies. Mountains of them in green, yellow, red, orange, even chocolate. There were even peppers roasted and peeled, making it easier to utilize their flavors in any dish. So with those images fresh in my mind, I sat down to write about chilies or was it chili? Both are near and dear to our hearts, and you really can’t separate their importance to each other, so first, a little background.
The first chile peppers originated in the wild highlands of central Bolivia. When transported by the Spanish and Portuguese back to the Old World, they were met with confusion and a less than enthusiastic welcome by people who were used to the “Indian pepper” piper nigrum, or black peppercorn, found on the Malabar Coast of western India. Within 50 years the chilies had circumnavigated the globe only to return to the hemisphere of their birth. The early consumers of the chilies used them in much the same way as we do today; to give food accent, sharpness and heat. Also employed as a medicine in ancient times, the consumption of hot chilies induces endorphins, and the capsaicin works to alleviate pain.
Armed with that very brief primer on chilies, we then work our way to chili, or the ubiquitous “bowl of red.” Decidedly not Mexican in heritage, it does take its roots from the many stews and soups prevalent in the northern Mexican and southwestern ranchlands of Texas. Probably a regional dish before the 1800s, it burst onto the scene in San Antonio as a full-fledged tourist attraction, complete with singing “chilie queens” and a trip to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. It can be as simple as some dried beef rehydrated in water with herbs and chilies to the gourmet lobster, turkey and Kobe beef chilis of today.
What sometimes separates chili types is the bean or no-bean options. A typical canned product has kidney beans, ground beef and spicy tomato “gravy.” Bowls of red eschew the beans and go for the meat and chilies, oftentimes in equal proportions. The beans might certainly be authentic, as dried beans are a southwest staple and easily carried long distances without spoiling. They also provided protein and a sense of fullness to the stew.
However, most true bowls of red will not have beans, and some even disparage bean chili as weak and not worth the effort. The meat is also a matter of choice and also a source of contentious debate. Ground beef and pork seem to be the popular choice, but they could also be the cheaper, easier choice. Early chilies probably did not utilize ground anything, too much work and not applicable for long trail rides.
Dried beef or chunked, tough cuts fabricated on the fly and stewed for long periods yielded deep rich flavor and a certain amount of texture. The thought of using any other protein in chili was quickly abandoned by the early cooks, not so today as the production methods are now applied to anything from chicken to seafood with mixed results.
Tomatoes or no tomatoes? Any chili needs moisture to cook slowly and develop flavor. Water first and tomato as an additive accomplishes both needs. Probably not an early additive, it is tough to find chili without some tomato although most bowls of red get their name not from the tomato but from the chilies.
The chilies and the mostly forgotten herbs and spices are the final ingredients that separate chili from beef stew, a close cousin. The choice of which of the chilies to use seems to be a personal preference for most chili-heads. I prefer a mix of fresh and dried for the smokiness and bite that both lend to the dish – as long as I have some balance, as I find that too many fresh chilies results in the five-alarm chili that seems to haunt every chili competition; a bowl to remember but not necessarily to savor.
Ancho and arbol peppers mixed together with a chipotle or roasted jalapeno are a good starting point for most basic bowls. If you prefer more heat, mix some fresh jalapeno, fresh habanero with some dried red fresno and aji amarillo, this will provide some floral qualities to your chili and lend some acid to the tomato.
Finally the herbs and spices, sometimes overlooked and/or buried under the weight of the chilies or ground beef: oregano or epazote, parsley, cilantro, cumin and coriander, and don’t forget salt and, yes, black pepper.
Although the cooking method hasn’t changed since the very first bowl of chili, there are variations that are worth investigating. Smoking or marinating the protein is a great way to change things up. Using a mixture of meats and even a mirepoix brings the chili closer to stew origins and builds more base flavor. Thickening agents such as flour and masa harina are not only authentic to most bowls of red but can also add flavor if toasted first.
So while there are certain rules guarding the integrity of a true bowl of red, most chili today has taken on the characteristics of its regional makeup. Cinnamon in Skyline chili and lobster chili in Boston may not be true to the original formula, but they do introduce new generations to the spirit of a truly native dish.
Foster’s Bowl of Red
3 pounds beef top round cut into ½ inch dice
½ pound good house bacon or salt pork cut into small dice
3 medium onions finely diced
3 medium green peppers finely diced
2 ribs of celery finely diced
6 cloves of garlic chopped
3 cups chopped or crushed canned tomatoes
2 ancho peppers (dried poblanos)
2 fresh arbol peppers (could use fresh tabasco chilies)
2 chipotle peppers (dried, smoked jalapenos)
½ cup of masa harina
Cumin, coriander to taste, added in the final half-hour of cooking
Bunch of parsley chopped, added before service
Bunch of cilantro chopped, added before service
Stock or water to cover
Start the chili in a thick-bottomed stock pot. Brown the bacon first in a bit of oil until it starts to crisp and has dropped its fat. Add the beef and brown completely. Add the onions, green peppers and celery, and cook until translucent. Add the masa and allow it to soak up the fat and moisture. Add in stock or water to cover the ingredients, the tomatoes and all of the chilies.
Let the pot come to a simmer and cook for an hour at least. If it thickens too soon, add a little stock or water. When the meat is tender and the texture of the chili is smooth and silken, add in the spices to taste, allowing some time for the flavor to bloom. After about a half-hour more, add in the herbs and season with salt and pepper. As with all stews and soups, this should be made a day ahead for better, fuller flavor.
Variations include pork shoulder instead of beef (may need to simmer longer) and smoked chicken (leave out the tomato for a white chili), and if you must use shrimp, scallops or lobster, substitute fish or shrimp stock for the beef stock and cook the seafood at the end, when you add in your fresh herbs, as they will need only minutes to finish.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.