Urban Chili

Ask the question, “What is Chili,” and you might has well have asked, “Is Tex-Mex a real cuisine?” You’re in for an earful either way.

Chili con carne is essentially a stew containing chili peppers and meat, usually beef. The Spanish word chile stems from the Nahuatl language and refers to those glorious fruits of the genus Capsicum, family Solanaceae. Carne is Spanish for meat, of course, and there you have it. The original recipe was basically Tex Mex pemmican, a blend of dried beef, suet, dried chili peppers and salt, pounded together, formed into bricks and left to dry; out on the trail, you’d just add water and boil up a pot of the real deal.

In 1893, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, The San Antonio Chili Stand gave a bunch of Americans their first taste of chili. The passion spread like wildfire and Texas-style chili subsequently conquered the Southwest. In 1977, Concurrent Resolution Number 18 of the 65th Texas Legislature made Chili con carne the official Texas state dish.

Chili has migrated in every direction since and changed according to whim and region. Even in Texas there are folks who add, (Gasp! Blasphemer!), tomatoes and even beans to their recipe. Other common seasonings include garlic, onions, and cumin. The variations are endless and it’s a guarantee that any and all of them provoke heated debate among aficionados as to what, if anything other than their tried and true variant, is actually chili. If you want to really see culinary sparks fly, go to a chili cook off, anywhere, and just taste and watch…

All that venerable history aside, I am a damn Yankee. My first taste of chili was fairly true to its roots, courtesy of the Mountain Pass Canning Company, who bought and greatly expanded the Old El Paso brand, the first company to offer a full line of Mexican cuisine in the US. That was the gateway; fifty years later, here’s where I’ve taken it. This is a bean and vegetable chili, because that’s how I like it. You can omit any veggie or bean in it that offends your righteous sense of chiliist tendency, and it’ll still be good; not as good as mine, but good.

The key to chili seasoning is, of course, chili powder. Store bought, even if it’s ‘gourmet’ is more often than not crap, in my not even close to humble opinion. The key to great chili powder is to use only freshly blended, house made chili powder from top notch ingredients. Below you’ll find my preferred formulation. I suggest you try this first in a small batch and see how you like it; then tweak it as you prefer, put your name on it, and share it with your pals. The first and most important decision to make here is what chiles to use; the heat factor and major flavor note of your chili powder will be determined by that. I use our home grown and preserved chipotles for our powder; this gives a nice fruity, smoky flavor that I like a lot. Changing just this aspect of your homemade powder will make major differences in your final product. Chiles and Cumin are an absolute necessity, as is some amount of Mexican Oregano, the rest is up to your imagination; have fun with it.

Urb’s House Made Chili Powder
3 Tablespoons ground Chiles of your choice
1 teaspoon ground Cumin
1 teaspoon Smoked Sweet Paprika
½ teaspoon ground Mexican Oregano
½ teaspoon ground Garlic

Combine all ingredients in a spice grinder and process until you’ve achieved a uniform, smooth powdered texture. Store in an air tight container for up to 2 or 3 months.

Alright, on to the chili; what I hope you’ll find is some steps that maybe are new to you, overall or for this recipe. It may seem a bit labor intensive, but i think you’ll find it pays off in terms of the surprising depth of flavor you’ll achieve.

1 to 1.5 Pounds Beef, (I like Sirloin for mine)
2 28 Ounce cans RoTel Diced Tomatoes & Green Chiles
1 15 Ounce can Black Beans
1 15 Ounce can Dark Red Kidney Beans
1 12 Ounce bottle Dark Ale, (Porter or Stout)
2-5 Jalapeño Chiles
4-5 miniature Sweet Peppers, (Vary the colors, because it looks nice and that matters)
1 small Sweet Onion
12-16 large Black Olives
6-10 sprigs fresh Cilantro
1 fresh Lemon
1-2 Tablespoons House Made Chili Powder, (See above)
1/2 Cup Wondra Flour for coating
Vegetable Oil for sautéing
1.5 Ounces Dry Sherry
2 Bay Leaves
Sea Salt
Fresh Ground Pepper

Empty the tomato and chile blend into a large mixing bowl and process to a smooth consistency.

Pour the stout or Porter into the pot. Let it simmer and foam until the raw alcohol smell has burned off.

Reduce the heat to medium low, then toss the tomato chile sauce in with the beer.

Empty the beans into a single mesh strainer and rinse thoroughly, then add them to the pot. And by the way, do you read the ingredients on the cans you buy? Do so. As you can see here, there’s nothing weird in here, but it’s nice to be sure, and nicer yet to rinse and just deal with the ingredient in question, yes?

Rinse all veggies. Skin and top onion; top and deseed and vein the chiles and peppers, (If you really like your chili hot, leave the seeds and membranes on the jalapeños). Cut all those veggies into a uniform fine dice, as well as the olives.

Skin, tip, and mince garlic. Chiffonade the cilantro. Zest the lemon, cut it in half, juice both halves and set the juice aside.

Place a large skillet over medium high heat with a tablespoon of oil therein and allow the oil to heat until it shimmers. We’re going to build a variant of a sofrito. Not to be confused with the Italian Soffritto, this South American/Mexican/Caribbean aromatic base consists of, in this case, the onion, jalapeño, sweet peppers, garlic, and bay leaves.

Toss the onion, jalapeños, and sweet peppers into the heated skillet and sauté until the onions begin to look translucent. Add the garlic and continue to sauté. When the garlic has lost its raw smell, add the sherry and stir steadily. The sherry will deglaze the pan, and combine with the oil and notably thicken; once that happens, toss the sauteéd veggie blend into the pot.

Cut the beef into roughly 1/2″ cubes. Place Wondra into a large ziplock bag. Add the beef and shake until all the flour evenly coats the beef.

Place the beef into the skillet, evenly spaced so all your chunks have direct contact with the heated surface. What you’re going to do now is critical to the flavor and thickness of great chili. You’re going to sear that beef, and that means truly sear, not just brown. If this goes as it should, almost no fat or juice will render out of the beef; all that flavor is retained and gets transferred to your chili. You need to allow at least 5 minutes for each side, and maybe even up to 7 or 8. Let it cook for as long as it takes for a truly dark brown, crisp crust to form, then turn all the pieces and start work on a new side. Work the beef until each and every side has developed a nice, deep brown crust, then toss it into the pot.

Now grab a ladle full of the tomato/chile/beer blend and toss that into the hot pan the beef was cooked in. It’s gonna sputter and his a bit, so keep on your toes. Deglaze the pan with the mix, scraping up all that good stuff left behind by the beef cooking. Once it’s all incorporated, pour it into the chili pot.

And finally, it’s top off the seasonings time; start with the cilantro, lemon rind and juice. After stirring that well into the chili, it’s time for chili powder. Use 1 tablespoon first, let that blend for about 30 minutes, and see how that strikes you; add more if you like. Adjust salt and pepper as desired.

And then it’s time to simmer. Turn the heat down to low and let ‘er go. I like to leave the pot uncovered, but that’s me. You can cover or not as you see fit. Take a look and have a taste, and give a stir every hour or so. I call 4 hours the absolute minimum, and 6 to 8 far better. Built like this, the depth, breadth, and intensity of flavors is truly spectacular.

Serve it with house made cornbread, extra cheese, jalapeños, onions, cilantro, and sour cream. Ice cold beer goes great too, especially the lighter stuff like a nice pilsner or lager.

Then just wait until tomorrow, because it gets even better.