Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Chili Primer for the Uninformed, by Dale Graham

My good friend Trouble's slander against mesquite in her Barbecue Rant
inspired me to share her views with a good friend of mine who is given to a love of well-prepared food. Trouble's inability to appreciate good barbecue aside, her rant inspired my friend to write his own piece, in this case on the proper preparation of chili. Any textual errors should be attributed to the man's fiery passion for fine chili, or to my sloppy editing. Enjoy.

Chili: A primer for the uninformed by Dale Graham

What is chili? If you ask someone from Ohio, you will discover that it is some sort of mysterious non-spicy stew served over spaghetti, containing beans, and assorted other things. New Mexicans will tell you that it isn't chili, its CHILE, to stress their regional boner for some of the only worthwhile plants that grow in their state (They do have some mesquite, though, and that has to count for something!). This guy I know from Florida said something about olives and mushrooms before I fazed him out completely in a mental lockdown to prevent murderous rage. All of these things and more are called chili. Commercial brands have brought a degree of unilateralism to it, and most people around the country enjoy beans with theirs. This article is to express just how misguided they are.

To be perfectly fair, I am from Texas, and many folks who are not from Texas find our dedication to what we believe to be the purest form of chili somewhat abrasive and daunting. This does not mean that we are not also right, but please read on before you decide I am a pompous ass. Within is contained the reason for this almost slavish dedication, and if one were to comprehend it, a chili-related nirvana might be reached.

Beans. This is probably the biggest bone of contention between Texans and just about everyone else about chili. The reason for this is that when others consume it, they desire a starch to cut the acidic spice of the chili. They reason that a natural option to do this is by placing one directly into the chili itself. While this may make external sense, it is important to understand that when you are sitting down to eat a bowl of something thats primary flavors consist of meat and a fruit that most people would not consider eating whole outside of a prepared dish for fear of the nuclear destruction of their mouth, that flavor is the reason for doing so. You are not eating a bowl of chili because you want rosy fresh breath or comfort. You are eating something deliberately more spicy than most other foods because it tastes good. This may seem obvious, but bear with me. If the objective is for the meal to taste good, then it makes sense that all the parts of it should contribute to flavor. However, when you put beans in chili, they just sort of taste like everything else. And in Texas we take our beans very seriously. Ask Mundane's dad, he makes a killer pot of them, I am told.

So we like beans, and we like chili. We even like beans and chili together! But that is no excuse for being lazy. Cook your chili, it will taste like chili, cook your beans and they will taste like beans. Eat them together and it will taste like chili and beans. Cook your beans in the chili and it will taste like chili and some mushy parts. You miss out on a whole world of flavor!

Now that we've talked about beans, lets talk about some other things people argue about for chili. Number 1: tomato sauce!

Tomato sauce is one of those things that a lot of purists despise because they see it as being lazy. Tomato sauce adds both liquid and body to the stew at once, which makes it a popular enriching agent in many places, even in Texas amongst cooks who are not hardcore purists. The problem with using tomato sauce in chili is that if you underseason it, it tends to taste like a failed Italian sauce or something, and that when you do season it properly, it doesn't actually convey the tomato flavor, so it's kind of moot. I used to use it, but have discovered a method of achieving the same end that is both more traditional and more flavorful. Puree some reconstituted chiles with a couple cups of hot water and use that as liquid instead. By the time you are finished cooking the pot, the seeds will be softened to the point of unnoticeability, and it will add a robustness and a depth of flavor that you can't really achieve with chili powders alone.

Number 2: Coffee!
This is the ingredient that some argue makes for a bowl of red-eye. Coffee does not actually make the chili taste like coffee, as long as you don't stir in more coffee than anything else, but what it does do is give it a deeper flavor, and a more robust body that accepts the chile seasonings and makes them blend better for a smoother and more sophisticated flavor. Texas chili isn't really lauded for being subtle, but this is one of those things that makes the flavor enriched without being complicated. If you don't have a good ol' fashioned percolator, I recommend cheating and using a couple of tablespoons of instant coffee crystals. It lets you use my chile puree trick without using too much liquid, allowing for an easier time packing in flavors.

Number 3: Beer!
Beer is kind of funny with chili. A lot of people use it, mostly as an excuse to bring home a six pack and drink the rest. Beer isn't really a part of traditional Texas chili (Cowboy style! Which incidentally pretty much just consists of beef, water and spices and cooks for a long time until it reduces and incorporates). This is one of those points where I kind of take my own bent with an ingredient. I use beer in my chili, but not for the usual reasons. And moreover I prefer a dark red ale, rather than any of the usuals. See, I use a secret ingredient that isn't so secret. When I finish browning the meat, I'll put a shot of Frank's Red Hot hot sauce on it and stir it in, letting it sear on a little bit to add some more flavor and zing without directly adding vinegar to my pot. Once this is done, pouring on a bottle of beer (I recommend Red Hook, or if you can't get it, Lawson's Creek or Killian's, but whatever you have should work OK,) darker adding a little more flavor overall, though most of it will cook off, leaving just enough to add a bit of depth to the flavor of the pot. This effectively can act ad a deglazing of sorts, and paves the way for the rest of the liquid, and does a pretty good job of helping to break down the coarser grinds and tougher cuts of meat.

Number 4: Chocolate
I hear some people do this. It kind of makes me squeamish, and I don't want my ancestors to murder me in my sleep, so I'm not gonna try this to find out if it's any good or not.

Number 5: Liquid
If you want to make a straight up traditional bowl of Texas red, you can't use anything but water, but if you are willing to diverge a little bit, there are a variety of chef-grade kitchen stocks and bases, that will add some flavor to your chili without being too obvious. Beef broth may seem the clear choice but it tends to add a bit too much of a metallic taste, so my preference lies with a bout a cup of water mixed with some chicken Better than Bouillon, available from most grocery chains. It doesn't overpower any of the flavors, but it adds a nice certain something.

This is the spices. There are folks who swear by any number of different exotic chiles, or blend their own powders, but honestly, if you are going for flavor over heat, you can't go wrong with the Ancho chile pepper. Generally sold in dried form, these peppers are not all that hot, but they have a bold and tasty flavor that can make a hot but less flavorful pot of chili into something so much better. I recommend reconstituting these and pureeing them, rather than using their powdered form. New Mexico chiles are also quite tasty, and A'rbol can make a good element if used sparingly. The chili will only ever be as hot as its hottest spice, so choose what that will be, to regulate your heat level, and then work down the heat ladder and add liberally to round out your flavor. Despite the general rule that a whole pepper is more flavorful than a powder, Gebhardt makes a DAMN fine product in their chili powder, and you can use that in a pinch, or if you're like me, add some to round out a pot using whole chiles. Other spices that go into chili tend to be cumin used in the preparation of the meat, maybe a pinch of jalapeno, salt, pepper, garlic, onion, that sort of thing. I generally disapprove of cinnamon and brown sugar going into the pot, but if you REALLY must sweeten it up, I recommend a few drops of cider vinegar instead.

Number 7: The Pot Thickens
This is kind of a small thing, but it can be contended that the only way to really thicken a chili (and if yours is really soupy or liquidy I think it's wrong!) is to let it cook for a long time with enough evaporation to let it thicken on its own, intensifying the flavors you have already put in by concentrating them. Sometimes you just don't have that kind of time, and that is why the Good Lord gave us Masa Harina. This is NOT like regular corn meal or starch. It has qualities for both, and if you live in the southwest, you can probably buy a 5 pound bag of it for like a buck at either a chain grocery store (HEB carries a store brand that works admirably) or a Mexican grocery. A few tablespoons of this added to a simmering pot toward the end and left uncovered for a few minutes will thicken that baby just right and even add a little bit of flavor. And as we know, chili is all about flavor.

Number 8: Where's the Beef?
We're talking about Texas chili, and that means we're talking about BEEF. Specifically Chuck. Specifically ¼ inch cubed chuck roast. This is kind of expensive to buy pre-cubed to spec, and a pain in the ass to do yourself if you aren't prepping the day before, so the stores have discovered the beauty of the coarse “chili” grind. It's pretty cheap, usually about two bucks a pound, and has a much heartier consistency than most ground meat you buy at the store, which tends to act kind of like mush. If you want to be pure, that's where you go, but if you want a little something extra and aren't taking this to a competition, try making about ¼ of your meat content a spicy bulk sausage instead. The pork is pretty close to indistinguishable from beef once it's been cooking for a while, and consolidated porkfat picks up flavor like you wouldn't believe. You could also just pour in some bacon grease, but this lets it incorporate better once you skim the top of the pot (which you should. This is hearty fare, but there's no point in BEGGING for a heart attack).

Number 9: Bring some friends!
How do you serve chili? In a big bowl. What do you serve it with? Well that's a little more complicated. If you want some straight up old school cowboy shit, get some beans (and any time I talk about beans in this article, I'm talking about pinto beans) and some unsweetened iron skillet cornbread. If you like a little cajun flair, I've picked up putting a bed of rice in the bottom of the bowl. Chopped raw onions go on top, and if you must have cheese, most people won't be too offended. Sometimes some buttermilk biscuits hit the spot, or even the occasional oyster cracker. Garnish liberally with a bottle of your favorite brew, a napkin and a spoon and you're good to go!

Here's a recipe for a pot of chili that is believed to inspire heroism, it's a little bit non-traditional but it's still a good bowl of Texas chili, and sometimes it's good to be flexible.

Big D's Bowl of Texas Red.
(Serves 5 hungry dudes or 10 lesser men)
4 lbs coarse 'chili' ground chuck
1 lb spicy sausage (I like Jimmy Dean)
5 tbsp Cumin
¼ cup Frank's Red Hot
1 cup chicken base
3 large Ancho peppers, reconstituted
2 cups hot water
2 bottles Red Hook Ale
¼ cup Gebhardt Chili Powder
1 tbsp Fajita Seasoning
Salt to taste (Always use Kosher)
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
3 tbsp instant espresso
4 tbsp Masa Harina

I like to use a large dutch oven for the chili, and usually start browning the meat double burner with a cast iron skillet and the dutch oven. Add a tablespoon of cumin to each pound of meat as it browns, drain fat and once all is browned, consolidate in the dutch oven, turning heat to high. When meat gets a slight sear, add Frank's Red Hot, and incorporate. Add one bottle of beer and simmer for 10 minutes. Puree peppers (remove stem) with 2 cups hot water and add, bring back to a boil and add Gebhardt chili powder, espresso, chicken base, salt, pepper, and fajita seasoning. Lower to a strong simmer, covered, for an hour and a half to two hours. Remove lid, stir in masa harina, simmer 15 minutes, and serve. Crack open second bottle of ale, toss in some Texas style buttermilk biscuits and you have yourself a meal.

This recipe is believed to have assisted Robert “Mad Dog” Boyd in fighting crime, and so I commend it to you with the hope that your bellies may be pleased and your communities safer.

Thank you, and good night.


At 7:15 PM, Blogger Shoelimpy™ said...

Informative and entertaining article, Mundane! I commend your friend on his excellent introduction to chili. Your editing wasn't horrible either. I remember the good old days of Chilifest.

At 6:03 AM, Blogger Spill The Beans said...

This is awesome, I'm gonna link it. I like it alot. I don't mind food-related arrogance one bit, though the chef thinks I'm a bit of a snob about my lack of pretension when it comes to snooty food. I like plain ole redneck food the best. I need to eat some chili the next time I'm in houston.

At 5:15 PM, Blogger AnnieAngel said...

Number 4: Chocolate
I hear some people do this. It kind of makes me squeamish, and I don't want my ancestors to murder me in my sleep, so I'm not gonna try this to find out if it's any good or not.

Ohhh, get some mole (molay), mix it up with some water, reduce it, dip a tortilla in it and put in some white kind of cheese that is like loose-ish, any of that kind is good.

It is so delicious and yes, it's chocolate, spicy chocolate. I've never thought of putting mole in chili...hmmm...


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