On Chili



Iíve been frequently asked for my chili recipe, usually at potlucks or my co-workerís annual cookoff. I donít have one.What I have, instead, is an opinion. Iíve thought of calling it a Philosopy of Chili, but thatís much too overblown.Essentially, I make chili that I like to eat.

Chili, to me, is meat in a (usually red) (usually hot/spicy) sauce or stew with a Southwestern American flavor. Thatís a pretty loose definition, but when one defines the most common spices found in chili, the definition tightens up so that the end product is recognizably chili. Note that I said ďSouthwestern AmericanĒ. Cincinnati chili, isnít.Iíve been to Cincinnati and gone to the restaurant where the stuff was invented, the Skyline Restaurant. Their stuff is spaghetti sauce with a splash of cinnamon. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the afficionadi (shouldnít say ďfanaticsĒ, itís not nice) of the International Chili Society, or ICS.ICS chili is cubes of meat in a red gravy, around an 8-8.5 on a 10-scale for hot, period.ICS cooks refer to other variations as ďthrow-awayĒ or ďBring-your-ownĒ chili Ė stuff that you feed to the masses while producing your Inner Zen Chili.

Some purists will say that tomatoes have no place in chili. Others, that beans are a sacrilege. Some say that a chili should be meat in a stew of peppers, served OVER beans, or rice. Iíve done the stew-o-peppers version. Then I got hitched. Wifeís allergic / sensitive to bell peppers. I use tomatoes.Iíll use beans, if Iím making grocery-store chili for 50 on a low budget.All of my chili has meat in it, though.My cookoff chilis are so carnivoracious, that a Vegan would get a tummy-ache just smelling Ďem. Iíve seen, and used, other stuff in chili from beer, to coffee, to chocolate. Itís all good.


So, what is this ďessence of chiliĒ? What spices give a chili that Southwestern American flavor?The most commonly-used ones are chiles, or chili peppers; cumin; oregano; garlic; and paprika.For an exotic, more-Mexican flavor, you can add cinnamon, and/or chocolate.Other herbs and spices can go a long way toward customizing your spice blend.Start with the basics, find your proportions, and then play with them, remembering what works for you, and what doesnít. Letís look in detail, at these spices.

PEPPERS are what give chili its heat.In this case, Iím talking about chilies, rather than bell peppers. Over the years, Iíve pretty much drifted away from using bells in chili. Chiles can range from the slightly-warm Anaheim, through the middling-hot Jalapeno and Serrano, up to the nuclear-grade Scotch Bonnet and Habanero.I will typically use a mix, since Iíve generally got several cultivars around the house. Typically, Iíll use Habanero, Serrano, Thai, and maybe some Cayenne or Pliki Nu. Fresh ones get chopped up and thrown into the pot early in the cooking. Dried ones go into a blender jar, and get powdered.Iíll also use black pepper, which isnít related to chiles. It has a different ďHeatĒ chemical, which complements the chilies.

CUMIN, even more than chili peppers,is the spice that makes real chili taste like chili. Your best bet is toget whole cumin seeds from an Asian or Latino grocery, and grind them at the time of use. Pre-ground cumin can go rancid, which then becomes apparent when you start cooking with it.Cumin also figures prominently in curry mixtures. In some areas, the distinction between chili and curry starts to blur.

GARLIC and OREGANO round out the basic chili-powder mixture. Oregano shouldnít be overdone, as too much can make your chili taste like spaghetti sauce. Garlic, on the other hand, canít be overdone. There is no such thing as too much garlic.

PAPRIKA, mentioned above, is just another pepper. Since powdered paprika is bright red, and is milder than other chilies, itís used to give chili that red color.

On the subject of mix-your-own, vs commercial, I donít care. If Iím doing a cookoff, Iíll grind my own spices from scratch. If itís just dinner around the house, Iíll frequently use a pre-mix, like Six Gun Chili Mixinís.That usually needs a bit extra, like some additional fresh-ground cumin,and minced garlic. For super-laziness, Iíll use the Old El Paso mix, which consists of seasonings to which you add a jar of salsa. Typically, Iíll only go that way if Iím going to be filling something, like nachos-for-50. Canned peppers, by the way, are an abomination. Cast them into the outer darkness.


Iíve used all kinds of stuff in chili. Beef, turkey, chicken, lamb, pork, even buffalo, you name it. I ALWAYS do some browning or pre-cooking, before the meat goes in the pot.A lot of times, Iíll brown the meat on a barbecue grill, then chop it up before putting into the chili. A few years ago, I learned something. There used to be a place near me, called Barbecue Country. They had truly outstanding chili. I realized that they were making the chili with leftover barbecue meats. So, they had chopped-up chunks of smoked sausage, ribs, brisket, and whatnot in there. Iíve stolen that idea.


Ground beef works fine. Brown it up, with a splash of Worcestershire or A1 Sauce if desired. If you want to get fancy, get some Top Round, aka London Broil. Steep 24 hours in a suitable marinade. From the Weber Grill Cookbook, I use soy sauce, vinegar, oil, Worcestershire, salt, pepper, lemon juice, and dry mustard. Iíll also tweak it with garlic and wasabi. Grill the Ďbroil, then chop into bits.


My signature browning meat, which shows up in almost all my chilis, is hot sausage. Typically, thatís hot Italian. Iíve also used Chorizo and Andouille.The best flavor is derived from grilling over low-to-medium heat, then chopping it into cubes. Barbecued ribs, or chops, are also excellent.


Three words: Jamaican Jerk Seasoning.Mix it with ground turkey, or marinate and grill chunks of bird. Brown the meat thoroughly,as poultry tends to shed a lot of juice that can water-down your chili.


Lamb, to me, tastes gamey. When Iím cooking it AS lamb, my typical approach is to curry the living daylights out of it. Lamb in Spicy Yogurt Sauce, or Rogan Josh, are both good ways to spice it up. I donít know that Iíd go with a Vindaloo, for preparing chili meat. The vinegar would be too weird.


These are things like buffalo, ostrich, goat, rattlesnake, etcetera. That reminds me, I bet thereís a way to order canned snake onlineÖ If itís a meat that has a unique taste of its own, just brown it up with salt and pepper. Buffalo is kind of beefy, so I hit it with barbecue sauce.



Some people consider the mere thought of using tomatoes, to be sacrilege.Others think of chili as a tomato sauce with spices, meat, and/or beans. Iím in the middle. My current preference is diced, cooked tomatoes.Del Monte makes Ďem with jalapenos Ė gotta love that, thereís one of my pepper requirements right there.


Iíve gotta have onion in my chili. Iíve varied over the years, from large chunks of obvious onion, to puree. Iíve thrown them into the chili raw, and sauteed them. Stealing an idea from Chef Emeril, I now add caramelized onions.Thereís a secret to that, discussed later.


Mushrooms??!!! Yep. For those who think itís heresy, cheat. Run the Ďshrooms through a food processor to disguise them, before adding to the chili. As with caramelized onions, mushrooms (particularly sauteed) add a particular element to any dish. More will be revealed.


I donít use them now, because of the spousal-allergy issue. Bell peppers, in their myriad colors and flavors, are certainly a legitimate addition. I would tend to split them, de-seed, chop finely, and sautee before adding to the chili.


Eh. To me theyíre a filler, to bulk out Chili for the Masses.Or, you can serve chili OVER beans. Or, even better, serve it over beans and rice. Dried beans take a couple of days of prep, before you can even put them in the chili. If youíre using canned kidney beans, rinse them in several changes of water. When they no longer feel slimy from the liquid in the can, youíll have reduced the gasogenic content considerably.Use Ďem if you want to.


Iíve seen corn, okra, chickpeas, blackeye peas, and more beans than you could shake a stick at. And that was just at one chili cookoff. They all have a place, although generally speaking that place is not in a batch of my chili. De gustibus non disputandum est. I do, however, use Masa Flour as a thickener.


Around the turn of the 20th Century, in 1908, Japanese scientists discovered that humans have a fifth type of taste bud. In addition to the previously-known sweet, sour, salt, and bitter, humans can taste a fifth flavor, known in Japanese as umami. The triggering element is glutamic acid, which is why 20th Century Asian cooking was larded with Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). Natural sources of glutamic acid are such things as aged Parmesan, toasted Cheddar, roasted garlic, sauteed / caramelized onions, sauteed mushroomsÖ Where have I seen this before?A sure way to increase your chiliís popularity, is to tickle peopleís umami receptors.


This is for the version I do at home. For company, I grind my own spices rather than cheating.

1 can 14oz Del Monte Diced Tomatoes with Zesty Jalapenos

1 Yellow Onion, chopped

Ĺ lb sliced mushrooms

1 Package Six Gun Chili Mixinís
2 tbl cumin, 1 tbl oregano, 1 tbl ground dried chili peppers, 1 tbl paprika, 1 tbl garlic (adjust as desired)

Extra Cumin, Chili Peppers,and Garlic

1 lb Hot Italian Sausage

1-2 lb other Flesh

Sri Racha, or other hot sauce, to taste

Fire up a Crock Pot, on High. Throw in the Tomatoes. Mix the Ground Spices with a tomato-can of water, and add that. Sautee the Onions and Mushrooms. Chop fine, and add. Brown the Hot Italian Sausage, and chop into small chunks. Brown the Other Flesh, and throw that in. Walk away for a few hours. About Ĺ to 1 hour before serving, pull off a half-cup of juice from the chili. Use that to make a roux with the Masa Flour from the chili mix. I keep a tub of the stuff around, by the way, for when Iím doing chili from scratch. Stir the roux into the chili, and let simmer until dinner time.

Serve with sour cream, shredded cheese, salsa, tortilla chips, or whatever you like.


Go ye forth, and cook!