This is not my chili, but looks a little like it
Ok, so the recipe itself probably doesn’t fight cancer. I say that though because I created it for my friend’s Relay for Life chili cook-off, and all of the proceeds (entry fees, etc) went towards her team’s fundraising goal. Still, it won best meat chili out of a very competitive pool, so it’s worth sharing.
I almost feel bad calling this chili, because I think of chili as a kind of American peasant food. It’s hearty, it’s simple, something you’d picture two grizzled cowboys sharing over an open camp fire after a long day of driving cattle. Or, think of it as something to enjoy after coming in from a game of family touch football on a crisp New England fall afternoon. Maybe mom started the chili when you and dad and your cousins went out to play, and now that you’re done you come in, put on a cableknit fisherman’s sweater and sit down by the fire with a warm bowl of hearty chili, maybe discussing with your grandparents how your studies at Exeter are going this semester, and yeah ok I have no idea how those people actually live. Regardless, this chili is neither simple nor rustic. It’s tedious.
What it is, however, is chili so good that your friends will smack their own thighs after every bite. Chili so flavorful and savory that if you notice the crockpot’s missing, it’s because one of your guests has snuck off into a corner with it and is naked and crouched over it like a caveman, slathering it all over their body and forcing it into their mouth with their hands. That’s what I knew it would take to win, something with a crazy strong, savory, umami punch to it. That’s why there are approximately 1500 ingredients. Also, because I made it up as I went along.
| 1.25 lbs ground meat (any animal)
||1/2 small can tomato paste
|1 can crushed tomatoes
|1/2 can black beans
||All of the garlic
||1/2 package of mushrooms
|1 tiny can baked beans
Yeah, like I said, it’s a lot. The good thing about this chili is that instead of making the whole batch on the stove and having to baby it for several hours, once the prep work is done everything goes in the crock pot and you can leave it alone until you’re ready. Let’s make some chili.
Step one: Brown your meat. Do not do this the same way you would for meat sauce, which is to say do not plop your entire cake of ground beef into the pan and break it up with a spatula. Instead, use a knife to cut the meat cake into oh, say, 5 slices. Then using your hands, break each slice up into the hot pan one batch at a time. The goal here is for heartier chunks of beef. The other goal is to get the meat fucking brown, not grey. Get the pan good and hot, and get a good, crackly char on at least one side of each batch. Don’t worry, it’ll soften once we get the liquid in there, but for now we need that charred flavor. Each time a batch is finished, drain the grease off and shovel it into the crockpot, and then prepare the next batch. While each batch works, use this time to dice both onions (keep them separate) and mince all of that goddamned garlic. Don’t be afraid, I’m talking 8, 10 big cloves. Mincing garlic by hand is a colossal pain in the ass, so if you have a mincer or a food processor, I suggest using it.
Step two: Create the base. Using any leftover beef tallow (or just oil), get once of your diced onions sweating over medium heat. A little salt here might help speed things along, but use it sparingly. Once those look like they’re close to where they need to be, add all of that damned minced garlic and cook until it’s fragrant and getting soft. When that happens, dump in a bunch (A tablespoon? A tablespoon and a half?) of chili powder and mix it around to coat everything.
(A note on chili powder: In this case, I’m using store bought stuff. It probably doesn’t add a ton of flavor, per se, but it does create some incredible aroma and adds color. If you’re the kind of foodie dweeb who wants to make their own powder or base from your own dried chiles, be my guest. You’ll probably need a lot less of it, in that case.)
Once the chili powder has filled your home with the smell of TexMex, plop in a good tablespoon of tomato paste and mix that around to coat everything. Let that go until the color has mellowed a bit ad you can smell it, and then dump the whole mess into the crockpot with the beef. Mix it all up.
Step three: Go ahead and add the rest of the “standard ingredients” to the crockpot, which you can go ahead and crank to high at this point. Half the can of black beans, rinsed thoroughly. Not quite the whole can of crushed tomatoes. Lots and lots of cumin. Plenty of garlic and onion powder. Take your mushrooms and rough chop them into, I don’t know, 1/4″ square pieces (Leave larger if you like bigger, meatier chunks of mushroom. My wife does not). Go ahead and put these in raw, because the liquid they produce will both add a meaty punch and help with the consistency of the final dish. Pour in about 2/3 a bottle of beer.
Since this is a summer chili, I wanted something that would add floral and citrus notes, in which case the New Belgium “Rolle Bolle” in my fridge worked nicely. Sam Adams Summer Ale would probably be good here, as would Blue Moon. There’s nothing wrong with using plain old Budweiser if that’s all you have, but it won’t bring a whole lot to the party. Anything brewed for summer is best, stopping short of something as fruity as a Shandy beer. Finally, add just a few glugs of cheap red wine to restore some of that iron-y, meaty flavor we cooked out of the meat.
So what we now have is essentially a TexMex bolongese sauce, which is great but not at all chili. Part of that will resolve itself over time while cooking, and the rest we’ll sort out with the “secret” ingredients, as follows:
– Caramelized onions: These add a warmth and unidentifiable sweetness to the chili. When I say caramelized, I don’t mean “browned,” like you’d get at a burger joint that advertised them. I mean cooking an entire onion down to less than a cup of what amounts to onion marmalade, like you would for French onion soup. You can do this the old fashioned way over almost imperceptibly low heat, in which case your onions will be done sometime around the winter solstice. Or, you can follow Kenji’s lead over at Serious Eats and use higher heat and sugar combined with the occasional water de-glaze to speed things up significantly. Kenji got his time down to about 15 minutes; mine took about 20 because I wasn’t trying to mess with baking soda. Once they’re cooked down all the way, into the pool they go.
– Soy sauce: When I first started messing around with chili recipes a couple of years ago, this was the first “secret” ingredient I used to augment the initial recipe my mom provided. I use light soy sauce, because while it does add some needed salt to the dish, the real value is in the umami-y glutamates found in soy sauce. I’m not sure exactly how much I used, but I’d say somewhere around 1/3 of a bottle. Put it in little by little, mixing and tasting. I generally stop when the chili is closer to the burnt umber color of chili and less red.
– Baked beans: Lots of people opt for kidney or pinto beans over black beans in their chili, but I don’t know anyone who uses baked. Some chili recipes call for brown sugar and cinnamon, and while I’ve tried those with success, they’re too forward and warm in a summer chili. Baked beans give me the warm notes I want at a more acceptable intensity, add savoriness due to their bacon-cooked origins, and add further sweetness to help cut the tomato’s acidity. I buy and use one of those comically small cans they sell, sauce and all.
– Sriracha: Most people use cayenne to add heat, but my problem is that cayenne brings heat and nothing else in terms of flavor. Everything in my chili has to count, so a one-note ingredient like cayenne is out. Chipotle powder used to be my go-to, but it’s too temperamental. Not enough and you can’t taste it, but just a pinch too much and you’re overwhelmed with both heat and smoke. I put in several good squirts of sriracha, which adds not only an easily controlled amount of heat, but also the chile pepper flavor the dish is lacking at this point. Again, squirt, taste, and then adjust as needed.
(Note: I realize that I’m using a few distinctly Asian ingredients, which might lead you to believe this will end up tasting like Thai or Chinese chili. It won’t. Shut up.)
– Ground coffee: Odd sounding, but not so much when you consider that it’s often used in dry rubs for a lot of TexMex steak preparations. I happened to have mocha flavored coffee, which was nice seeing as how chocolate is found in mole, that distinctly Mexican sauce. When I say ground, I mean really ground, like into a powder (a spice grinder, blender, or food processor should accomplish this) because you don’t want anyone chewing on noticeable coffee grounds. You only need a teaspoon or so, and if you don’t have mocha coffee you can add some shavings of baker’s chocolate to make up for it.
– Dr. Pepper: This was the last thing I added, actually the day after it did most of the cooking because it still needed something. I used diet (because that’s what I had on-hand), and less than half a can. I can’t say it added any unique flavors of its own, but it did pull all the other flavors together and gave the finished dish what one taster described as a “left turn.” Again, this sounds super weird, but Dr. Pepper is a favorite braising liquid in some regional barbecue styles.
That’s it. Get it all into the crockpot, give it a stir, and let it go on high for a couple of hours. Once it gets to a low boil, turn it down to low and let it simmer until the sun collapses into a White Dwarf (or, y’know, 4 hours). This is a chili that definitely benefits from having some time to itself so the flavors can mingle. Once it’s done, let it sit overnight in the fridge, and when you go to eat it the next day, place a friendly wager with your friends to see who can go the longest before their eyeballs melt out of their sockets.
Tedious. Time-consuming. It’s everything chili shouldn’t be, but tastes like everything chili wishes it could be. It’s really more of a condiment than anything else, because it’s too flavorful to eat an entire bowl. Try it on a hotdog. Put some over pasta. Slather some on your lover’s private parts. It’s good on literally anything.