Or so you might be tempted to believe, given how people (and mostly these people are, in my experience, men) do bang on about it. Everybody who makes chili seems to have an opinion, everybody’s recipe is different, and people can get downright snotty on whether or it’s real chili if you use beans. Apparently vegetarians are banned entirely from being taken seriously as chili cooks by that standard.
My opinion is you are probably right, and I am making it all wrong, but I get no complaints, so I’m going to carry on doing as I please, as should you. And what I please changes with every single pot I make, and I have made many of them. Chili is more of a concept to me than an engraved-in-stone recipe, which is why I’m not going to give a specific recipe in this post. There are some things that never change with mine; plenty of garlic, onions and green peppers. Both fresh chilis and chili powder. There will be cumin, and probably plenty of it. I always garnish it generously, and I like it thick, with the tomatoes well-reduced. Oh, and there will always be tomatoes in it, somewhere, even if it’s only the garnish on a white chili, which is another controversial topic amongst purists.
When I can get them, either by growing them myself, or lucking into a deli that sells them in tins, I like using tomatillos and chicken in my white chili, although I’m occasionally willing to buy into the pork industry’s The Other White Meat marketing, if I’m in the mood. I also think you could make a pretty nifty version with white fish, and I think I will try that one of these days, as I have overcome my fear of cooking fish in the last year or so.
So what I’m basically saying here is I haven’t more than glanced at a chili recipe in years, much less followed one to the letter. My recently-acquired passion for what I suppose is best described as Mahgrebi and Mashriqi cuisines has led to some damn fine, if somewhat unorthodox chilis, as well as many happy and educational hours reading cookbooks and falling down internet rabbit holes.
And all this, from a woman who made her first pot of chili by following the recipe on the back of the McCormick’s packet approximately 30 years ago. It was pretty good, as I recall, and I don’t have the heart or arrogance to look down on salt-heavy, pre-mixed spice packets. Those things started me down the road, way back when.
It doesn’t matter, though; even if you’re an unswerving pre-mixed spice packet user, your chili is the best, because everybody’s is the best.
But back to my chili. I realised this weekend that it had been, for me, absolute ages since I’d made chili. So when I went to my awesome butcher to buy the meat for the weekend’s cooking, I got a goodly amount of their rare breed pastured minced beef (and oh god, is it good to fearlessly buy minced meat and not worry about it crawling with god knows what filth, and oh god, I’d forgot just how good beef is supposed to taste, and oh godx3, it really doesn’t cost all that much more than the [too-often literally] shitty supermarket beef, and it’s not pumped full of water, either, but this digression is getting out of hand) and brought it home, resolved to end this chili drought, which I did on Sunday, for dinner with Phil and his dad.
One recent innovation, courtesy of Spain (Olé!), is an outright obsession with smoked pimentón, which is one spice I’d managed to miss for most of my chili-making career, probably because I thought paprika was boring as hell, based on the probably well-out-of-date sweet paprika my mom tended to sprinkle on cottage cheese, when she was feeling fancy. I WAS SO WRONG. I also thought I didn’t like sweet red peppers, but it turns out, I only didn’t like their bitter, nasty skins, so it’s good to know I can still acquire new tastes in my oncoming dotage. (I learned to blister the hell out of them in the oven and slip their skins off, and hello, ambrosial red peppers, you are now on my short list of favourite foods in the world. Just hitting them with a fruit peeler works as well, if you don’t want them roasted.
So I whacked a bunch of that into it, and unless I am making white chili, in which case I’ll probably sprinkle a little of it on top as part of my elaborate garnish technique, picanté pimentón is joining the roster of permanent chili ingredients. Another new innovation: barring an emergency, in which case I’d just use tinned anyway, as god is my witness, I will never cook dried beans in anything other than my slow-cooker ever again, amen. (Exception: that toxin-killing ten minute hard boil needed for kidney/cannellini beans.) I much prefer cooking with dried beans, and being able to soak them all day, cook them on low overnight, and then use them the following day has totally been a game-changer for me. Why did I spend so long thinking that couldn’t possibly work, and using my super-scary (although perfectly safe) pressure cooker? I’ll tell you why, it’s because up until Nigella Lawson, bless her, offered up this technique in her most recent book, a pressure cooker was the only way I could manage to successfully cook dried beans. I don’t know why the hell I had some kind of terrible cook-it-on-the-hob luck, but I did, and my beans always had horrible hard, crunchy skins on them after like HOURS of simmering, until I tried the pressure cooker. Which is swell, and I’ll probably use it again, if I’m pressed for time, even if it screams terrifyingly, but it’s the crock pot for me from here on in, whenever possible.
So this is getting ridiculously long, so to come back to my original point, chili is awesome, and I am seldom happier in the kitchen than when I am making it. And then we get to eat it, and, as it turns out, my dining companions inform me that I, in fact, make the best chili in the world.
Except for you, obviously.