Chili con carne

A while back I published my recipe for bolognese sauce. Our eldest is starting a scheme where he cooks for us once a week, and last week he used that recipe. This week he wants to do chili con carne, so I’m posting my recipe mostly for him to follow. I hope it’s of use to others, too.

While this superficially resembles bolognese sauce, and shares many of the same ingredients, it’s a very different dish. (My wife’s tendency to refer to both of them just as “mince” is one of her few imperfections.)

While bolognese sauce is all about the long, slow simmers that bring out and blend the mediterranean flavours of the vegetables that complement the meat, chili aims for a much earthier taste, with more emphasis on the meat. It’s also much quicker to make.

Here’s how I do it.

  1. Chop three good-size onions and fry them in whatever fat you have. Vegetable oil is OK, butter is better; best of all is the chicken fat that you forsightedly saved from the roasting tin last Sunday. Fry until they are soft and translucent.
  2. Add 800 g of minced beef. Stir it in until it browns.
  3. Add two tins of tomatoes, chopped finely, including the juice, and mix in thoroughly.
  4. Add a generous teaspoon of ground cumin.
  5. Add a generous teaspoon of chili powder, adjusting to taste. If you add too little, you can come back and add more, but if you add too much you can’t take it back; so if in doubt err on the side of less, and keep tasting.
  6. Add a teaspoon of strong, unsweetened cocoa powder. You definitely do not want anything sweetened.
  7. Add two tins of kidney beans, having drained and discarded the liquid from the tins.
  8. Finely chop two to six cloves of garlic and mix them in.
  9. Add salt to taste. This is important: without salt, the other flavours don’t develop.
  10. Leave to simmer for at least half an hour, ideally longer. Ensure the heat is low enough to prevent burning.

Cook your rice in the usual way, perhaps adding a teaspoon of cumin seed. Serve with full-fat natural yoghurt on the side.

10 responses to “Chili con carne

  1. Craig Macfarlane

    It’s funny that you mention the similarity between bolognese sauce and chilli con carne. When my wife is travelling for work and I’m looking after our son for a few days, one of my standard ‘bachelor’ recipes is to make bolognese sauce from 500g mince and then re-use the leftover (it’s too much for only two people) to make chilli con carne the following day. I add a tin of red kidney beans and a sachet of CCC powder to the leftover bolognese, boil some rice, and Hey Presto! – a second meal.

  2. Not bad but I think it important to use fresh chillis – chop fine and add to taste, then a little while later rub your eyes, ouch! All part of the chilli experience.

  3. Coincidentally (or maybe not so, given the season) I’m making chili today. As I’m sure you know, people get pretty sniffy about what constitutes chili in some parts of the US. I’m not one of those people–I tend to like most things called chili (though I think the Cincinnati custom of serving chili over spaghetti odd- I don’t even serve Bolognese over spaghetti, though I know that’s common in Britain.)

    Your recipe is pretty similar, I think, to my mother’s chili (a dinner I always looked forward to, and have a great deal of affection for.) It’s also very much the style where I live at the moment (New England, also perhaps not so coincidentally when it comes to chili.)

    The Texas purist’s bowl of red is quite different. Chunks of chuck, no tomatoes, no beans, just beef, pureed reconstituted dried chiles, aromatics, herbs and spices, and maybe some masa harina. It’s very good (I make it sometimes,) and I understand why they are jealous of their nomenclature, but the tide has gone out on that, I think.

    The chili I’m making today is a hybrid. Ground beef, beans, and a bit of tomato, but with a base mainly consisting of guajillo, ancho, and arbol peppers (reconstituted in stock,) and a couple of chilpotles in adobo, thickened with some masa harina.

  4. Simon, I do agree that fresh chilis are better. The problem is, they are so unpredictable. If you use chili powder (so long as you stick with the same brand) you quickly develop an intuition about how hot the dish is going to be. But each fresh chili seems different. I guess you’re right that you can and probably should do it by slooowly adding, tasting and interating.

  5. Tagore, thanks for your regional overviews. I’d like to try the Texan version; I just lament that it’s called by the same name as the dish I know, since it’s evidently so very different.

    I wish I could sample the one you are making now, too!

  6. I’ve been cooking a lot of Mexican-inspired and in some cases pretty authentic (some ingredients are hard to get in New England, and some authentic Mexican dishes are really labor-intensive even with modern equipment) Mexican food over the last few years.

    I had never really thought of Mexican as one of the great cuisines, because what we see in much of the US (and especially what we saw in the US when I was growing up) is at best the tip of the iceberg, at second-best more Tex-Mex than Mexican, and very often Taco Bell.

    I have come to think of Mexican as one of the great cuisines, on par with Chinese, Italian, and Indian, as I’ve learned more about it. One of its characteristic ingredients is dried chiles. A dizzying array of dried chiles, in Mexico, but it has become easier to get the common ones in the US (good dried guajillo, ancho, arbol, pasillo, chilpotle, cascabel, new mexico, and muleta are all pretty easy to get even in New England these days.)

    I’m not sure that’s the case in Old England yet, but if you run across some you might give them a try in your chili. Toasted lightly in a dry pan, reconstituted in water or stock, and pureed in a powerful blender, they add a depth and complexity that chili powder can’t.

    And most are not very hot at all, though the arbols and the cascabels should be used with caution if you are sensitive to spicy food. Mexican food is generally not that hot (with some exceptions,) at least compared to, say, Thai or some Indian, and Mexico’s chiles and salsas emphasize flavor over heat. But do watch out for the chiles de arbol. Some of those have a certain kick to them.

  7. Thanks, Tagore, you’ve really got me interested now. It does seem a bit lame that I’m prepared just to say “chili powder” and leave it at that — as though I considered “beer” to be one thing instead of a dozen different styles, many of them capable of wildly different executions. I think it’s literally true that I have never seen chilis for sale under any other labelling than “chili” or “chili pepper”, so what you’re describing is certainly not mainstream in the UK. Then again, I’ve lived in a little village in the Forest of Dean for 14 years, which is hardly a metropolitan centre, so it’s quite possible that there are plenty of places in London that stock specific chilis.

    I’ll poke around on some online grocery places.

  8. Oh, I’m sure your chili is very good. As I said it is pretty similar to my mother’s, I think (though she had not figured out that chocolate is good in chili. I use a square or two of unsweetened chocolate rather than cocoa, because I have a fairly powerful blender. I think you could throw sticks and water in that thing and get something smooth out of it.) And it was pretty great. Maybe second only to lasagna in what I liked best of hers. I’ll happily use powders (though I have some individual chile powders like Ancho and Chilpotle as well as chili powder) when I’m in a hurry, and be very satisfied with the results.

    I do love dried Mexican / US Southwest chiles though, and not just (or even mainly) in chili. They’re really versatile, pretty easy to work with, and allow for unlimited experimentation with combinations and ratios. I always have at least a red salsa and a green salsa (made from fresh chiles, tomatillos, and coriander leaves as I think you call them in the UK) in the fridge, and more in the freezer.

    They’ve only become readily available in my part of the US relatively recently (like within the last 10 or so years,) so I wouldn’t be surprised if the North American varieties were still a bit hard to find in the UK. We seem to be in the midst of a great global food dissemination though, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they started making their way to your shores soon.

    What I’d really like to see show up where I am is some of the citrus from the Yucatan and Central America, like Seville oranges and agria limes. I’m sure in a few years I’ll start seeing them around here.

  9. Well, I took your advice and got some dried guajillo chilis delivered. Progressing slowly and carefully, I soaked one, then halved it, removed all the seeds, chopped it, and ground the bits in a pestle and mortar before blending it with a single helping of last night’s chili, which I then reheated in the microwave. There’s definitely a bit more going on than previously, but I was surprised at how little additional heat the chili gave. I’ll try adding two to tomorrow’s portion (unless my youngest eats it before I get the chance.)

    BTW., I forgot to mention the one kind of named chili variety we do get routinely in the UK, which is of course jalapeños. These almost always come pickled, and make a superb pizza topping: not just spicy, but fruity as well. In fact, my favourite pizza-topping combo is pickled jalapeños and sliced chorizo.

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