I saw this pic on someone’s Instagram story last week and it made me laugh, because when it comes to food, I think I may be part-Southerner, in a lot of ways.
The first pot of chili of the season is a big deal for me! I love chili. I love making it. I love how easy it is to make. I love how versatile chili is in the way you serve it. You can do so much with the leftovers over and above eating re-heated bowls of chili for the next four days. So yes, as a Northerner*, I get it!
Now, I make no claim that my way of making chili is “authentic” or “definitive”. Chili is like pizza or sandwiches: subject to enormous variety in how it’s made, from ingredients to flavor profile to cooking techniques used. I don’t even make one kind of chili! I have a recipe that I recently found to my liking (after trying several over the last few years) for White Chicken Chili, and I also love Cincinnati Chili, which is its own thing entirely, being at its root more of a thick chili-like meat sauce with Middle Eastern flavors enhancing sweetness rather than spiciness.
By way of some food history, here’s an excerpt from what Jeff Smith**, the “Frugal Gourmet”, wrote about chili in his cookbook The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American:
Most Americans think that the wonderful rich, beefy, and beany dish that we call chili came from some other culture. Mexico, perhaps, or Spain. Not so. I am afraid that both Mexico and Spain refuse to have anything to do with what we call good old American chili. One Mexican cookbook even goes so far as to scornfully describe chili as “A detestable food with a false Mexican name sold in the United States from Texas to New York City.” Hey, watch that! The rest of the country loves chili, too!
The original dish is truly American, though I have found that a lot of Americans in different locales think that it was invented in their backyard. After much research (two days) I have come to the following unquestionable decision. Chili was invented in San Antonio, Texas, in 1840. It was a blend of dried beef, beef fat, chili powder and spices, and salt. It was pressed into a brick and it was so potent that it would not spoil quickly. It was then taken by the prospectors to the California gold fields. There it could be reconstituted with water and cooked with beans. It was very much like the pemmican that had been used in earlier times but with spices added….
San Antonio has the distinct privilege in history of laying claim to “Chili Queens”. These ladies had little carts and tables and would appear late in the evening and sell chili and whatnot…I expect more whatnot was sold than chili. They were forced to close down in 1943 due to city health regulations of some sort…mostly sort.
I would have thought that all of Texas would have been involved in wonderful chili. But in 1890, when chili arrived in McKinney, a town just north of Dallas, all blazes broke loose. It seems that some wayward ministers claimed that chili was “the soup of the devil–food as hot as hell’s brimstone.” I wonder if these clergy ever bothered to taste a good pot of chili.
Well, isn’t that to be expected. Show me something, anything, being enjoyed by someone, and I’ll show you some tight-assed cleric who thinks it’s evil or the Devil’s work or some bullshit.
Anyway, I fully expect that most of you have your own method for making chili. I don’t say “recipe”, because I honestly believe that one should have a basic chili method that is so ingrained that the idea of referring to a recipe is simply nonsensical. Here is mine. Now, while I note above that I do make other kinds of chili, this is what I make when I simply say that I’m going to make “a pot of chili”.
This is a dish for the crockpot. We own two; for this I use our smaller one. I have no idea what the size is in terms of quarts. Into the crockpot (spray it first with cooking spray!) go the following:
- 1 can crushed tomatoes (28oz)
- 1 can diced tomatoes (15oz)
- 1 can black beans (rinsed)
- 1 can dark red kidney beans (rinsed)
- 1 can “chili” beans in sauce (not rinsed; I like Bush’s)
- Half (or so) of one bottle of commercial chili sauce (I buy my store brand)
- Hot sauce. No idea the measurement. I pour a bunch in and taste it. This is how hot sauce should always be used in recipes. If a recipe specifies an amount of hot sauce, ignore it.
I try to buy the “No salt added” versions of those first four canned ingredients, but it’s not a deal-breaker.
Here’s what all this looks like, if you want to see a picture of a crockpot full of cans of stuff that’s red:
Obviously you can use a can of whole tomatoes, if you like your tomatoes in bigger chunks, and obviously you can change up the beans. I like a blend of beans and I like a lot of beans in my chili.
Meanwhile, into the frying pan goes:
- 1 onion, diced
- However much garlic seems reasonable, and then double that
- 1 lb ground meat
- Several tablespoons chili powder
- (Sometimes I add 1 bell pepper, diced, if I have it on hand. Today I do not.)
Well…hold on. That all doesn’t go in at once. Heat up the pan, then add a few tablespoons oil and then the aromatic veggies. (Add the oil to the hot pan. As long as we’re talking about the Frugal Gourmet, remember his rule: “Hot pan, cold oil, foods won’t stick.” This actually works.) I like to saute the onion, garlic, and optional bell pepper on a high heat for a minute, and then reduce the heat to medium to sweat the veggies for a few additional minutes before I add in the ground meat.
Now: what ground meat to use? Sure, you can use ground beef or pork or whatever, but I prefer hot (or spicy) pork breakfast sausage (Bob Evans is a fine brand, and I’m not just saying that because The Wife and I both worked for Bob Evans at points in our lives), because you get more flavor this way. Remember Alton Brown’s commandment for stews: Never miss an opportunity to add flavor! Get it in there and start breaking it up with your spatula, splitting the chunks up as you go. Oh, and a minute or so after the meat’s in there and has started browning? Dump in the chili powder. A lot of it. The color of the stuff in the pan should noticeably change.
I generally stop breaking up my meat chunks when they’re about the size of a marble, because I like the meat in my chili to be in large pieces. (I’ve even done chili with stew beef, which is quite tasty. If you do that, flour and brown the meat before anything else, then set aside and re-introduce to the pan after you’ve sweated the aromatics.)
Here’s what the action in the frying pan looks like:
Then what? Well, it’s obvious: Put the frying pan stuff in the crockpot with the rest of the stuff.
Stir it up, lid it up, set the pot on low for, I dunno, six or seven hours. I like to crank it to high in the last hour, but that’s just me. The Wife makes fun of me for this (“How can I tell you if I like it? You served me a bowl of molten lava!”), but I’ve seen her send back way too many bowls of soup in restaurants for not being hot enough, and I am not making that mistake. Top it with cheese, or not. Sour cream, or not. Guacamole, or not. Chili is the pizza of stuff-that-comes-in-bowls, when it comes to versatility. (Stay in your lane, pizza! I don’t care if Steve Martin’s first movie The Jerk has a joke about the local “Pizza In A Cup” place.)
I’m writing this post, by the way, while we’re still two hours out from eating, so I don’t have a picture of a bowl of chili yet. Stay tuned. My stuff works great for chili dogs, though! And poured atop a bed of Fritos! And though I’ve never tried it, I always think it would taste good as an omelet filling.
And that’s how I make chili. Believe me, folks: a crockpot filling the house with wonderful aromas, be it chili or something else (the natives are already starting to clamor for Mississippi Roast!), is one of the finer pleasures that the autumnal time of year can give.
* By “Northerner”, do we mean anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line, or more along the lines of the Northeast? Because Buffalo is more a Great Lakes area. That’s a thought for another time, I suppose.
** Yes, I know. But I still own his books, I learned a whole damned lot about cooking from his books and his shows, and he’s been dead for years. I grant that he was a problematic sumbitch and will not litigate it here.