Monday, May 15, 2017

What is “real” Chili, anyway?

There has been much debate over what constitutes real chili for about as long as there’s been chili. Officially, it’s called “Chili con Carne” which refers to the peppers, and “carne” (which is Español for meat) so it’s probably safe to assume that’s how the dish started, as simply chilis and meat.

But chili aficionados continue to debate if it should it be all beef, or if it's okay that it contains beans? What about vegetarian chili - can we really even call that chili? And what about all those other versions out there? While beans have been associated with chili as far back as the early 20th Century, they have been a matter of contention among chili cooks for a long time. While it is generally accepted that the earliest chilis did NOT include beans, proponents of their inclusion contend that chili with beans has a long enough history so as to not be considered “inauthentic”.  Tomatoes are another ingredient on which opinions differ. Some would even argue that no vegetable belongs in chili at all. Frankly I think tomatoes are essential.

So where did this thing called chili come from? There’s this cuisine in the American Southwest called TexMex and many people think “Chili con Carne" has some connection to Mexico, probably because of the Spanish-sounding name. But according to this website, there is nothing Mexican about chili. If there is any doubt about what the Mexicans think about it, the Diccionario de Mejicanismos, published in 1959, defines chili (roughly translated) as: “detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the United States from Texas to New York.” Wow!

Chili con carne actually hails from Texas and seems to have first appeared in a recipe dating back to the 1850’s. This version was made into a dried brick that could be reconstituted in pots out on the trail. The San Antonio Chili Stand, in operation at the 1893 Expo in Chicago, helped popularize chili by allowing a greater number of people to appreciate its taste. San Antonio (Texas) was a tourist destination and helped Texas-style chili con carne spread throughout the South and West. In fact, chili con carne became the official dish of the State of Texas in 1977.

Before WWII, hundreds of small, family-run chili parlors could be found throughout Texas and other states, with each establishment claiming to some kind of secret recipe. And there are countless recipes for this stew containing a broad range of ingredients: ground turkey or chicken, of course beef stew meat, vegetarian soy crumbles, Italian sausage, kidney beans, onions, garlic, tomatoes, red or green bell peppers, spices like chili powder, and of course then there’s the chilis themselves: hatch, jalapeños, habaneros or serranos, depending on the level of heat you prefer.

Like most people, I’ve had it lots of different ways. But lately, I’ve been interested in eating it more authentically Texan, using beef stew meat, adding some spices to flavor it, and a mild degree of heat so I can still breathe! Beans don’t really agree with me anymore, so I’ve had to adjust my chili.

Here’s a beef chili I’ve made a few times that we really like. It’s adapted from Danielle Walker’s “Against all Grain” cookbook. She adds chocolate to hers (as in unsweetened cocoa powder, 1 oz) but I didn’t find it added much to the stew and have since decided to leave it out. If you want, give it a try, but don’t add it until the very end.

The slow cooker is essential for this one, but to add flavor to the dish, you should brown the meat beforehand. The rest happens while you’re at work. You need the slow cooker for stewing beef, or beef chuck, because the longer cooking time really helps break down the muscle fibers and tenderizes the meat, making it fall-apart tender when you eat it.

Slow-Cooker Beef Chili

2 tsp coconut oil
2-1/2 lbs beef chuck, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 red bell peppers, seeded and diced
1 small yellow onion
1 28-oz box or jar of chopped organic tomatoes
1-1/2 cups beef broth
2 Tbsp tomato paste
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
2-1/2 Tbsp. chili powder
3 tsp sea salt
2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
Garnishes: chopped fresh cilantro, red or green onion

Place the oil in a large pot over medium high heat. Add the meat and brown on all sides, about 8-10 minutes. The meat doesn’t have to be cooked all the way through - it will get cooked in the slow cooker. For now, all you want to focus on is getting a little color on the meat, to add flavor.

Drain half the fat off, the pour the remaining fat and meat into the slow cooker.

Add the remaining ingredients, stir well, and cook 6 hours on low. At the end adjust the salt to taste (here’s where you’d add the chocolate, too).

Serve garnished with cilantro and finely chopped red onion, or green onion if you better tolerate that.

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