By John Thorne, editor/publisher of Simple Cooking
P.O. Box 58, Castine, ME 04421

Visit John at the Simple Cooking Website

As published in the September/October 1990 issue of Chile Pepper Magazine

There is no recipe for Texas red. The compelling logic of the dish is enough. Meat, fat, fire...merely to name them spurs the imagination on to visions of grease and gladness. And this statement is true whether our appetite shares the mountain man's and cowboy's hunger or rejects it. It has the power to force us to come to terms with it, and in so doing, our own bowl of red takes shape in our mind.

And that dish is chili -- whether it yields to its Latino-Indian heritage, yearning for fresh chiles and fragrant herbs, or pulls us with it in that Anglo lusting after the searing grace of meat. This quarrel is in chili's blood. The split between Anglo and Latino-Indian visions of the dish is the tension that defines it, and neither side can hope to win.

Again, disputation is the heart of chili. It forces us to take sides. Each ingredient is an issue: tomatoes, onions, green peppers, whether we thicken it with flour of masa harina or eat it with crackers instead of tortillas. And chili rails against us today because our guts just can't take the real thing anymore; despite itself, chili has been changing with the years. It started out being made from the cheapest cuts of longhorn cattle, which at their best were notoriously lean and tough; meat requiring lots of fat and long cooking to moisten and tenderize it. Now, when beef is fatter and tenderer but not as juicy as the range-fed product, chili is cooked less and juice is added, not fat.

All these changes are sensible, too, except to those who insist on keeping chili an antiquarian specialty dish. The important thing is to remain true, not to the ingredients, but, to the concept of being willing to listen and respond. This means making your chili without benefit of a written recipe.

Great chili has been made from no more than meat, grease, and chile peppers -- no other ingredient should ever be added without the cook having some good reason for doing so. What follows is a list of common chili makings -- the three mandatory ingredients and then some optional ones -- with the gist of why (or why not) they might belong in your pot.

Meat Beef, of course, and some others...venison makes superb chili; pork a passable one. The treatment is what's important. Hamburger wasn't standard issue in the Old West; it was too prone to spoiling. Even so, in parts of Texas, butchers now offer it in a coarse 'chili' grind that is generally popular. Ordinary ground meat turns to mush when subjected to long cooking. It also reminds some cooks of spaghetti sauce, with disastrous results. Thus it is better to slice down a weighty piece of fresh brisket, round steak, or good, lean chuck as small as you have patience for; one-half inch cubes are the established norm.

Grease Usually, there will be enough in the meat; sear it in just a little fat or olive oil and moisten with a little liquid (see below) instead.

Chile If it is meat that gives a bowl of red its substance, it is chile that gives it its soul, its prickly balance of fire and flavor. A good selection of dried whole chile peppers offers a unique opportunity to advance the average bowl of red a giant step towards perfection. Ordinary "chili powder" is a predetermined mixture of powdered chile and seasoning; its familiar stale flavor and musty odor summons nostalgia and indigestion in equal proportion. Use it only as a last resort.

Powdered chile, sold in packages marked "hot" or "mild", is a move in the right direction. However, while usually fresher-tasting than chili powder, it is made from standard commercial chiles and offers little variety in flavor. This is also true of "chile caribe" -- a coarsely crushed version of the powdered "hot" chile -- though hotter still, since it contains the membranes surrounding the seeds, which the powdered version does not.

The best powdered chile is made at home from a blend of different dried chiles -- especially the milder ones. For while the fiery pods give chili myth and heat, the sweeter ones give it a depth of flavor. An ideal blend would start with a base of New Mexican chiles, mixed with some dark and wrinkled Ancho chiles (for their deep, earthy flavor), and one or two Pasillas (for their nuttier piquancy). To this combination, add a controlled amount of one of the truly fiery peppers -- de Arbol or Piquin to give the chili its true heat.

If it is a matter of adding one or two Piquins or other fiery chiles for heat, this can be done by simply crushing them into small bits in the fist. To turn large dried chiles to powder, they must be first parched for a minute or two in a hot, ungreased skillet to make the skin brittle and easily crushed. Shake the pan constantly to keep them from burning; as soon as the skins are crisp, remove and let cool. Then crack the peppers open and discard the stem, core, and seeds, along with any discolored bits of flesh. Break the remaining flesh into pieces and pulverize these in a blender or food processor to a coarse powder, being careful not to inhale the dust. Seal the result in a jar or plastic bag; this powdered chile will keep indefinitely in a freezer or for months on a cool shelf.

Some enthusiasts prefer to use only fresh chile peppers (either red or green for their sweeter, fresher taste), although most cooks find that chili without the harsh rasp of dried chiles is not true bowl of red at all. However, one or two fresh chiles can give your chili a distinctive pungency. Prepare them as follows: don plastic gloves and pull them open, discarding the stems, seeds, veins, and the central core. Break the flesh into pieces and work it, in processor or blender, into a coarse puree, adding a tiny amount of water if needed. Stir this puree into the chili, one pureed hot pepper equaling a tablespoon of chile powder.

Liquid Chili-makers argue about type and amount of liquid to add. Beer is a common choice but should not be an automatic one: Texans took Prohibition seriously and some argue the only liquid that should come close to chili -- in or with it -- is black coffee. Other arguments are made for water, meat stock, or the abhorred tomato. Always remember, though, whichever you choose, like Missouri River water, chili should be too thick to pour.

Thickener The addition of thickeners blends liquid and fat into a rich, clinging gravy. The two favorites are flour and masa harina, the corn flour used to make tortillas. The advantage of the latter is that it adds a hint of sweet corn flavor to the chili and can also be sprinkled in pinch by pinch during the cooking without fear of lumps. Since finer cut meats absorb much more liquid, some cooks grind about a third of their beef to use as a thickener. Others use cracker meal or -- such as the US Army -- ground cooked beans (see the recipe section).

Garlic Garlic sweetens and deepens the pungent flavor of chili without adding liquid (as do onions). It is a necessary part of the true "grease and gladness" bowl of Texas red.

Oregano The authenticity of oregano in chili can be seen by its presence in the earliest published recipes. With cumin, it gives a nice hint of herb to the dish. Preferable is Mexican oregano, which is related to the Verbena family, not -- as the European one -- to mint. Their flavors are similar but not the same. Some commentators insist Mexican oregano is milder than the European variety; others, the opposite.

Cumin If you note a vaguely sweaty aftertaste to your bowl of red, someone had an over-eager hand with the cumin. It is undeniably popular with Texas chili-makers, who sometimes use more of it than they do chile itself. Cumin has a crisper, fresher taste if the whole seeds are toasted before they are ground. To do this, toss or stir them continuously on a hot, ungreased skillet until they release their scent. Let them cool and grind them to a coarse powder in a coffee mill or mortar.

Soda Crackers A true chilihead considers soda crackers (or at least tortillas) as essential an ingredient with a bowl of red as the meat itself. Chili served on (or with) steamed rice is strictly family food. The crackers, by the way, should be large enough to give diners the pleasure of crumbling them into their bowls -- and that means no stupid little oyster crackers.

Beans These Phaseolus vulgaris varieties taste good with chili; however, they should not be put into a bowl of it. People who add beans to chili because they think it otherwise tastes too rich or is too expensive have found the wrong solution to a simple problem; it is better to use lean, cheap cuts of beef and trim away all visible fat. Chili made with beans can't be reheated, since the beans get sour and turn to mush. But real (no bean) chili requires reheating to reach its final patina of perfection. If your are served beans in your chili, however, you should show forbearance -- simply pick them out and quietly slip them under the table.

Tomatoes and Onions Tomatoes and onions worked their way into chili from a familiar Southwestern dish called chile colorado ("red chile") which at one time referred both to a sauce of fresh red chile peppers and a stew made from them, usually of chicken, which often included tomatoes and onions. The two names, chile colorado and chile con carne were then interchangeable, since early "chile con carne" recipes, such as "chili con cana" [sic] in Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book (1902) or "chili con carni" [sic] in Fannie Farmer (1914), were often simple chicken and chile stews. Since then, chili-makers who interpret chili as a bowl of grease and gladness eschew them while those more in sympathy with the dish's indigenous heritage embrace them.

On to some classic recipes.

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