I have never lived in Texas or Cincinnati or anywhere even remotely connected to the various seething hot beds of chili controversy across our fine country. In general, I’m a gal who enjoys going to extremes — if there’s an issue on the table, I will be able to offer a violent pro or con opinion and will welcome the prospect of verbally tussling over the subject until the boundaries of polite social discourse have been thoroughly breached, trampled upon and mashed into the ground.
I feel totally left out of the chili wars: cheated out of a visceral opinion by the capricious gods of geography, I’m left at loose ends. Which chili do I truly believe is top dog? I have no idea — I love them all. Whenever I make a pot of the stuff, I generally just fiddle around on Google until I find a recipe that doesn’t look too complicated, time-consuming or require an afternoon of shopping for esoteric ingredients hither and thither around Westchester County. Not surprisingly, my lazy, unengaged quest for a decent pot of chili has not yielded fantastic results.
As Superbowl Sunday approached, and the cold winter continued to bear down on me like a noisy, hectoring, relentlessly nosy and unavoidable office mate, Stephen and I were itching for a crock of stick-to-your-ribs chili. Our friend Benedick has made us the best Cincinnati Chili I’ve ever encountered, so I decided to leave well-enough alone and have him do the cookin’ the next time I craved the kidney bean, hot dog and cheese-studded dish. Which left Texas Chili and what I think of as Pantry Chili — a gathering of good dry beans, peppers, spices, veggies and whatever else is hanging around the fridge and pantry.
The two chilies would embody the issues highlighted by the eternal, ever-waging chili war: the meaty, simple Texas chili vs. the more whimsical, loosey-goosey and flexible Pantry Chili. Yin/yang; red state/blue state; id/superego; brawn/brains.
One chili seems designed to sucker-punch you in the gut with a cholesterol, saturated fat and artery-clogging karate chip. A chili that’ll tackle you like a fat linebacker on steroids.
The other chili is designed to cradle you heart in a warm embrace of fibrous, antioxidant and vitamin-infused vitality. It comforts you like a care-worn grandmother brimming with tea and sympathy, when the howling February winds put your soul on ice.
But which one would be more fun to eat with Superbowl snacks? (Let’s just all agree that one serving of Superbowl snacks should always contain about a day’s worth of sodium and calories; it should brim with preservatives, unpronounceable chemicals and partially hydrogenated oils. A deep fryer should be involved in the cooking process). Stephen and I would be the judge and jury in this chili cook-off. Like all good wars, this one led to a draw — and (hopefully) many juicy battles in the winters ahead of us.
I spent a great deal of time researching traditional Texas chili recipes, in addition to recipes that seemed to just through a bunch of stuff in one pot, simmer the mess for a while and serve with plenty of tasty accouterments. Through a bit of trial and error, I developed two solid recipes. The Pantry Chili takes a few days to make (the beans and tomato base must sit overnight to absorb flavors) but both recipes are boldly flavored and as distinctive … Click on for the recipes, verdict and more photos!
Chili Base for Texas Chili and Pantry Chili:
Makes enough for 2 recipes
- 12-14 dried guajillo chiles and costeno amarillo chiles
- 1 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
- 3/4 cup water
- Toast chiles in large, dry saute pan over medium heat about 2 minutes. Watch carefully to prevent scorching, which will give the base a burnt, bitter flavor.
- Pour hot water into pan, let boil and take off heat. Let the chiles rehydrate for about 30 minutes, periodically stirring and flipping them. Drain, keeping the chili-soaking water, set aside.
- Carefully cut the stems of the chili with scissors and discard; split chiles up the side and remove most of the seeds. (The seeds deliver most of the heat, so keep spice levels down by removing all the seeds, if necessary). Make sure to wash hands after handling chiles and seeds; the oils from the seeds will stay on your hands until you wash them. Whatever you do, don’t rub your eyes or touch your nose! Cut chiles into large strips with scissors.
- Put chiles, cumin seeds and water in blender and pulse until a paste forms. Set aside.
Makes 6 servings
- 4 TBSP veg oil
- 2-3 pounds of chuck top roast, trimmed of fat, cut into 1/2 inch cubes and seasoned with salt and pepper (season just before cooking, otherwise the salt will dehydrate the meat).
- 1 large white onion, finely chopped
- 6 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 cup of brewed coffee
- 1 bottle of beer (lager)
- 2 cups of water
- 1/3 of chile puree
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground clove
- 1/2 tsp allspice
- 1 tsp coriander
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp cayenne
- 1 TBSP cumin
- 1 TBSP paprika
- Salt to taste
- 3 TBSP masa harina (if you can’t find MH, grind up a corn tortilla in blender and proceed)
- 1 TBSP light brown sugar
- 1 TBSP cocoa powder
- Optional garnish: grated cheddar cheese, sour cream, scallions, crumbled bacon bits, cilantro, chips.
- Heat 2 TBSP oil. Add just enough beef to cover the bottom of the pot. You’ll need to brown the beef in batches – if you put too much in the pot, it will steam, not cook. Brown and remove with a slotted spoon, brown the next batch with more oil, continue until finished. Pour off some of the grease.
- Saute the onions in about 1 TBSP beef fat until soft, about 2 minutes. Put all of the beef back in plus the juices it’s accumulated, add the coffee, beer, water and spices (not sugar or cocoa). Bring to boil and reduce to simmer.
- Add chili puree to pot. Simmer for six hours, stirring, checking seasoning and adjusting when necessary. Add liquid (water or beer) as needed. Periodically skim off the layer of fat that rises to the top.
- Add sugar to pot and stir until dissolved.
- Scoop out 1 cup of soup, add the masa harina, mix well and stir back into pot.
- Let the chili simmer for another hour or so, garnish and serve.
Nutritional breakdown for Texas Chili: This chili is healthier than it looks at first glance. Just 410 calories and 16 grams of fat (though much of it saturated), it’s more substantial but less caloric than a burger. It’s also full of protein and iron — and cholesterol and sodium.
Cost breakdown for Texas Chili: Good, organic beef is expensive — but it’s totally worth it, especially if, as in this dish, it plays the starring role. About $25, or $4.17 a serving.
Verdict for Texas Chili: This was the winner in Stephen’s book. He was skeptical at first because he hates spice and he’s trying to eat less red meat. But he was won over by the depth of complex flavors, the unctuous tenderness of the braised beef chunks and the classic simplicity of the flavors. “The chili puree packs more flavor than heat; it pervades the entire dish with its distinctive aroma but it’s not slap-your-Grandma spicy,” Stephen said.
Makes 8 servings
Ingredients for the beans, from the New York Times with a few tweaks:
- 24 ounces beans (I used red kidney and black beans)
- Enough water to cover
- 1 TBSP canola oil
- 1/2 medium red onion, chopped
- 5 garlic cloves, minced
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp oregano
- salt, to taste
- Heat oil in large stock pot over medium-high
- Add onion, sauté until translucent, 5 minutes. Add garlic, cook until fragrant. Add beans and spices and water (enough to cover beans by 1”)
- Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, skim off foam. Cover and simmer for one hour.
- Add cilantro, simmer until beans are done. Adjust seasoning and let sit overnight (up to 72 hours) in fridge.
Ingredients for the tomato base, from Food 52 with a few minor tweaks:
- 1 28-ounce jar tomatoes
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Chop cilantro. Mix all ingredients in large bowl (or right in the can!), cover and put in fridge overnight.
Ingredients for chili (finally!):
- 1 pot simmered beans
- 1-2 TBSP canola oil
- 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
- 2 large carrots, finely diced
- 2 celery stalks, finely diced
- 1 red pepper, finely diced
- 1 pickled jalapeno, diced (or a jar of pickled jalapeno slices if you’re not obsessed with pickling everything in sight, as I am right now)
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 TBSP tomato paste
- 2 TBSP red wine vinegar
- 1 28-ounce crushed tomatoes, with puree, soaked overnight (see above)
- 2 cups water (more for a thinner soup)
- two-thirds of the chili pepper puree
- 1 TBSP paprika
- 1 TBSP ground cumin
- 1 tsp cayenne
- 1 tsp Oregano
- 2 tsp Cinnamon
- 1 TBSP Cocoa
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- ½ cup uncooked barley
- For garnish, optional: scallions, cilantro, Queso fresco, chips, sour cream.
- Heat oil in big skillet, add onion, cook until soft, three minutes. Add carrots, cook for 3 minutes. Add red pepper, cook for two. Add celery and jalapeno and cook for 2. Add garlic, cook til fragrant. Add dashes of salt with every addition of veggies.
- Add tomato paste, stir vigorously and cook until fragrant and all of the veggies are coated. Add red wine vinegar and cook until liquid evaporates, about a minute. Add crushed tomatoes, chili puree, water, spices.
- Bring to boil and reduce to simmer; let simmer, covered for about 45 minutes. Add ½ cup barley and cook for 20 minutes, or when barley is fully cooked.
- Garnish and serve.
Nutritional breakdown for Pantry Chili: At just 250 calories and about 3.5 grams of fat (not counting the garnishes) a pop, this chili will keep you sated for hours. It’s brimming with fiber, Vitamins A, C, E, K, B6, Potassium, protein, iron, plus lots of fantastic and often neglected little minerals like molybdenum (a detoxifying sulfite).
Cost breakdown for Pantry Chili: This is pantry chili! It should require very little shopping and cost outlay, but even if you had to buy everything minus the oil and dried spices, it would still be about $12, or $1.50 a serving.
Verdict / In the Future: I prefer this chili: the serious heat, the flexibility to go healthy or indulge, depending on garnish choices, its ability to stand up to a good deep-fried tortilla chip, the playground of textures the beans, meaty-tasting barley and veggies create in the thick, brash broth. Every bite yields something new, with the melting rafts of queso fresco and the rolling rounds of chopped scallions marching along to the crazy salsa beat.
Quickie recipe for deep-fried corn tortillas: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put about 1 inch of vegetable oil in saucepan and heat on high. Test one a tiny corner of corn tortilla in oil to see if it’s hot. If it sizzles and turns golden brown in two or so minutes, it’s ready. Add one tortilla, cook until it puffs up and the edges are golden. Flip and fry the other side. Cook until the entire tortilla is golden brown. Put on parchment-paper lined baking sheet, salt heavily and set aside. When you’ve cooked as many as you can eat, pop the tray in the oven for about 5 minutes, until tortillas are slightly darker, but not burnt. Serve with favorite yummy dips and salsa.