Few foods nourish like a steaming bowl of chili. Warm, savory, filling — it’s all found in a caldron of the good stuff. But chili is more than just a homey meal. It’s a red-blooded American tradition, found from Cincinnati to Houston to Santa Fe, each region laying claim to propriety. Among purists, healthy debate can be expected. Beans or no beans; should you sear the meat; how do you spell “chili” — does it have an “e”?
For Robb Walsh, James Beard-winning author and co-owner of El Real’s Tex-Mex Cafe in Houston, there is no right answer. “The history of chili con carne is deep, dark and very complicated,” he writes in his new Ten Speed Press title, The Chili Cookbook ($15), in which Walsh looks back through 500 years of chili-making history to explore its many iterations, including an age-old lobster chili from the Aztecs as well as President Obama’s sinus-clearing recipe from college. But even Walsh admits he is no objective observer, favoring the no-beans doctrine of old-school Tex-Mex. Here he shares his recipe for El Real’s Chili Con Carne, which comes straight from the heart of The Lone Star State. “Be sure and use Homemade Chili Powder for a full-flavored chili,” says Walsh. If you’re new at this, fret not. We’ve got you covered with that one too.
El Real’s Chili con Carne
INGREDIENTS (Serves 6)
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
8 ounces bacon, chopped
3 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
2 onions, chopped
1/4 cup Homemade Chili Powder (see recipe below)
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 3/4 cups beef broth
1 (28-ounce) can pureed tomatoes
2 dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
1. Toast the cumin seeds in a large skillet over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes. Using a smaller frying pan, or a metal or wooden tool with a flat surface, crush the seeds coarsely. Set aside.
2. Cook the bacon in the skillet over medium-high heat until crisp. Remove the bacon and reserve. Over high heat, brown the beef in the bacon drippings left in the skillet and set the meat aside. Over medium heat, sauté the onions in the remaining drippings until lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Add the toasted cumin, chili powder, paprika, oregano, black pepper, thyme, salt and garlic to the cooked onions and sauté for 1 minute. Crumble in the bacon, add the beef broth, 1 cup of water, the tomatoes, ancho chiles and the beef.
4. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover partially, and simmer until the meat is very tender, about 2 hours, adding water as needed to maintain the desired consistency.
5. Alternatively, transfer to a slow-cooker set on low and cook for at least 6 hours and up to 8 hours, until the meat is very tender.
6. Remove the anchos, puree in a blender and return to the pot. Serve in a bowl with chopped onions and shredded cheese, with saltines, over tamales, rice or potatoes, in a Frito Pie or combined with beans.
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Homemade Chili Powder
“Toasting chiles and cumin seeds in your own kitchen and grinding them in a spice grinder makes the best chili powder of all,” says Walsh. “This recipe calls for anchos, but you can use any combination of dried chiles.”
INGREDIENTS (Makes 1/4 Cup)
5 whole dried ancho chiles (about 2 ounces)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1. Remove the stems and seeds from the anchos and spread the peppers out flat. Reserve the seeds. Place the chiles flat on a comal or cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Being careful not to burn them, lightly toast until they are brittle, then remove and cool. Toast the cumin in the hot comal, stirring and shaking until fragrant. Toast some of the chile seeds, if desired. (The seeds will make the chili powder hotter.)
2. Cut the chiles into small strips with scissors. In a clean coffee grinder, grind the strips in several batches until powdered. Grind the cumin and chile seeds in the coffee grinder. Combine the powdered chile, ground seeds, Mexican oregano and garlic powder in a mixing bowl. Grind the coarse powder in batches in the coffee grinder until fine, about 2 minutes. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.