Check out the chili recipe that accompanies this article. See it? Good, because we didn’t exactly follow it. Nor is this lovely picture the chili we cooked. Sometimes you have to wing it.
Let me explain.
The enterprising woman who coaches my daughter’s cross-country team decided it would be a good team-building experience for the kids to cook together. What better way than to enter a chili cook-off, namely the raucous Chomp and Stomp that takes over Cabbagetown one weekend day each fall?
So the kids spent a few weeks combing through chili recipes and took the better part of three versions. Beer, chocolate and ancho chile powder would provide the base notes, and hot peppers would help bring that slow burn of spice forward on the tongue. At least, that was the theory.
On the night before the event we all got together to cook at our house. Boxes and bags of ingredients filled up every possible inch of counter space, and a pot you could bathe a Weimaraner in found its way to the stovetop.
The meat — a 5-pound slab of untrimmed beef shoulder — proved problematic. We trimmed it of every bit of fat and silverskin and cut it into chunks to season and brown. But I knew this meat would need hours before it would transform into soft, shreddable chili beef. So I hauled out my pressure cooker and borrowed two more from neighbors. Soon the beef was pressure-cooking in seasoned broth while we turned our attention to the mountains of vegetables that needed chopping. The kids all lined up at the counter with knives, cutting boards and heaps of onion, garlic and peppers. It was precisely how I imagined the house elves in the underground kitchen at Hogwarts.
I got busy toasting the spices in a Dutch oven. I had all kinds of whole dried chile pods in the kitchen, and so I grabbed one kid to help me toast them in oil, deseed them, reconstitute the flesh in simmering water and puree them into a multichile glop to throw in the pot along with all those veggies.
The perfectly shreddable meat emerged from the pressure cooker after an hour, and into the pot it went. Two No. 10 cans of crushed tomatoes made their way in, along with the spices, beans, vegetables, chocolate, beer and everything else we could lay our hands on. The cat ran for his life.
Soon we had something that looked like chili and tasted like chili. But it was somehow flat. A pinch — then another pinch, then a handful, then another handful — of salt helped things. I thought it needed more sweetness and acid to frame the flavors of chile and chocolate, and so I asked the assembled crowd if we could improvise.
In went a hearty splash of Chinese cooking wine, and it was almost there. What else could help? We combed through the pantry and alighted on a bottle of Persian pomegranate molasses — a thick, dark syrup of concentrated juice.
A glug or two went in the pot, and suddenly we all tasted it. The chocolate and the slow, complex burn of chile peppers came through. It was kind of weird, but it was chili.
It occurred to me that we had just done what all chili makers do. We started with a recipe and then tinkered it into a new recipe. That’s why they always contain 20 ingredients — teaspoons of every spice in the cupboard, and shots of every condiment in the fridge.
I liked this first effort but think we can do better. For better or worse, the chocolate-beer-pomegranate-molasses-whole-pod-pressure-cooked-beef chili is ours.
Cross-Country Team Chili
In a large soup pot or roaster, heat the olive oil. Season the beef shoulder all over with salt and pepper, add it to the pot and brown it. As it’s browning, stir in the chile powder, coriander, cumin, paprika, oregano and cinnamon. Lower the temperature under the meat to “toast” the spices.
Dice the onions, garlic, green and red peppers, chipotle peppers and jalapeno, and add them to the chili pot. Stir in the tomato paste and sugar. Add the red kidney beans. Increase the heat to medium to steam vegetables and sweeten the peppers. Add enough water to cover by 1 inch (about 1 quart), and add tomatoes with their liquid. Add the chocolate stout — or the Guinness and the dark chocolate. Bring to a boil and skim off any foam that rises to the surface.
Reduce the heat and simmer until the meat is fork-tender and comes apart with no resistance, about 2 hours. As it cooks down, add more water, if necessary. Take a potato masher and mash the chili so the meat comes apart in shreds. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Garnish each serving with the shredded cheddar, chives and sour cream.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog