Chili: A New Year's Meditation

Base Recipe:
For 6 Servings plus leftovers;
(items in parentheses are optional):

(2 lbs. meat)
1 lb. onions
1 to 6 cloves garlic
3 Tablespoons fat
(1 lb. vegetables)
(1 lb. dry beans)
3 to 6 Tablespoons chili powder
(1 to 2 Tablespoons standard spices)
(1 to 2 teaspoons aromatic spices)
2 quarts liquid
(1 to 3 Tablespoons acid)

(starch substrate)
(your favorite condiments)

–Soak beans overnight in plenty of water;

–In a pot big enough to hold everything and then simmer for hours, brown the meat in 2 Tbsp. fat;

–Fry the chili powder and spices (and flour if used as thickener) with the browned meat for about 30 seconds, then set meat/spices aside;

–Add remaining 1 Tbsp. fat to pot and saute the onions over medium heat, scraping the meat/spice fond from the bottom and sides of the pot, until the onions achieve the desired shade of brown;

–Add chopped garlic and any vegetables to sweat until heated through;

–QUICK CHILI: Add soaked beans and liquid and simmer until the beans are cooked (1 to 2 hours);

–FULL CHILI: Add liquid, simmer 2 hours to soften the meat, add soaked beans and continue simmering until beans are done (1 to 2 hours);

–Serve over your favorite starch substrate with your favorite condiments


For many years, on New Year’s Day, following the lead of my Father in some ways but heading in my own direction too, I’ve cooked chili. Lots of chili. I’ve tried many recommended recipes, but over time I’ve figured out that the very best way to do it is to find THE BEST ingredients that could go into a chili, and then create a new recipe around that. This year, in 2010, I made chili verde because we grew tomatillos in our garden and had frozen some at the end of the season; and I made a dark chili using beef heart and home grown beans. Both were outstanding, especially with a splash of Navarro verjus just before serving (see “ACID” below).

Let’s face it, more than almost any other meal, “chili” as a recipe is much more of a concept than a specific dish. Any recipe that ostensibly originates as a one pot dish from the Hispanic Southwest US (chili con carne = meat and pepper stew), yet has famous versions in Cincinnati (without chili powder!), New York, and Los Angeles, is inherently mutable.

That said, it’s still got a specific personality: a stew made in one pot that has meat and/or beans in it, and it should feature the namesake ingredient — Capsicum annuum — in one, several, or all of its glorified forms (sorry Cinci). And that’s pretty simple in concept: fry some meat, add spices, add onions and veg, add stock and beans, let bubble, and you’re done. It being that simple, there are millions of variations, all of them inevitably labeled “The Best…” or “The Ultimate…” or even “Traditional/Original/Authentic…”

What I offer above appears complex, but actually says you can make chili with pretty much anything you have in the fridge/pantry as long as you have chili powder. I would also argue that my Meditation Chili recipe offers you the freedom to create YOUR signature chili, something you like the best and can enter into the endless competitions and cook-offs. And if you erase all the optional ingredients you would wind up with something like French Onion Soup, except with a nice dose of chili spices in the nose instead of cognac. And I would call that “chili.”

But most of the time, you will include one or more of the optional items. Below I offer my own take on all the ingredients in case you need some help deciding.

newyears_meatMEAT: Any meat works (you’ve heard of Fish Tacos, right?). Generally the darker the meat, the longer it needs to cook before it becomes tender, and that’s really the only consideration when it comes to ‘type.’ When it comes to shape, that will start arguments, mainly between the ground group and the chunk group. I’m sure there’s also a whole group, but then you’re starting to step into the realm of braised meat, as opposed to stew. You eat a stew with a spoon, so the meat should fit on a spoon. There is no right answer, but be aware that the shape of the meat can really affect the experience of eating the chili where a ground meat will fade into the stew, while a chunk of meat will present a separate texture from the bean and/or other stew chunks.

Another critical aspect of the meat is how much the the meat is browned. Deep browning creates a great fond that can create a great base for the stew sauce, but it will remove most of the moisture in the meat, which will ultimately affect the final texture. It’s up to you to find the proper medium for each type/cut of meat. Or use this as one of the many variables that will change the final chili to create variety from batch to batch.

ONIONS: I specify a weight of onions because a medium Maui onion is different from a medium Spanish onion which is different from a medium Cipolini onion, etc. No matter what kind of onion you decide to use (or Allium of any kind), it should weigh about 1 lb. per six servings.

GARLIC: This is one of those personal things. I love tons of garlic. Others hate garlic, or tolerate very little of it. Do as you please here.

FAT: Any oil or fat can be used to shine the bottom of the pot in which you’ll be cooking, so this presents you with one more opportunity to fine-tune a favorite recipe, or add some variety. Neutral vegetable oils work, but so would olive oil, sesame oil, palm oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, or any raw flavorful oil you grab from the cabinet. Then there’s lard, salt pork, bacon grease, chicken schmaltz, beef tallow, or any grease you’ve recently skimmed from another good dish that hasn’t gone rancid.

VEGETABLES/EXTRAS: What else should be in the spoon when you scoop yourself some stew? Carrots and celery classically contribute to a solid flavor base, but they can also be a bit boring. Mushrooms? Remember that they’re very complex, encompassing thousands of flavors in each variety, which is why they’re so great on their own. But if 990 of the mushroom’s flavors complement the rest of the chili, but the other ten don’t — is that OK? In addition/instead of beans, there’s lots of pasta options (not including the spaghetti substrate favored in Cinci), as well as potatoes, hominy, barley, or other whole starchy grain blobs. Then there’s the natural pairing of chili powder with fresh chilis of any kind: roasted/fresh bell peppers, poblanos, jalepeños, etc. Another area in which to experiment.


BEANS: Wow. To bean or not to bean. That’s not really the question, only the dilemma that can mean the difference between chili being a side dish or a meal in itself. And although canned beans are good ‘in a pinch’ that’s like saying canned tuna is perfectly acceptable on sushi. Canned beans limit you to a few varieties, and also have already had the shit cooked out of them. They will dissolve in a heartbeat, which may be your intention, but dry beans — if you have the time and inclination — will open a world of possibilities of flavor and texture and food values if you give them a chance. The uninitiated should visit the Rancho Gordo web site ( where you can mail-order not just fantastic dry beans, but also lots of great chili ingredients if you don’t have other sources) just to learn about why we should all love dry beans. The initiated should evangelize to the uninitiated, telling them about your local source for good dry beans. And in my recipe the ONLY hard part dealing with the dry beans is remembering to dunk your beans in water the night before you want to make chili. Is that asking too much?

CHILI POWDER: Here we come to the difference maker. Chili powder is the heart and essence of Chili. If you use the can/bottle of three year-old chili powder in your cabinet, then the heart and essence of the chili you make will be as thin and saw-dust like as that powder. And be aware that many supermarket ‘chili powders’ are actually mixes of true chili powder with some of the standard spices I list below. That means by using the old can you’re not only are you adding old spices as well as old chili powder, but you’re also at the mercy of some industrial focus group’s idea of proper chili spices. Take charge and throw that old can away.

Here’s the deal: ALL spices should be powders for as short a time as possible before you put them in your mouth. That’s why we sensibly have pepper grinders on our tables, reducing the time between making pepper powder and enjoying the tropical thunder of good ground black pepper to a matter of seconds or minutes. Chili powder is no different, and luckily for you there are easy options.

At my local natural foods store, here in the wilds of Maine, I can buy whole dried Ancho chili pods. That, my friends, is (basically) what chili powder is made out of. In addition, my natural foods store carries a variety of other whole dried peppers like . If they didn’t, I can mail order them from any quality spice purveyor ( is one, but there are many southwestern outfits happy to send you “the real deal.”). These whole peppers will keep reasonably well for a few months in a closed dry jar, a year at the outside. Then, when you are ready to make some good chili, simply take your whole pods, put them in a coffee grinder (or any other grinding device), and push “grind.” Instant (and fantastic) chili powder. Not to mention that you’ll be able to grind the other whole spices below at the same time, because it all goes into the pot together in the important “fry” stage.

And those other chili pods and/or powders you find will give you another set of great options. In my experience cooking chili, I’ve gotten the best ‘chili’ component in my stews using a mix of

2 parts Ancho chili powder
1 part “top note” chili powder

newyears_wholespicesThis mix works because Anchos provide a terrific bass note and rhythm kit to your chili. But what are bass and drums without guitar and a singer? That’s why you need the treble-y flavors that can come from other dried chilies. I use small red chilies that I grow and dry myself that taste a lot like cayenne. But there are lots of options. Try a few and see what you think. Canned (wet) chilies, like chipotles in adobo sauce, can be substituted for some of the chili component.

Why fry? This is probably controversial, but over the years I’ve decided that for chili, this is how you maximize your return on spices. Frying spices is integral to Indian food, and it releases the hidden volatile oils and flavors in a way that other cooking cannot. It’s not appropriate in all applications (I would not fry my chowder spices, for example…although that’s an interesting idea…), but chili practically demands it, and the only downside I can see is that you may not need to use as much spice as you normally do to obtain the balance of flavors you’re looking for.

STANDARD SPICES: I say ‘standard’ only in the sense that these are the spices that are most often included in chili recipes. The most important of these is cumin, which is what we typically respond to as a “Mexican” or “chili” flavor. Oregano is another typical addition, but beware: there are two varieties of oregano commonly offered: Mexican oregano, and Greek oregano. They are VERY different. Also, you don’t need to use the Mexican variety to make chili — it’s up to you which you prefer. Just know that they’re different. Coriander seed is another typical spice. Other less typical ‘standard’ spices would include marjoram, fennel, caraway, and bay leaves.

Not to bounce your brain too much, but these (as well as the aromatics and the peppers) can be toasted before adding to the chili…that simply means browning the whole spices the same way you toast bread. If you don’t have a toaster oven with a removable tray, all you need is a dry frying pan and low heat until you see the seeds popping and browning and beginning to give off some heady aromatic smoke. Frying the spices performs a similar function, but not completely — toasting is yet another wrench you can throw into the spinning recipe rotisserie.

newyears_spicebowlAROMATIC SPICES: This is pretty much everything else you might want to include in your chili: cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, cocoa powder, star anise, galangal, turmeric, mustard seed, ginger, etc. There–is–no–wrong–answer. It’s up to your taste, but the rules laid out above still apply: whole is always better; grind/pulverize close to use; toasting is an option. And if you’re using whole spices for the first time, be careful! Freshly ground whole spices have much more flavor than their pre-ground equivalents, so begin by halving your normal quantities, or start with a light hand. Some may like a chili that tastes just like a meaty cinnamon candy, but that may not be what you intended.

THICKENER: This is completely a question of preference. Do you want your stew to stick to the starch substrate you serve it on? Or is it OK if it pools below. If you prefer the former, you will probably need a thickener of some kind, but this does not require a consultation with Ferran Adria. Simplest of all is to remove a cup of cooked beans, mash them up into a paste, mix in some of the cooking liquid, then return it all to the pot and stir. Or you could cook and mash some potatoes for the same purpose. Otherwise you will need to account for this step ahead of time. Add a Tbsp or two of wheat flour to the spice mix before you fry it which will begin a kind of roux. Or use masa harina instead to ‘keep it real.’ Beyond that is cornstarch, arrowroot, xanthan gum, and beyond that you will start to need Ferran’s advice. But no thickener is also OK.

LIQUID: Big decision. Stock or not? If not, tomatoes/tomatillos or water? Or a mixture. There–is–no–wrong–answer. Just be aware of two things: there are many qualities to a stock (flavor, gelatin, color) that will affect the chili when it’s served; and without tomatoes, you will probably want to think about adding another acid (see below). I include tomatoes as a liquid here because they are not a vegetable. Really! Look it up on Wikipedia — tomatoes are a fruit! Anyway, they’re not included in the veg/extra section because they will not remain solid through the cooking process, and their contribution (beside in flavor) is largely in their liquid component. You need a certain amount of liquid in your chili to cook the meat and to allow (if present) the beans to absorb. And if there’s too much liquid your chunks are lost to the spoon. So if you add two quarts of stock AND a can of tomatoes, I contend that you approach a dispersal danger zone, and therefore tomatoes/tomatillos should be considered a part of the liquid component. (This is where I bang my fist on the table and then wait for the class bell to ring.)

ACID: Beyond the liquid quality of tomatoes, there is the acid quality they provide. I believe that chili does NOT need tomatoes, but it does need acid. All that meat and fat and bass/treble spicing is great if you’re paving a sidewalk. Something else needs to inspire that paving to move vertically, into a structure that extends toward the heavens, and that ‘else’ is acid in the form of vinegar, lemon/lime juice, verjus, another fresh or fermented fruit juice, or good quality summer-ripe tomatoes. Pick any or all, but keep in mind that some are best added just before serving, and others are best simmered in. Experiment.

220px-Fritos_logoSTARCH SUBSTRATE: Chili alone is good. Chili on top of ______ is awesome, and becomes a complete meal. Fill in the blank with almost anything that can hold onto a meat and pepper stew: hot dog, burger, rice, corn chips, Fritos(TM), potatoes, polenta/cornmeal mush, potatoes, spaghetti/noodles, toast, hominy, tortillas, etc.

CONDIMENTS: Don’t forget a final push of your chili dish over the cliff: chopped fresh parsley, cilantro, mint, dill, splash of flavored oil, Fritos(TM), melty cheese, spaghetti (!), sour cream, cream cheese, chopped onions, french fries, oyster crackers, ohmygod anything you want, then tell me all about it.

2 thoughts on “Chili: A New Year's Meditation

  1. The chili(s) we ate on New Year’s Day were very tasty. I preferred the novelty of chili verde (New Year’s lunch) to the red chili (New Year’s dinner).


  2. I read the “article” informing me all about chili and now feel like I’ve got a Ph.D. on the subject! This meal has always been one of my cooler weather staples when entertaining (I live in Arizona).


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