Every cook I know makes a "definitive" chili. But the truth is that no such recipe exists.
Some swear by meat only, others use a meat-and-bean mix, then there are vegetarian and vegan options. But whatever the recipe, there are three key elements — the pot, the spices and low, slow heat.
Chili must be simmered in a wide, very heavy-bottomed pot so that the ingredients don't burn during the long cooking time. The pot may be stainless, enameled cast-iron or a Dutch oven. Avoid using plain cast iron because the acidity from the tomatoes may react with the metal and create an off taste.
Great chilis are built around a protein: beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, beans — alone or in combination. Plan on about 1/4 to 1/3 pound of meat per person, or about a cup of cooked beans per person, or a mix of the two.
All real chilis are seasoned with chiles: fresh chile peppers and/or dried chile peppers or dried ground chile peppers (aka chile powder). Some call for chili powder, which is a mix of dried, ground chiles and other spices such as Mexican oregano, cumin and garlic powder.
The first step in making any chili is to brown the primary ingredients to lay down a flavor base. If it's meat, start by caramelizing the pieces in a little oil. If it's a vegetarian or vegan dish, start by sautéing the onions and garlic. Next, deglaze the pan with beer or stock, then add the other ingredients so that everything will simmer away on its own, freeing the cook to move on to other tasks such as baking cornbread, reading a book or taking a nap.
The best chili? It's the one you like!
Serves 4 to 6.
Note. Lamb, with its sweet, slightly grassy flavor, is a nice match to the earthy beans, fiery chiles and fragrant cumin. Beef or bison work equally well here. Serve with a side of cornbread. The recipe is easily doubled, and leftovers will taste even better the next day. From Beth Dooley.
• 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
• 1 1/2 lb. lamb (shoulder or leg), cut into 2-in. cubes
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• 2 poblano peppers, seeded and diced
• 1 bunch cilantro, stems and leaves chopped, plus more for garnish
• 5 cloves garlic, smashed
• 1 to 2 jalapeños, seeded and chopped
• 2 to 3 tbsp. chili powder, to taste
• 1 tsp. ground coriander
• 1 tsp. ground cumin
• 3 tbsp. tomato paste
• 1 c. dark beer
• 2 to 3 c. water, as needed
• 3 c. cooked or canned kidney beans, drained (see below)
• Juice of 1 small lime, to taste
• Plain yogurt, for garnish
Heat the oil in a deep, heavy pot set over medium-high heat. Add the lamb and season with a little salt and pepper and cook until well browned on all sides, about 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer the meat to a paper-towel-lined plate.
Add the onion, poblano peppers, chopped cilantro stems, garlic and jalapeños to the pot and cook until they're soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the chili powder, coriander, cumin and the tomato paste and cook until the tomato paste begins to turn brown, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Return the lamb to the pot and add the beer and 2 to 3 cups of water, scraping up any browned bits sticking to the bottom of the pot. Stir in the beans. Season with salt, pepper and lime juice, to taste. Reduce the heat and simmer on low until the meat is very tender, adding more water if the chili seems too thick, about 45 to 55 minutes.
Adjust the seasoning with more lime juice, salt and pepper as needed. Serve garnished with the chopped cilantro and yogurt.
To cook beans: Put 1 1/2 dry cups beans into a pot, add enough water to cover the beans by 4 inches and allow to stand overnight. Drain the beans, return to the pot, and add enough water to cover the beans by 4 inches. Set the beans over high heat, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat and simmer, cover, and cook until tender, about 45 minutes.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Perennial Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.