(with apologies to long-time readers who've seen this before in my livejournal)
You may suspect, by now, that the chief ingredients of all chili are fiery envy, scalding jealousy, scorching contempt and sizzling scorn. - H. Allen Smith (the first International Chili Society World's Chili Champion)
My favorite history of chili story is the one where the Aztecs cut up some conquistadores and cook them with chile peppers, thus inventing chili. In fact, Incans, Aztecs and Mayans can all lay claim to a stew of meat, beans, peppers and herbs that is probably a precursor of modern chili. Canary Islanders, transplanted to San Antonio in the early 18th century, were used to spicing their food up; when they got to Texas they combined their traditional cooking styles with local ingredients to come up with something very similar to Texas-style chili. Cowboys certainly immortalized the dish. It's been posited that their cooks found that the spices cut the flavor of the fresh (as opposed to aged) beef they had to eat on the trail. Who actually counts as first and what actually counts as chili, however, are apparently matters of heated debate.
Then there are the chili recipes themselves. Thick (perhaps even thickened with cornmeal, hominy or cracker crumbs) or thin? With beans (and what type of beans) or without? Should there be tomatoes? Onions? Bell peppers? And what about that spice blend (cumin, especially, is a matter of contention and family feuds)? The controversy rages. Many self-professed chili lovers insist that chili can't be made by Northerners, period. Others hold that a good, "real" chili can only be made by men (this despite the "Chili Queens" of San Antonio history).
Frankly, I find it all a bit weird. Maybe that's what happens when you let men do the cooking - they make it into a big controversy and competition and call attention to themselves so we'll congratulate them for cooking at all (see also: barbecue).
I do, in fact, have a personal favorite chili recipe, but that doesn't mean that I go around condemning other chili cookers and refusing to eat their chili. My mom, who's a vegetarian, happens to make a pretty kick-ass chili with sweet potatoes and pinto beans.
My version is an adaptation of Hell's Kitchen Chili, from the New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. I'll give you the recipe as written, and then I'll note at the end what I do differently and why.
3 Tb peanut oil
1 onion, chopped
2 tsp chili powder
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground oregano
1 tsp dried red pepper flakes
2 lbs. beef bottom round, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 cups crushed tomatoes
1 3/4 cups beef broth
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 slices Canadian bacon, minced
1 Tb sugar
salt and pepper to taste
Heat 2 Tb of the oil in a casserole or dutch oven. Add the onion, chili powder, cumin, oregano and red pepper flakes. Cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes.
Add the remaining 1 Tb oil, and brown the meat over high heat, in batches if necessary.
Stif in the tomatoes, broth, tomato paste, Canadian bacon, and sugar. Simmer, uncovered, until the beef is tender, 1 3/4 hours, covering the pot when the mixture becomes thick. Season with salt and pepper.
Serve the chili, with the following garnishes (if desired):
Chopped red, yellow and orange bell peppers
Minced watercress or arugula
Snipped fresh chives
Crumbled cooked bacon
Crumbled corn chips
Okay, let's see. I usually use a mixture of chili powder, cayenne and ground chipotle chili powder in place of (or in addition to) the chili powder in the recipe. Chipotle especially gives it a smokey, rich flavor. Also: I might mix in some whole cumin seeds along with the ground cumin.
Instead of the minced Canadian bacon, I usually use slab bacon or pancetta, which I brown along with the meat.
Instad of crushed tomatoes I usually use whole canned tomatoes with their juices (because that's what I usually have). I break up the tomatoes with my hands on their way into the pot. I also might throw in some fresh tomatoes, depending on the season and what I have on hand.
I've used chicken stock or water instead of beef broth without any problem, although beef broth is a bit richer and beefier, of course.
And I usually add a tablespoon of raw cocoa (not hot chocolate mix, thank you) when I add the sugar.
For garnishes, I also like grated cheddar or crumbled goat cheese, and scallions.