I make exceptionally good chili. I don’t say that to brag — it took a lot of trial and error to come up with what I consider the most delectable, perfect chili ever, and it started with someone else’s recipe. Because seriously, I’m not a damn magician. You have to start somewhere.
The core recipe comes from Jane and Michael Stern‘s 1986 book “Real American Food,” which I’m almost embarrassed to say is the most-used cookbook on my shelf. I have books of recipes by some of my favorite culinary geniuses, like Alice Waters and Jim Dodge and Paul Prudhomme and Alice Medrich and Barbara Kafka, as well as the go-to “Joy of Cooking,” “New Basics,” Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything,” and a massive encyclopedic tome from Cook’s Illustrated that weighs as much as a microwave oven. All of them are valuable resources, but it’s this one particular Stern book (and they’ve written, like, 30 books) that I pull down the most for specific recipes.
That’s because it’s chock-full of crazy-good regional cuisine that I never learned about growing up in middle-class, white-bread southern California. “Real American Food” is divided into four regions, The East, The South, The Midwest and The West, with sub-chapters with titles like “Bar Food,” ”Boardinghouse Meals, “Pit Barbecue,” “Grocery Store Dining” and “On the Ham House Trail.” It contains recipes for chicken-fried steak, and real, dense, honest-to-god New York cheesecake (the very recipe that I used when I was a pastry chef, in fact), and cioppino, and menudo, and various white-trash casseroles. It’s Real People Food, and the Sterns have great taste in recipes.
My chili starts with their recipe for Cincinnati Five-Way Chili. I don’t ladle my chili over spaghetti and smother it in cheddar cheese and whatnot to make it “five-way,” but the base chili recipe — in particular, the spice mix, which is what makes or breaks a great chili — is fantastic.
I made a small batch today, and shall now share with you the glory that is My Damn Chili.
Chop up an onion. Heat up some olive oil in a deep pan, and cook the onion. This is a Walla Walla sweet onion, but you can use any kind of onion you like. Don’t worry about browning it — you just want to make sure it’s soft.
I’ve made this chili in small batches and huge batches, usually with ground beef. Not long ago, however, I discovered that it’s very, very good with ground turkey. I found this out because ground turkey is often on sale, while ground beef, once an economy food, is now apparently made from unicorn hair and the blood of Christ. I base this assumption on its cost, not because I’ve actually seen unicorn hair in my hamburger.
… throw this into the pot with the onion (take it out of the package first, idiot), break it up into little bits with your wooden spoon, and stir the turkey around until it’s cooked. Unless you’re using ground beef. Then do the exact same the thing, only with the beef. If you do use ground beef, you’ll probably find that you have a whole lot of rendered fat in the pot when you’re done, so pull out a colander, drain that off, then dump the meat and onions back into the pot. With the lean turkey, that’s not really an issue.
It’ll look like this. It’s not very appealing, but trust me — it gets better. Now it’s time to invite a few more ingredients to the party.
Look who’s here! It’s John Q. Tomato Product and Beany “The Bean” McBeanerson! I usually use the chunky, chopped tomato stuff, but this is what I had. Dump the whole can in with the meat. You can add the beans now if you want, or leave them until later (they’re already cooked, after all), or leave them out entirely if you don’t eat beans. Beany, like the Honey Badger, don’t care. You won’t hurt his feelings. If you do add beans, though, make sure to rinse them well first, so that you and your loved ones aren’t farty later. Unless, of course, you like that sort of thing.
After you add the tomatoes, you’ll also add some water, and a little vinegar, and maybe some catsup or tomato paste (seriously, that stuff is entirely up you and whether you want your chili to be sweet, and whether you eat sugar, etc.), it will look like this. It will be super wet, and not at ALL chili-looking yet. But continue to trust me. The magic will happen. Bring this to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer.
While this is coming to a boil, mix together your spices. If you have measuring spoons with cats on them that your mother-in-law gave you, so much the better. There are a lot of spices. This is the secret to the amazing awesome-balls taste of this particular chili. Try to use all of them! If you have almost all of them and don’t want to buy, say, cardamom or allspice just for this chili, you’ll be okay. But chili powder is mandatory, as is cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, and cloves. I AM DEAD SERIOUS ABOUT THIS. Besides, it’s good to have a variety of spices on hand for when you decide to make things like, oh, awesome-balls chili.
Because there are a lot of spices, it’ll thicken up the chili noticeably when you stir it all in. Plus, now it smells like chili! You’re in the home stretch now. You have almost unlocked your chili achievement. See? Look:
Oh, crap. I forgot Mr. McBeanerson. Let’s throw him in.
Now, as Tom Petty so poignantly pointed out, comes the hardest part. Waiting for it to cook for awhile. Yes, that song was about making chili — everyone knows that. You can eat it right now, of course, but it’s better the longer it cooks. It’s even better the next day, after it’s cooled in the fridge, and then been reheated. But you don’t want to wait that long, because your whole house smells like chili, which is amazing and wonderful.
If it looks like it’s getting too thick, add a bit more water to get it where you want it. Taste it, and add salt or sugar or honey (canned tomatoes are unpredictable when it comes to their sweetness) or more cumin or whatever it feels like it’s missing. I often end up shaking some bottled hot sauce in, to give it extra kick. Follow your bliss.
Congratulations! You made chili! You can now add sour cream and/or chopped onions and/or shredded cheddar, or make a chili-cheese omelette, or a chili salad (it’s kind of like a taco salad, only without tortilla chips), or just eat it plain. If you really want to be like me, you’ll eat it out of an adorable pink bowl that came from a thrift store because, hey, polka dots.
Dawn’s Awesome-Balls Chili
adapted from “Real American Food” by Jane and Michael Stern, 1986
1 large or 2 med. onions
1 Tbsp. olive or vegetable oil
3 lb. ground beef or turkey
2 cloves garlic, minced (can substitute 2 tsp. granulated garlic)
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup catsup (optional, but recommended)
2 Tbsp. tomato paste (or more, if not using catsup)
2 Tbsp. vinegar
2 Tbsp. chili pepper
2 tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
2 tsp. salt
1 20 oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 16 oz. cans beans (black or kidney)
Chop onion(s). In a small bowl, combine all dry spices and salt.
In a 4-quart or larger pot, heat 1 Tbsp. olive or vegetable oil, and saute onion until soft. Add meat and garlic, breaking up meat andcooking until brown. Drain fat.
Add water, tomatoes, catsup, tomato paste and vinegar. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add spices. Cover and simmer on very low heat at least 30 minutes — longer is better, however. Stir occasionally and taste , adding sugar and/or cinnamon for more sweetness, more cumin for more savory “bowl of chili” flavor, etc. Also good, if you like: an ounce or two of grated, unsweetened chocolate. Really.
Serves 6 to 8. Or less. Depending on how greedy you are.