The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Chili Variation

January 22nd, 2009 · 8 Comments · Posted in Uncategorized

My favorite resource for authentic Texas chili is our friend Melissa Guerra and her gem of a cookbook, Dishes from the Wild Horse Desert: Norteno Cooking of South Texas.

Chili in this part of the country is so simple a cowboy could carry the ingredients around in his saddle bag. A puree is made from dried chipotle and ancho chilies, then cooked with tomatoes, roughly ground beef, some ground pork and onion. The dried chilies impart great depth of flavor. Of course there is the usual controversy over whether beans have a place in this chili (Guerra thinks they do.) I love the dish for its pure honesty and lack of pretense.

My wife, however, wanted to do something a little different for the All-American cocktail reception we catered for the inaugural. As usual, she turned to her kitchen bible, The New Best Recipe book from Cook’s Illustrated. Their chili con carne is very similar to Melissa Guerra’s, but calls for using dried chili powder, whole beef chuck and bacon. It’s thickened with masa harina, the nixtamalized corn flour used to make tortillas. A nice touch, I think.

This time of year as we approach Super Bowl Sunday, you’ll see “chili ground” beef showing up in the market. It’s a much large grind of beef specifically made for chili. Who knew? Using whole chuck roast, my wife decided to tear up the beef once it had been cut into pieces and cooked in the chili. That helped incorporate the meat more thoroughly into the stew. But she ditched the bacon and I thought that was a good choice: I don’t want bacon bits floating around in my chili. She also decided to put beans in the chili to bulk it up. She used small red ones, not the big kidney beans which I find a little too commercial.

1/2 pound dried beans, such as small red beans or pinto beans, soaked then cooked

3 tablespoons ancho chili powder, or 3 medium pods (about 1/2 ounce), toasted and ground

3 tablespoons New Mexico chili powder, or 3 medium pods (about 3/4 ounce), toasted and ground

2 tablespoons cumin seeds, toasted in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 4 minutes, and ground

2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican

7 1/2 cups water

4 pounds beef chuck roast, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes


3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or bacon grease

1 medium onion, minced

5 medium garlic cloves, minced

4-5 small jalapeno chilies, stemmed, seeded and minced

1 cup canned crushed tomatoes

2 tablespoons juice from 1 lime

5 tablespoons masa harina (or 3 tablespoons corn starch)

To toast the chilies, remove the seeds then place the fleshy parts in a hot iron skillet, about 1 minute on each side, until the color changes slightly and they become very aromatic. Allow to cool, then grind in a food processor.

Mix the chili powders, cumin and oregano is a small bowl and stir in 1/2 cup of the water to form a thick paste. Set aside. Toss the beef cubes with 2 teaspoons of salt. Set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil (or bacon grease) to moderately high in a heavy pot or Dutch oven and brown the meat in 4 batches. Set the browned meat aside.

Reduce the heat and add 1 tablespoons olive oil or bacon grease to the now empty pot. Add the onion and saute until soft, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and jalapenos and saute until fragrant, another minute or so. Add the chili mixture and cook another 2 or 3 minutes. Add the browned beef, crushed tomatoes, lime juice, prepared beans and remaining 7 cups water. Bring to a simmer and continue cooking at a steady simmer until meat is tender and juices are dark, rich and starting to thicken, about 2 hours.

Mix masa harina with 2/3 cup water (or cornstarch with 3 tablespoons water) in a small bowl to form a smooth paste. Increase the heat to medium, stir in the paste and simmer until thickened, about 8 t0 10 minutes. Adjust seasonings with salt and ground black pepper to taste.

You can serve your chili immediately with some slices of iron skillet corn bread. Even better, make the chili a couple of days ahead and let the flavors meld.

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  • De in D.C.

    I’ve started using pureed pumpkin (from pumpkins I grew in the garden this year and carved for halloween) to thicken chili instead of using starch-based thickeners. My homemade puree is so mild I don’t notice any flavor change and it adds that much more nutritional impact to the dish.

  • Ed Bruske

    De, masa harina would be very traditional, but I like your idea a lot. I wonder if there weren’t some native american tribesman who weren’t thickening their stews the same way back in the day….

  • Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener

    I like the masa harina idea. I like De’s pumpkin idea too…

    I tend to use black beans if I use beans. Like your wife, I tend to use some kind of “Stew” meat, cut up small.

    You are making me hungry!


  • KYak

    Help me. How did the cowboy carry the ingredients around in his saddle bag for the Texas Chili i.e. ground beef & ground pork? Would love to make Chili from the saddlebags of my kayak.

  • Ed Bruske

    Sylvie, black beans would make an interesting variation. I’m also thinking our own home-grown cranberry beans would work well.

    KYak, I think Melissa Guerra would say that the cowboys were carrying dried beef around in their saddlebags. They probably didn’t have the luxury of toting ground pork. It’s definitely easier being close to fresh meat.

  • Sun Bear

    The story of chili is pretty interesting, especially when you start reading about the Chili Queens over in San Antonio, and how chili had made it into the US Army’s repertoire by very early in the 20th century. If I remember right, people in San Antonio started making something called “chili brick”, which had a bunch of the base ingredients in it for a pot of chili. It was pretty stable and could be carried around for awhile, and so was convenient for a lot of folks. It used to still be available in grocery stores…that was how my Father made chili when I was growing up in SoCal. My recipe is a lot like the one here, arrived at over the years and many “recipe trials” (thank God for patient wives), but I use inexpensive cuts of beef and pork, 50/50, that I cube.

  • Ed Bruske

    Sun Bear, nice looking garden you have there. I wasn’t are of the Chili Queens. Sounds like a great story. And there’s so much lore about Army food. I wouldn’t doubt they had some kind of brick you could just drop in a pot. It would probably come in a freeze-dried pouch these days. My preference for chili is simple: beef shoulder, pork shoulder–whatever–and the chilies. More is just gilding the lily.

  • Sun Bear

    I wish I could claim that was my actual garden…its just a pic I’m using until the garden leafs out a bit and I can get a decent picture out of it. We’ve only been living in our current home a few months and the garden has been pretty dormant. Thought I’d open a garden blog (to keep track of the new garden) to complement the cooking blog I started a couple of months ago.

    If I remember right, the chili history and Chili Queens were all talked about in Robb Walsh’s “The Tex-Mex Cookbook”. I love cookbooks that give you history and cultural info along with the recipes.

    Back when my Dad bought chili brick, it was in a plastic container in the meat department, at the grocery store…probably as recently as twenty years ago(at a guess). Pretty blah stuff to me now…lol.