As far as I remember, Mom never made chili con carne. After all, it had spices in it. In the 1950s and 1960s, to cook daringly was to use garlic powder in your soup. And not too darned much garlic powder, either. In our corner of New England, your family would have complained if the food was TOO flavourful. Some have said that this comes from a history of New England boiled dinners, Boston baked beans, clam and fish chowder, Indian pudding, and other such dishes that were sustaining but not challenging to eat. There may have even been a bit of Puritanism coming through here: food mustn’t be too enjoyable lest it make you too worldly.
Chili in the bowl ready to eat
I believe it comes from the fact that New England cooking is descended directly from the English cooking at the time the Pilgrims departed from Plymouth for the New World. English cooking took advantage of the circumstances of society in Europe. There was a lot of fuel for cooking fires, but not many people who could or would cook. Thus, English cuisine depended on ingredients not needing a lot of fussy preparation by chefs or other staff. Instead, one person could chop things up roughly and throw them in a pot, add some liquid, and simmer until the meat and vegetables were done.
Contrast this with Chinese and Asian cuisine. There was a lack of ready fuel for cooking fires, especially in the large cities hacked out of the jungle. Much of the wood and foliage was bamboo-ish, thus burning quickly. On the other hand, there were many hands ready to help out with the preparation and cooking. So Chinese cuisine is based on ingredients needing intensive preparation by many hands, but a short amount of cooking time to be ready to eat. The only exception is the rice.
After baking the corn muffins this afternoon, I decided that we’d have chili tonight. I apologise to those of you who are experienced chili chefs. You may find the following recipe unsettling. The reason is clear: there are as many recipes for chili as there are people who cook it. I am told that Cincinnati is the capital of chili eating at least in the North and Midwest US. In some localities only ground beef is used. In others, the ground beef is augmented with beans. Elsewhere, stew beef is used, with or without beans. The recipe you know and love may not be the one I am about to give you. Please forgive me. It is not something my mother would have cooked, but I’ve developed it over the years after thinking about chili and reading about it and even eating some.
I’ve decided that the kind I like best is made with stew beef, tomatoes, the Holy Trinity of onions, celery, and peppers, and spices, cumin, and chili powder. This I serve over rice and sometimes top with cheese. Here in the UK, chili con carne is spelled chilli con carne. I do not know where the extra “l” came from, I’m afraid.
Not Mother Hansen’s Chili
1 large onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
3 or 4 stalks celery, chopped
several cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
a dozen button mushrooms, scrubbed and quartered
one or more medium chili peppers, seeded and chopped
2 lbs. lean stew beef, cubed
2 cans red kidney beans, with their liquid
1 container sieved tomatoes
1 can chopped or Italian plum tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
Adobo (Goya makes it; it’s a mixture of salt pepper, and various spices)
Sauté the onion, pepper, celery, garlic, mushrooms, and chili pepper in the olive oil in a rather large pot for around 5 minutes. Do not do this in a smallish pot as you’ll need room to stir it around and filling a smaller pot to the top might not allow for stirring. Put enough olive oil to barely cover the bottom of the pot. Make sure the flame is medium, as olive oil is apt to burn if heated too much.
Put the meat in a bowl and pour some flour into the bowl. I don’t use a lot, just three or four tablespoons should do. Place a dinner plate over the top of the bowl and vigourously shake the whole thing for 10 seconds or so. This will cover most of the meat with flour. Then dump the whole bowl, meat and any flour not adhering to the meat, into the pot and brown the meat.
Here is the lineup of spices I used. I suppose that if you like it really fiery you could add cayenne pepper to taste. I have some, but decided that the spices pictured here were sufficient.
Spices I used in the chili
While the meat is browning, open the cans of tomatoes, beans, tomato paste, and the container of sieved tomatoes. After around 5 minutes of browning, dump all these ingredients into the pot and stir to cover. Then add the spices. Do not be sparing with the cumin or chili powder. It’s the cumin that gives the chili its distinct taste and odour. I put about a teaspoon each of the basil and oregano in my palm and pinch it in my other thumb and forefinger into the pot. This pulverizes the spice and makes it mix easier. Add adobo (if you can’t get adobo, use salt and pepper) to taste. Turn the heat down to low and let this simmer until the meat is done. The longer, the better, but don’t let it burn on the bottom of the pot nor run out of liquid. If you need to, add more liquid.
Chili in the pot
Serve over boiled white rice and top with grated cheddar, or bacon bits, or chopped onion, or any combination.
If you wanted there are a myriad of ways to vary this. For example, if you have a can of Guinness lurking around in the fridge, even if it’s expired, add it to the pot before adding the other liquid ingredients but after browning the meat. It will foam up a lot, but adds taste and body to the chili and deglazes the pot after browning. I didn’t have any today, and you can’t buy just one can of Guinness at the local Tesco’s. You might try red wine rather than Guinness if you have some leftover boxed red wine after a party. A wineglassfull or two is probably enough. You may have to simmer it longer to get the sauce to thicken sufficiently.
If you don’t care for the stew beef, use lean ground beef. If you use ground beef don’t mix it with flour, just brown it in the pot.
Some people leave out the beans, or put beans of another type, such as canned pinto beans in their chili.
One of the reasons that I regard chili as momfood, even though my own mother never made it, is that it is almost infinitely variable. As I’ve written before, Mom had to cut her cloth to fit the garment. Whatever she had on hand, she used in our food. Chili is so very adaptable that any Mom could probably cook it given the presence of the proper spices in the spice rack (spice racks were SO 1950s, like fondue sets…), canned tomatoes in the cupboard, and ground beef in the fridge. It always tastes good, no matter what you put in it—especially love.