Chili concocted outside of Texas is usually a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing.
—Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the United States
A Reason to Shovel a Path to your Grill
Though National Chili Day is just a few weeks away (February 23), I can’t wait that long to whip up a batch of this soul-satisfying concoction. My justification (outside of the fact that I simply want it) is that the thermometer reads a bone-chilling -7 degrees as I write.
Recently, Steven filmed the first season of Planet Barbecue in the storied city of San Antonio, Texas (formerly called San Fernando de Béxar), the place where chili was first introduced to North America in 1731 by immigrants from Spain’s Canary Islands. If you’re not from the Lone Star State—chili was named the state food there in 1977—we urge you to avoid engaging the locals in a discussion about their beloved “bowl of red.” Seriously…don’t do it. I’d sooner go toe to toe with a rattlesnake than bring up chili with my grilling buddy and uber-Raichlen fan Forres Meadows. And if you really want to poke the bear, ask a Texan why there are no beans in their chili.
If you need to claw your way back to common ground, express appreciation for chili that’s been smoked over live fire. You might even bring up the OG cowboys who pounded dried meat (beef or venison) with chiles, fat, and spices to be rehydrated on the trail. Or you could curry favor by expressing appreciation for San Antonio’s own “chili queens,” who sold mesquite-kissed chili and tortillas in the 1800s from food carts to Spanish soldiers congregating around the city’s Military Plaza.
From my Yankee standpoint, nearly all chili is good, from Cincinnati’s cinnamon-inflected Skyline chili (served over spaghetti) to Michigan’s coney dogs. There’s even room in my playbook for white chili featuring cannellini or navy beans and chicken. (Sorry, Forres.) But one of my favorites is smoked pork chili verde, the chili we made several years ago at Barbecue University when we found ourselves with a surfeit of fire-roasted green chiles.
9 Tips for Making Chili
You may want to build your chili chops by whipping up a batch for Super Bowl Sunday (February 12 this year).
In the meantime, here are our top 9 chili tips:
1. Regardless of whether you use ground or cubed meat, brown it well before adding other ingredients. Do not overcrowd the pan or the meat will steam.
3. Use recently purchased spices. Replace any you suspect of languishing in your cabinet more than 6 months.
4. Use pure chili powder, without spices or other seasonings. This gives you a more direct chili flavor.
5. Be cautious when adding “thug” spices like cumin or cayenne pepper—the kind that can mug your taste buds. Add spices gradually during the cooking process. You can always add more, but you can’t always take spice away.
6. Keep a container of tasting spoons near your cooking station and taste obsessively to ensure the ingredients are melding into a harmonious whole.
7. Stir often so the chili doesn’t “catch” on the bottom. You want a smoke flavor, not a scorched burnt flavor.
8. Don’t overcook the chili or you’ll end up with muddy flavors and shredded meat.
9. If the chili needs thickening, blend a little water into a spoonful of masa harina (finely ground cornmeal) and stir into the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 15 minutes. Mashed beans, if you’re amenable to them in your chili, can also be used as a thickener, as can crushed tortilla chips. But watch the salt!
More Recipes for Chili
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