Chile con Carne

I marvel that for most of the last fifty years, except for a few times when I was able to buy good frozen chili back in Texas, I subsisted on canned chili, which is what Texans call chile con carne. In the nineties, I started flying back to Texas with increased frequency to help my mother, and when I returned home after those trips I usually had packages of frozen chili in my carry-on, which of course provoked high levels of suspicion in the airports even though these trips ended before 9/11.

But then just before New Year’s Eve, 2003, I found myself facing about half of an enormous fresh pork leg that was taking up most of the space in my freezer, so decided I’d use it to make chili. Real chili, something tastier than any canned chili. So I Googled chili recipes. Omigod. There are Texas chili cults out there. And then I dug through my own cookbooks and recipe files.

There sure are a lot of opinions about what goes into chili, but the more recipes I read, the clearer it became that I was in the traditionalist camp and wanted an old recipe, one limited to ingredients that were available in frontier Texas. Other limitations to which I subscribe are that tomatoes should not be used and that if chile con carne was intended to have beans in it, it would have been called chile con carne y frijoles.  You cook the beans separately and serve them alongside, but not touching, the chile.

So what I ended up with was a recipe that is sustained by recipes in Jane Trahey’s 1949 treasure house of authenticity, A Taste of Texas. This is a very interesting old cookbook, and one of its lesser-known claims to fame is that it contains the earliest citation in the OED for the use of the word “nachos.”

My recipe is primarily based on Glen Waggoner’s “The Seasoned Cook: How to Throw a Chili Festival” in Esquire, January 1983, certainly the most entertaining chili recipe I found. I should add that my recipe is considerably simpler than Mr. Waggoner’s, and if you get really obsessive about chili, you may want to look his up.

INGREDIENTS

5 lbs. (2 kilos) meat

The cowboys made their chili out of cows, of course, and beef is still the most common meat in chili. You also find a lot of chili made with venison in Texas, but the real reason for this is that sport hunting is frowned on in traditional Texas culture. Except for pests like, say, jackrabbits, you don’t shoot animals that you’re not going to eat. This meant that folks who like to hunt deer have to find something to do with the meat, and since most of them find venison a bit gamy, it gets ground up into sausage or put into chili. Me, I think pork makes the best chili, and I use pork shoulder, ideally the Boston Butt cut.

 

½ c. (120 ml.) lard or cooking oil

The old recipes all use rendered suet or lard to brown the meat, and yes, this tastes good. However, out of consideration for your arteries, my doctor made me recommend cooking oil, and peanut is excellent for this purpose.

 

1 c. (235 ml.) beef broth

I might have cheated on occasion and used bouillon made with a cube. I’m sure i’ve also just used more beer.

 

1 bottle of beer

This might not be the best use of Hoegaarden or Lagunitas. You will almost certainly need to add more as the chili cooks. Dispose of any remaining beer properly.

 

¾ c. (175 ml.) chile powder.

First, a note of caution: Beginners should use less, much less. Chiles vary widely in piquancy (or hotness, as they say in Texas). Dozens of varieties of peppers with a great range of capsaicin content are ground into powder, and furthermore, individual peppers on the same bush can vary considerably. You don’t want the chili so hot you (or your guests) can’t eat it. On the other hand, it is supposed to make your forehead sweat.

Second, you can buy generic “chile powder” at supermarkets everywhere I’ve visited, and you can make a fairly good chili with it. (Warning: avoid the generic chile powders adulterated with stale ground herbs and rancid garlic powder.) You can make better chili using specific varieties of chile peppers that have been ground, and you can buy these powders at specialty markets, especially where there is a population that uses them a lot. The very best chili is made with powdered chiles from growers who specialize in them, like Tierra Vegetables at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco or one of the fine New Mexico purveyors of powdered chiles. These are also the most expensive, but after all, the chiles are what give the dish its name. I like to use a mixture of chile powders to add flavor complexity.

 

¼ c. (60 ml.) whole wheat flour

Yeah, yeah, the cowboys used white flour because it keeps.

 

2 fresh Jalapeños

Jalapeños are my favorite fresh chile, and seeding a couple and chopping them into the chili adds flavor. But especially if you’re using more than one powdered chile, you can leave these out. After all, the cowboys didn’t carry around fresh Jalapeños.

 

1 T. (15 ml.) ground cumin (comino)

2 t. (10 ml.) ground oregano

2 t. (10 ml.) ground coriander (cilantro)

OK, I admit it. Few traditional chili recipes include coriander, but I like the stuff so much that instead of using the powdered seeds I often chop in an entire bunch of fresh coriander leaves (cilantro) during the last few minutes of cooking.

Unfortunately, many people have a strong aversion to coriander, and there is evidence that for those of northern European extraction this is not finickiness but rather a genetic defect, which can be blamed on their choice of parents.

A further note on coriander:  ground coriander seed was very, very rarely used in American cooking in my youth.  My mother never bought it in her life.  And you never saw fresh green coriander.  I discovered fresh coriander when i moved to San Francisco in 1975 and found it widely used in Chinese cooking under the English name “Chinese Parsley”.  And then, in the ’80’s it started turning up here in Mexican cooking under the name “cilantro”, and that name came into English and took over so completely that many people don’t know it’s the same plant that produces the dried, ground seeds they call “coriander”.

 

1 t. (5 ml.) sugar

 

2 t. (10 ml.) salt.  This is one of the few American recipes that calls for twice as much salt as sugar.

 

1 head of garlic, the cloves peeled.

When fresh green garlic is in season, i use a few of stalks of that instead of the dried bulb.

 

1 T. (15 ml.) masa harina

This is the flour used to make tortillas. It’s made from corn that has been treated with quicklime, which improves the taste and boosts the nutritional qualities. The masa can be omitted although it adds subtle flavor and thickens.

 

TECHNIQUE

  1. Trim the excess fat off the meat. Sometimes, especially if my doctor isn’t watching, I render the fat scraps and then use this to brown the meat in the next step, supplementing it with oil if there’s not enough.
  2. Cut the meat into 1 in. (2,5 cm.) chunks and then, in small batches, pat them dry with towels and brown them in the oil or fat in the bottom of a large, heavy pot, transferring each batch into a large bowl when done.
  3. Cook, but do not brown, the garlic in the fat, and transfer it to the bowl.
  4. Drain almost all of the fat, leaving the brown bits.
  5. Return the browned meat and cooked garlic to the pot, and mix the combined flour, chile powder, sugar, and salt into the meat. Stir this mixture over low heat for 5 minutes or so.
  6. Pour in the beef broth and beer, and bring the mixture to a simmer. The chunks of meat should be covered by at least an inch (2,5 cm.)
  7. Add the fresh Jalapeños and herbs. Cook over low heat, partially covered, until the meat just begins to fall apart. This will take something like 3 hours but varies a lot with the pork. You should add more beer if needed to keep the meat covered, but you want to end without excess liquid.
  8. Toward the end, you can “correct the seasoning.” I love that phrase. What it really means is that you can add more chile powder and salt. You sure can’t remove any.
  9. If you are using the masa harina, make a roux with the masa and ¼ c. of the cooking liquid and stir it into the chili 15 minutes before the chili is done. The masa thickens the chili significantly, so after you add it you need to stir very frequently to keep the chili from sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning.

The best way to reheat the chili, especially if you’ve thickened it with masa, is to use the microwave. Reheating it in the pot tends to tear it up too much as you stir it, and there is a significant risk of it sticking and burning.

The traditional way to serve chili is with cornbread (see above recipe), a cooked leafy green (such as spinach or kale or collards or mustard greens or turnip greens), and pinto beans or best of all, fresh cranberry beans. It is also absolutely delicious atop baked sweet potatoes. Somehow, the piquancy and richness of the chili offset the sweetness of the potato. If you happen to have it on hand, you could put a spoonful of quark (the Dutch spell this “kwark”) on top just as a dollop of sour cream is often served with Tex-Mex foods like enchiladas.

I have got enormous pleasure out of serving this dish to both folks here in California and to friends in Amsterdam. There is really something special about cooking Tex-Mex food for the Dutch.

Late Note: I cooked this chili for my friends Rick and Nancy and Kurt in early December, 2010, and it went over well. Ironically enough, a few days later my issue of Cook’s Illustrated arrived and it included a recipe for chili written by some Yankee staff member named Andrea. Oh please, would you go to the streets of Laredo to get a recipe for New England clam chowder?

The woman’s heart is in the right place, i suppose, but she’s laughably clueless, weakening her chili with beans, tomato, and molasses! In an inset she writes with seemingly sincere horror that cooks at the famous Terlingua International Chili Championship rely on chile powders, obviously not realizing that these powders are the real thing rather than the commercial swill containing ground up stems and seeds and adulterated with stale spices.

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