CRIMESPREE COOKS WITH ROB HART

The Philosophy of Chili

This is not a recipe, because recipes are for nerds. 

This is more a how-to manual meant for people who like to eyeball stuff, which is generally how I cook. But in a larger sense, we’re talking about chili. It is the ultimate “anything goes” dish. You can make a killer chili with any kind of meat. You can include beans or no beans. You can amp it up with rare peppers and short rib, or throw in some ground beef and powdered spices from the pantry. At the end, you will still have chili. 

Point is, chili can be highfalutin, but it doesn’t have to be, and sometimes it’s better when it’s explicitly not. 

Hell, you don’t even technically need meat. I once made a vegan chili that went over so well, it got finished before the meat version (the latter, frankly, I thought was one of the best things I’d ever produced in an oven—but this was a New Year’s Eve party in hipster Brooklyn, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised…). 

Anyway! There are purists who will tell you what needs to be in chili. Those people are also nerds. Chili is the people’s dish. 

Here’s what I think you need to have:

Chiles

That’s it. Doesn’t matter if they’re powdered or diced or fresh or dried or whatever. Does it have chiles? Then it is a chili.

And I am going to lead you through the construction of a chili. How I would make it, including tips for how to achieve maximum flavor potential. Feel free to change or adapt to your liking. 

THE DEVICE

The ultimate chili cooking device is the dutch oven, followed by the pressure cooker and, if you’re in a bind, a slow cooker. If you don’t have a dutch oven… get one. They’re expensive, but worth the investment. Nothing holds and distributes heat for stews and braises like a dutch oven. A pressure cooker can work, though you will lose a tiny bit of the magic. 

I am not a big fan of slow cookers because they don’t produce those lovely browned flavors that come from roasting, but hey, if you’re in a jam, it’s better than no chili. 

THE MEAT

If you’re making a meat chili, the world is a wide and exciting place! You have so many options it’s crazy. Stick to fattier cuts of meat (something without a lot of intramuscular fat, like chicken breast or beef tenderloin, will not break down well). 

Chuck steak is good. Short ribs are divine (though you might end up having to skim off a little fat at the end). Ground meats are okay, though I’m not a big fan (I like fall-apart stew meat, plus ground beef is harder to brown, and the provenance of the cuts are unknown). Sausages are not great because they’re generally flavored on their own, and are too crumbly and fatty. 

Also good: pork shoulder! Just be sure to trim off some of the excess fat and check for bones—even a boneless shoulder will sometimes have a few strays. 

Speaking of bones—do not use stew meats that are on a bone! Because then you will have to go hunting for the bones when you are done, lest someone lose a tooth. 

Once you figure all that out, take your meat and throw it in a bowl with some oil (something neutral like vegetable or canola) and a nice bit of salt and mix it all up. Then, when you go to brown the meat (in a hot dutch oven) do it in small batches. Don’t throw all your meat into the pan at once. You need to give it ample room so it doesn’t steam. 

Also, you should only brown one side of maybe half the meat. You might be tempted to brown all sides of all the meat in order to maximize flavor potential, but that can dry out the meat and make it tough. What matters here is the browned flavor, which you can create pretty easily (that brown crud at the bottom of the pan, which the French call fond, is flavor). It will disperse throughout the chili during the cooking time. 


Once you’re browned of some of the meat, put it back in the bowl from whence it came and prepare the base…

THE BASE

A good chili, just like any stew, starts with a good base. This could be as simple as some garlic and onions simmered in some oil until they’re translucent and make your kitchen smell like heaven. 

How much do you need? Depends on the size of the batch but you want them to at least cover the bottom of the pot. You should have enough fat in the pan from the oil and whatever got let go from the meat. Feel free to add a little more if you think you need it. And don’t put the heat up too high, or you’ll scorch your fond! Your precious fond!

Now, add your chiles. You want to get them roasted a bit, and disperse their flavors in the fat. 

You have a ton of options here. You could throw in some paprika and cayenne if that’s all you got. You could get some fresh chiles, like jalapeños, or serranos, or habaneros (go light on that last one—they are very hot). If you’re dicing by hand, wear rubber gloves, dip your fingers in oil first, or wash your hands with milk after. You will thank me when you go to scratch your eye. 

Dried chiles are also good, like guajillo and ancho. You can find these in little crinkle packets at the supermarket, usually in the veggie section, sometimes around the Spanish foods. I recently got turned onto byadgi chiles from India. Very nice. I like to put them in the spice grinder and zap them into dust. 

Toss ‘em in with your aromatics, and don’t forget to hit with a generous pinch of salt. Sauté everything for a couple of minutes. Really, once you smell it and the vegetables are broken down, you’re good. 

THE BODY

There are a lot of things that can provide the body of a chili. Tomato puree. Whole tomatoes or tomatillos. Chicken stock (which, frankly, even if you’re making a beef chili, is superior to beef broth, which is often flavored with yeast extracts rather than actual beef). You can use beer! (Go for lighter beers that aren’t heavily flavored—no IPAs or stouts). If you’re doing beans, you could just throw in a couple of cans of beans, along with the accompanying liquid. 

For what it’s worth, my go-to is a can of pureed tomatoes and a light beer. The acid in the tomatoes cuts through everything nicely while the beer is a blank canvas that lets a lot of other flavors come through. 

If you’re doing a vegan/veg chili, this is where you would put the beans in the cooking process! Also whatever faux-meat you want, which generally doesn’t need to be browned.

Put in enough liquid-like material to cover the meat, but not by a whole lot. Less than an inch? You want a good ratio of meat to body when it’s been cooked down. You can always add liquid if you think it’s drying out. Once you get everything in, give it a few good stirs. 

THE EXTRAS

You can throw in some extras now, or closer to the end of cooking time, depending on how you feel, or if you want to adjust the flavor. Sometimes it’s good to hold off until toward the end only because, as the chili cooks down, the flavors intensify, and if you put in too much salt at the jump, that translates to way too much salt at the end. 

Anyway, this is some of the stuff I will throw in at various stages depending on my mood: 

Salt—Salt is your friend!

Soy sauce and fish sauce—Generous glugs of these will increase meaty flavors. Fish sauce in particular is a magical ingredient that smells like dead things but is also completely and utterly delicious, especially when used in soups, stews, and stir-fries. 

Coffee and/or chocolate—Not even kidding. I will often pour in a little bit of coffee or sprinkle in some cocoa powder. You will not taste either of them but it will give the chili a flavor of deep and delectable darkness that is impossible to describe. 

Alcohol—Like I said, you can use beer in the body. You could also add in a shot or two of whiskey or vodka. Fun fact about tomatoes (and also some of the other stuff in the pot): a lot of the flavors in these things are alcohol-soluble, which means alcohol helps them along and opens them up. Alcohol makes food taste better. Science!

Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce—These are smoked jalapeños in a red sauce. Take a few out, dice them up, and throw them in with a couple spoonfuls of the sauce. Flavor explosion plus it lends a nice smoky note to the chili. I find them to be deceptively hot so don’t add too many if you’re not a spice freak. 

Tortilla chips—Crushed up, they make a really good thickening agent, which you won’t always need (if you cooked it down enough, you’re good). But, helpful if you get to the end and it seems a touch watery, or you just like the flavor. Be careful if you plan to go this route—under-salt everything up until then, because these will add a good bit of salt on their own. 

THE COOKING

This is where the magic happens. You want to get that chili into a low oven—like 250—and leave the lid cracked a tiny bit. This gives steam room to escape and heat to get in, because you want to cook water out, therefore maximizing flavor. This will help give the whole thing an even more browned, roasted, oven-cooked flavor (which you only get a little from a pressure cooker, and not at all from a slow cooker). 

You’ll know it’s done when it’s cooked down to a sludge and is god damn delicious. 

A little fat on the top when you’re done is okay, but if you see a ton of it, skim some off (there is such a thing as too much fat). 

Serve with whatever the fuck you want. 

Seriously. It’s nice to have toppings but a really good chili, you’ll be content to just stand there and spoon it out of the pot. Though I will never say no to a good batch of corn bread. 

(Pro-tip courtesy of THE HARD BOUNCE and ROUGH TRADE author Todd Robinson: Replace half the liquid in your cornbread recipe with creamed corn if you feel like living your best life.)

And there you go! The beauty of chili is that is a dish for adaptation and experimentation. I’ve never cooked a batch the same way twice. Something always changes, depending on my mood, or what’s fresh, or whether I want to try something new. 

As long as you follow some general guidelines, you’ll be good. And the more you do it, the more you can put your own personal stamp on it. 

My final piece of advice is this: if you’re going to the trouble, make a big batch, even if you’re dining solo. All that leftover chili, which you will lovingly dose out into plastic containers and stash in the fridge—it’s going to marinate and those flavors are all going to get friendly, and it’s going to taste even better as time goes on…

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Rob Hart’s latest book from Polis, TAKE-OUT, is a collection of food noir stories, called a “winning” collection by Publishers Weekly. He is also the author of the Ash McKenna series at Polis, and co-wrote SCOTT FREE with James Patterson. His next novel, THE WAREHOUSE, will be published by Crown in August 2019. It has sold in more than 20 countries and has been optioned for film by Ron Howard. Find him online at www.robwhart.com