Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Another Oldie but Goodie... Unsolved Chili Mysteries!

Dear Tricia, My husband loves chili...but every time I make a batch it either turns out too cumin-y or too chili powder- y. What is the best combination of spices for a hearty chili? Also, what is the best kind of meat to use? Is bison good? And the beans, which kind should I use there? Please help me please my baby's belly!

*I should warn all of you that if I suddenly go missing, I have been kidnapped by the International Chili Society. I'm wearing grey shorts, a white shirt with a the Star of David on it, and ski boots.*

I thought this would be a pretty light-hearted blog entry... its just chili, right? Well I was wrong. The International Chili Society proved me waaaaay wrong. Yes, there is a society for chili and, yes, it is international. And they have rules. I'm afraid to type too loud in case they hear me and read this and tell me I'm wrong. Shhhhhhh.
First of all, I'm going to give you a quick history lesson. There are two groups of people that can be credited with the first chili. Supposedly, Ranch cooks were one of them. Why? Because they usually had meat that was about to go bad and needed a good way to cover up the impending taste of rotten death. Chile peppers did a nice job covering it up. By stewing the chile peppers and meat together (that's what "chile con carne" actually translates to: chile pepper with meat), they came up with a hearty dish, used up what was going to be thrown away eventually, and the cowboys ate it right up. And if you read my Rocky Mountain Oysters post from Monday, you'll realize that throwing away anything was unheard of... even the cow's family jewels. The second group of people credited with making the first chili are the Aztecs, though theirs harbors a lot more anger. Supposedly, they were so angry about the Spanish Conquistadors invading their lands, that they killed and cut up the Spaniards, seasoned the meat with chile peppers, and ate them. Mmmm... cannibal chili. It gives Spanish Chile a whole new meaning, doesn't it? Can you imagine Fox News doing a story on that? "Aztec Cannibals Make Invaders into Chili." They'd probably blame it all on President Obama.
So lets get to fixing your chili, shall we?
First rule: lean meat only, preferably not ground. Lean meat is tougher, but the reason why you want to use it is because you're slowly cooking it in lots of flavorful juices that will tenderize it. So yes, bison is good because its lean. Ground meat will fall apart if its cooked slowly in so many juices, so cube up it up into medium sized chunks. Any stewing meat is ideal, and as a recession bonus, its cheap. Please refer to my "The Beef on Beef and Getting Grilled on Grilling" post for a quick lesson on the different cuts of beef. There's also a pretty picture to look at.
Second Rule: No beans. Since I live in Texas, we're going with Texas-style chili. And Texas-style chili NEVER has beans in it. If you must add beans (Shhhh! Don't let the International Chili Society hear you!), add them after you've finished cooking the chili so that they don't break down into mush. According to the history of chili (and its lengthy), if the cook lived in a poor area, they could bulk up the chili by adding beans, but that was not ideal. If you must disobey The International Chili Society, then just use whatever beans you like, because you're already in going to get in big trouble. And if you don't, then I'm telling on you. You can buy actual "chili beans," but kidney beans and pinto beans are perfectly fine too. Just use what you like best. Its like me and box wine: sure, I'm supposed to drink fine wine out of a bottle, but do I always want to? No. I'm just not that fussy. So... Franzia it is.
Third, we're going to talk about spices. Adding spices to chili is about as personal as picking out underwear, except imagine having 6,000 different types of underwear to choose from. Its exhausting and there is no right or wrong choice. What I learned from "Chili Cookoff Confidential" is that its not so much about what spices you use, but when you put them in. This is what's called a "dump." Go ahead and laugh... I did. And the fact that I'm talking about dumps and underwear in the same paragraph is purely coincidental, I promise. But the chili pros swear by mixing up all the spices at the beginning of the cooking process, and adding them to the chili in 2 or 3 "dumps" along the way. You add the first dump when you cook the meat. The second dump goes in when you're adding liquid to the meat to make the gravy. And the third dump goes in right before you finish cooking the chili. This is actually a really smart idea because spices change flavor as they cook, and in the case of cumin, it tends to get a little bitter. So you're probably adding the right amount of chili powder and cumin, but not at the right time. Whether or not you use two or three dumps seems to remain controversial in the chili world. But again, there are also 6,000 different types of chile powder to choose from, so there is no possible way to be right or wrong here. You'll also get better results by using different types of chili powder together, not using one kind. This makes the flavor of the chili more robust and complex, not just spicy. If you can find it, chimayo chili powder is my absolute favorite. And anytime you happen to travel to the southwest, especially New Mexico, make an effort to buy different regional types of chili powder that, most likely, you can't get at home. That's a much better souvenir than a stupid shot glass with the coyote with the bandanna, howling at the moon. God, I hate those.
So in conclusion, remove the beans, use lean meat, and add your spices in separate "dumps. " That should help your chili dilemma and fill your husbands belly with happy results. For more information on chili, check out the International Chili Society's website, www.chilicookoff.com. And if I suddenly go missing, that should also give you a hint to where kidnapper took me.

**Shortly after this blog was posted last year, Michael (who is now one of my favorite people in the world) from the International Chili Society contacted me and had me judge one of their cook offs in San Antonio. Turns out they're really passionate about chili, but have no interest in kidnapping people.**

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