So, I am participating in a chili cookoff this weekend. Not a sanctioned event. Just a friendly competition at church. But one of our requirements is to produce an ingredient list and, as is my style, I can’t resist the opportunity to think on the purpose and vision of things and philosophize. So my ingredient list turned into my “philosophy of chili.”
Elevation Chili Ingredient List (and Chili Manifesto)
Every culture has a dish they use to transform humble ingredients into something heart-warming, satisfying, and culturally iconic. Whether it’s gumbo, curry, stew, hash, minestrone, wat, pho, or goulash, the idea of taking ordinary foodstuffs and making them extraordinary by artful combination and extraction of flavors is universal. And the idea of taking ordinary things and elevating them is at the core of my faith.
In Texas, that dish is Chili and, for me, it is a sacred experience. If I do my job right, the lowly will be exalted and all who partake will go forth with full bellies, dilated capillaries, and praise for the Lord on their lips! So let’s introduce the cast.
The name of the dish is “Chili,” not “Meat Mush.” Chiles should be the superhero of the dish. Not only do chile peppers direct the complex orchestra of flavors in the pot, they elevate all the humble ingredients into a magnificent gustatory team.
If your meat is the star in your pot, you’re doing it wrong. (More on this later.)
Chili should be spicy, sure, but if you use chiles in your pot to create some sort of macho capsaicin dare for your tasters, you’re doing it wrong too. You don’t need to burn their faces off. Chiles should elevate, not dominate. In my chili base I use:
Guajillos – They establish a complex, deep base of flavor
Anchos – They lay on a sweet smoky layer of flavor
Jalapenos – They top it off with bright, grassy heat
At home I use ground beef and meat scraps from the refrigerator. But since I am cooking for company today, I am using a ground combination of lowly, tough cuts of beef. No leftovers for you.
Please, please, if you have a nice piece of meat, like a ribeye or tenderloin, please step away from the chili pot! Respect that noble beast by grilling it properly! Enjoy it the way it should be enjoyed; medium rare on a plate with a baked potato and a maybe a beer.
Chili wasn’t invented to grind the best parts of the cow into a mush. Its purpose is to elevate the tough, cheaper parts, the scraps, the cast-offs. Redemption of humble fare is what chili is all about.
I use lager for the dark notes and the sweetness, but I mainly use it for the alcohol. There are flavor compounds in many foods, such as tomatoes, that are only soluble in alcohol. Almost all the alcohol cooks away and, if I do my job right, you won’t taste the beer.
Beans and Tomatoes:
Yes, I put pinto beans in my chili. And my tomatoes are visible, yes, against chili purist rules. My core mission is not just to make something that tastes good. I want to feed people. Beans are probably the most nutritious thing in the pot and, as a Dad, I never lose a chance to amp up the wholesome factor when I can. If that means my chili is not officially sanctioned, so be it. I’ll choose making a crowd of hungry people full and happy over a trophy any day.
Aromatics, Spices, and Seasonings:
Like the background singers and the horn section of the pot. Earthy and sweet, they round out the flavor profile.
Onions, Garlic, Cumin, Cocoa Powder, Backstrap Molasses, Salt
There you have it. Relatively simple. As with many things, the magic is in the combination, the relationship, the team.