I admit I was surprised by the results of the Slate Reader Takeover poll in which I invited you, dear readers, to turn the tables on me and explain which recipe I’m doing wrong. I had felt confident, going into the poll, that you would choose my (open-faced, not grilled) grilled cheese recipe as the most erroneous of the bunch. Instead, you chose another mushroom-containing recipe: my black bean and tempeh chili, which one commenter wrote “still haunts my dreams.” Judging from the comments below the poll, it seems that plenty of those voting for the chili recipe did not actually try it for themselves—but that’s OK: This week’s column is not about how wonderful tempeh tastes when you crumble it and braise it with beer and spices. It is, rather, about the deeply held chili-related convictions of Slate’s readers.
Among those convictions: Vegetarian chili is an oxymoron, since the dish’s full, original name is chile con carne, which translates literally to “chili with meat.” (Commenter trufflecat takes the carne to the max, using four kinds of meat in chili: “lamb shoulder, ground beef, chuck steak, and spicy sausage.”) “Real chile has no beans, and certainly meat rather than ‘soybean cake,’ ” asserts commenter dkm. John Myroro, who says his great-grandfather won the Texas State Fair chili cook-off back in the 1930s,” says that the “thought of adding beans” would have seemed as odd to his great-grandfather “as the thought of adding dumplings.” Also, Myroro says: “No tomatoes.” So-called Texas-style chili often contains only meat, chilies, some spices, and perhaps onions and garlic.
I was born and raised in Texas, and it means so much to me—but I’m not a purist when it comes to food: If something tastes good, why not make it that way? Beans may not go in “real chili,” but they offer a delightful bit of textural contrast and soak up other flavors like a sponge. Still, I can understand why you might not want them in your chili—indeed, if your goal, like trufflecat’s, is to pack as much meatiness as possible into each bite, you must omit them. Tomatoes, on the other hand, are a boon to any chili recipe: Their sweetness and acidity balance out the chilies’ heat, and their liquid softens the meat. Sure, you can (and should) use bitter braising liquids like coffee or beer, but you need some tomato in there to prevent acridity.
Taking these various concerns into account, I developed a 100-percent tempeh-free chili for the Reader Takeover. This new, improved recipe owes quite a bit to commenter Craig, who was so incensed by my Black Bean and Stout Chili that he posted his own recipe below mine. (I tip my hat to you, Craig.) I also heeded readers’ calls to make my own chili powder—easy to do by putting ancho chilies in a clean coffee grinder—and to add a hint of sweetness with brown sugar and cinnamon. I call for beans in this recipe, but since reasonable people have been known to disagree, I offer a simple variation for bean-haters: Double the meat, and leave out the beans.
I hope you enjoy it. But please don’t get accustomed to the moral squishiness I’ve exhibited this week. Next week, it’s back to the usual: being “a rude, opinionated, self-righteous person who can’t accept that people like different things” and likes to “maul cultural treasures and flub simple comfort foods” while “being arrogant and insulting” (to quote commenters percysowner, Craig, and AF, respectively).
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Time: 3½ to 4½ hours, mostly unattended
2 ounces bacon, chopped
1 pound boneless beef chuck or round, trimmed and cut into ½-inch chunks
Salt and black pepper
2 medium yellow or red onions, chopped
3 fresh poblano peppers, seeded and chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 ancho chilies
2 or 3 canned chipotle chilies, chopped
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
One 26-ounce box or 28-ounce can chopped or diced tomatoes
1 cup brewed coffee or beer
1 tablespoon brown sugar
4 cups drained cooked pinto beans
Chopped cilantro, tortilla chips, grated cheddar cheese, sour cream, and lime wedges for serving (optional)
1. Put the bacon in a large pot over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the bacon is crispy and browned, about 10 minutes. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain it on paper towels. Add the beef to the pot, season with salt and pepper, and cook, turning the pieces occasionally, until they’re browned on all sides, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the beef with a slotted spoon and drain it on paper towels.
2. If necessary, pour off and discard all but 3 tablespoons of the fat in the pot. Add the onions, poblanos, and garlic to the pot; season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, remove and discard the ancho chilies’ stems. Put the ancho chilies in a clean coffee grinder, a spice grinder, or a small food processor and process until powdered, about 30 seconds. Add the ground ancho chilies, chipotle chilies, oregano, cumin, coriander, and cinnamon to the onion mixture and cook, stirring, until they’re fragrant, about 2 minutes.
3. Return the bacon and beef to the pot and add the tomatoes, coffee or beer, and brown sugar, along with 1½ cups water. Cover, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low. Simmer the meat, stirring occasionally, for 2½ hours. (Add more water as needed if the mixture becomes dry.) Stir in the beans, cover, and continue to cook until the mixture is thick and the meat is falling apart, 30 minutes to 1 hour. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with cilantro, tortilla chips, cheddar, sour cream, and lime wedges as desired and serve. (Store leftover chili in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.)
All-Meat, No-Beans Chili Redux: In Step 1, use 2 pounds boneless beef chuck or round, and brown it in batches. In Step 3, omit the beans.