Chili is a highly personal food. Much like the variety of preferences in Thanksgiving stuffing, every Texan has their own idea of what makes Texas chili authentic. They agree on almost nothing: ground beef or cubed, spicy or mild, tomato or no tomato, beer or no beer, and especially the chilies. Two or three Shiner Bocks into any night in Texas, and you might find yourself in a heated debate on what makes it real Texas Red. Texans agree on only one thing about their chili–NO BEANS!
I can’t possibly discuss chili without telling you about Robb Walsh’s The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos published by Ten Speed Press. This book is a goldmine of information on the history of Tex-Mex cuisine. There is a whole chapter dedicated to chili, and no less than nine historical recipes for the real stuff. Each recipe is decidedly different which proves that a single recipe for real Texas chili is more of a myth and a taste memory than something that exists. In it’s simplest form, chili con carne is a beef stew made from cubed beef or ground beef which is cooked with chilies and cumin. From there on the gloves come off and the differences come out.
There are only about three rules to making real Texas Red, and except the no-beans rule, even these are not set in stone. First rule: no beans (have I mentioned that yet?). Second, use lots of cumin; how much is up for debate, but it better be in there. Third, use more than one type of chili. Ideally these should be real dried chilies, not chili powder. The third one is the one that catches me up because I don’t have any whole dried chilies. They are pretty expensive around here, and I just don’t need them very often. I should probably keep a stock of Ancho chilies around since they are mild and can be used in almost anything, but I don’t. I have twins (my current excuse for anything I’m just too lazy to deal with).
There are other rules that are up for debate. While many people say that real Texas chili is tomato free, most of the chili I had in Texas did, in fact, contain tomatoes. However, they aren’t necessary, and I like the rich, almost chocolaty flavor that a tomato-less chili offers. Another rule that sparks heated chili debates is whether the chili should be made with ground beef or cubed beef. I like both. Ground beef is most common, even in Texas, but there’s something special about a chili made with chunks of chuck that are cooked till super tender then “shredded” into a bowl of falling apart, chili heaven.
Anyone not from Texas is sure to think the whole no-beans thing is a bit silly and not really that important, but its oh-so-important to us. So why no beans? Robb Walsh provides the best answer:
“In most of the rest of the country, chili has one purpose – it is a hearty one-dish meal. But in Texas, chili has a wide variety of uses. It can be used straight or diluted as a sauce. It’s a popular topping for tamales, to make it into a meal, you combine it with beans, tamales, tortillas, enchiladas, scrambled eggs, or any number of other things. Texans don’t have anything against eating beans with their chili. They just have a lot of other ways to eat it.”
He’s right on too. Growing up in Texas, chili was on top of everything. The snack-bar at my high-school served chili (and neon-orange cheese goo) on top of nachos, burritos, french fries and even baked potatoes (I’m probably forgetting something). Restaurants topped enchiladas, burritos and chimichangas with chili (oh, I miss you Chuy’s). Even the IHOP where I waited tables served chili topped omelets. Chili is to Tex-Mex what Parmesan cheese is to Italian-American food; its on top of everything.
My chili recipe is a blend of several recipes from The Tex-Mex Cookbook, as well as a few of my own touches. It’s true Texas Red flavor, made more accessible for my Yankee family kitchen. I’ve found that using a blend of Ancho chili powder and hot paprika offers an authentic flavor, yet with a still manageable heat level. Paprika is anything but a dominant ingredient in most Texas chili, but the flavor is rich and full bodied and the heat is just on the cool side of hot. If you want something even milder, then you can substitute out the hot paprika for sweet paprika. If you want something hotter change out the hot paprika for Arbol or Chipotle chili peppers. Whatever you use, you will like the result. This recipe is simple: nothing too fancy or complex, but it’s true Texas flavor and NO BEANS! Enjoy!
- 2 pounds stew meat cubed into 1/2 inch pieces and dried of any moisture (preferably chuck)
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons ground Ancho chili
- 2 tablespoon hot paprika
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon coarse black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano (Mexican if possible)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 cups beef broth
- 2 tablespoons corn flour (masa harina)
- Heat olive oil in a dutch oven over high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer add the beef and cook until any liquid has evaporated and the meat is browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. If the pan starts to smoke too much, turn down the heat a little. Add the onion and continue to cook until the onion is tender and starting to brown, about another 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic, chili powders, cumin, black pepper and salt. Stir until all the meat is covered in the spices and continue to cook for another minute. Add the bay leaves, oregano and broth. Stir to mix everything together. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to low. Cover and cook until the meat is very tender and beginning to fall apart, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
- Using a potato masher or the back of a large spoon, break the meat up until most of it has fallen apart but there are a few chunks still visible. In a small bowl combine corn flour with 1/4 cup of cold water and stir until a thin paste forms. Pour the paste into the chili and stir until the corn flour mixture dissolves into the chili.
- Return to a simmer long enough for the corn flour to cook, about 10 minutes. Season to taste. Serve with chopped onion and cheese, or over enchiladas, corn chips, burritos or whatever you want!
- Beef tends to smoke when browning. Be sure to work in a well ventilated area or you may have smoke detectors screaming in your ears. I use an externally-vented hood as well as an open window whenever I am browning meat.