If you like chili - and what American doesn’t? - there’s really no such thing as a bad bowl. But here’s the problem: A memorable bowl of chili is really rare. There are, in my opinion, three reasons for this:
1. Almost everybody uses bottled chili powder, which has been sitting on the shelf so long it’s gone to sleep and lost its zip. Then too, most commercial chili powders rely on one of the nastier industrial products, garlic powder. This means that if you take a few minutes to make your own chili powder, your chili will instantly improve—you’ll taste the fruitiness, smokiness, and all the flavor of the chilies.
2. Most people use some version of ground beef for their chili, but considering most of the fat just floats to the top in a greasy orange layer, it’s better with bison, which has very little fat and very big flavor.
3. Few people take advantage of the liquid options. Why use canned broth or water, when you can add so much flavor by substituting homemade stock, beer, wine or even whisky? Any cowboy would approve.
How to make your own chili powder
The classic ingredients for chili powder are a variety of ground chiles mixed with cumin, oregano and garlic powder. To make your own, assemble a blend of dried chiles that suits your taste, and toast and grind them yourself. Then, when making your chili, use fresh garlic and oregano instead of their tired powdered versions.
You will figure out your own pepper blend, but I’ve found that I like to use anchos for their winey richness, habaneros for their fruity heat and New Mexicos for their earthy sturdiness. Then, as the chili cooks I add the sultry smokiness of chipotles in adobo to the pot.
Sponge off the chiles, which are almost always dusty. Wearing rubber or latex gloves, cut 2 Anchos, 3 New Mexico and 3 Habanero chiles in half and remove the tips where the majority of seeds live. Discard the seeds. Put the chiles in a heavy bottomed pan (I use cast iron), and toast them on the stove at medium high heat for about 4 minutes, turning from time to time with tongs, until they have darkened slightly. Allow them to cool and then grind the chiles to a powder in a spice grinder or coffee mill. Add a teaspoon of toasted and ground cumin to the mix.
My favorite chili recipe
Dice 3 medium onions and saute them in a good glug of olive oil until they’re soft. Add 6 cloves of garlic, smashed, and let them soften too. Toast 1 tablespoon of cumin seeds, grind them and add them to the pan, along with 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh (or 1 teaspoon good quality dried) oregano, some salt and pepper, and 1 teaspoon of your homemade chili powder. (I use twice this amount of chili powder, but fair warning: It’s hot. Start with a little and adjust to your taste, keeping in mind that the heat grows as it cooks.)
Add 1 pound of ground bison, and cook, stirring, until it loses its redness. Stir in 3 or 4 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce that you’ve pureed in a blender, 1 28-ounce can of tomatoes, chopped up, and 1 more teaspoon of your chili powder, if desired. Add 1 cup of homemade chicken stock, and 1 cup of good dark beer and let simmer slowly, partially covered, for a couple of hours.
Before serving, stir in a cup or so of cooked black beans. (Purists will balk; I love the extra dimension of texture.) Here’s where you get to play with the flavors. Sometimes I’ll melt an ounce or so of really good chocolate and stir that in for a decadent richness. Other times I’ll add a spoonful of good fish sauce, or soy sauce for extra depth. Sometimes I add a splash of excellent balsamic vinegar to spark it up, other times cream sherry or whiskey to mellow it down. It all depends on my mood. The point is, when you’ve made your own chili powder, everything else is just window dressing.
You can serve this with cilantro, sour cream and grated cheddar. Or not. It’s that good.
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