Chili Alchemy

There is almost nothing I won’t put in chili. I wrote about the best secret ingredients for chili on Chowhound because it’s a subject near and dear to my heart (and my stomach).

I don’t have a strict recipe, though; I just have a piece of lined notebook paper with a long list of ingredients and rough quantities, titled “Willy Nilly Chili” and subtitled “tinker at will” — that’s how I tend to go about most cooking, tossing this and that into the mix and tasting and adjusting…and never remembering to write down precise measurements or notes until it’s too late.

It’s a heavenly hodgepodge heavily influenced by J. Kenji López-Alt, particularly the bourbon and the fish sauce. The man is a genius and I trust him implicitly but often (always) I’m way too lazy to actually follow his rigorous recipes. In this case, I have toasted and ground my own chiles like once, and sure, it was amazing, but I think the never-ending pot is also perfect with store-bought spices (provided they’re fresh). I’m slightly guilty and embarrassed to admit this, but I have never actually started with dried beans.

The full roster of my staple chili ingredients is as follows:

  • New Mexico chili powder
  • Pasilla chili powder
  • California chili powder
  • White or yellow onions, diced
  • Garlic, minced
  • Ground beef
  • Beef stew meat
  • 1 can each: kidney, pinto, and black beans
  • Dark/milk chocolate squares, or Mexican chocolate
  • Piloncillo or brown sugar
  • Stout
  • Beef stock
  • Crushed tomatoes
  • Tomato paste
  • Dashes/splashes of: fish sauce, soy, pomegranate molasses
  • 1/4 cup bourbon (Old Crow)
  • 1/4 cup ACV
  • Chipotle in adobo
  • Cinnamon, allspice, coriander, cumin, cayenne, crushed red pepper, oregano, salt, pepper

I will saute my aromatics with care and then bloom my spices for maximum flavor; I’ll also thoroughly brown my meat and scrape up all the fine fond. But I think it’s fair to say I’m a flavor maximalist who strives for minimal effort. And I’m clearly not a recipe developer.

While I’m OK with leaving out some of the above ingredients depending on the state of my pantry, I hesitate to introduce any new elements — though I’m really tempted to see what peanut butter does here. That’s probably how the pomegranate molasses came about (or maybe it was because I had no Marmite, which the Serious Eats recipe suggests).

Chili is a little like jazz, even more so than most cooking. Aim to more or less hit all the major notes but don’t be afraid to improvise. Go ahead and noodle. Let it simmer for at least three hours, and you’ll probably end up with something harmonious.

As you’ll discover since you’ll have leftovers forever, this chili (like all chili) is even better after congealing in the fridge for the night. Said leftovers can go on nachos, hot dogs, or cheddar cornmeal waffles, under mashed potatoes for a sort of shepherd’s pie, or even between layers of lasagna for a Tex-Mex-Italian abomination that actually sounds pretty delicious. But I think the chili always tastes best on its own in a bowl — with the requisite toppings scattered about: sour cream, shredded cheese, scallions, pickled jalapenos, avocado, and something salty, corny, and crunchy (tortilla chips or Fritos, as you please).

Sometimes I make other chili — a vegan pumpkin version was a solid Halloween party pick a couple years back, a quick Instant Pot rendition a satisfying weeknight dinner — but I always kind of wish I was eating this one.

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