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I’ve avoided sharing a chili recipe for a long time. It’s not that I don’t like chili; I do. The problem is that everyone wants the best chili recipe. Or the spiciest. Or one that’s made without any beans. No, make that only with beans. Maybe a chili that’s not too spicy but includes coffee and cocoa and a hint of smoked paprika. Or one that’s simultaneously all of these things and yet, none of them. Just make it an authentic award-winning chili you can only find in southern Texas made with a super-secret ingredient.

One thing is for sure: we will never all agree on how to make chili. And that made me not want to bother adding to such a noisy, opinionated conversation. Why share something when I know most people won’t agree with what I think? Or when there are already so many chili recipes out there?

For starters, that’s not actually a good reason for anything. How do we ever progress if we don’t hear what people have to say? If we just stuck to what we know because that’s easiest? Life would be pretty boring, and nothing would ever change. That’s not a world or bubble I want to live in. I don’t think you should, either. We can disagree on chili, on politics, on everything. Yet we still need to listen to each other, and when it makes sense, we need to adapt as we learn. That’s my big philosophical new year’s thought for you. Listen and adapt.

That’s actually how I put together this chili recipe. By reading many different recipes, testing some out, and taking the elements from the ones that made sense, tasted good, and appealed to me. That’s actually how you develop any recipe. You educate yourself. You try some things out. And then you put together what you’ve learned. Alright, I’m getting caught up in the new year ideology stuff, and you’re just here for the food. Me too.

Let’s talk about this chili recipe. For starters, there’s no meat. There’s no particular reason why I didn’t include meat. However, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one bowl of chili con carne from another. They kind of all feel the same sometimes. I originally created this recipe a couple of years ago for a local chili competition. I knew most entries would include meat, and I didn’t want to get lost in the shuffle. The plan worked.

I know, I know. I was holding out on you. If by chance you were searching for a chili recipe that once came in second place in a small town chili competition, well, this is it. Just know that you could easily add meat to this recipe, and it would work out fine. Maybe only use half the beans. Or, if you’re in the no bean camp, leave them out altogether. Doesn’t matter to me.

The thing is, when I eat this chili, I don’t feel like it’s missing anything. That’s because it’s full of other ingredients. There is onion, of course, celery, garlic, carrot, peppers, tomatoes, and butternut squash, plus two kinds of beans. Even without meat, there is plenty of substance to it. Every spoonful is loaded. Don’t get hung up on the type of bean or squash I suggest. Use what you want or what you have; it doesn’t change anything.

Now for the flavor. In terms of heat, it’s mild. I use one canned chipotle pepper in adobo sauce. If you like things spicier, add another pepper or two. Or add some hot sauce to your own dish if you’re sharing with someone who doesn’t like heat. You can find these canned peppers in any grocery store, and they’re a good way to add a little smoky spice to a dish. I always have some on hand. Since I don’t usually use an entire can at once, I freeze the remainder and pull a pepper or two out when I need them. I find they add a more interesting flavor than you get from a fresh hot pepper.

The chili’s other flavors come from the spices cumin, chili powder, and cinnamon, which are relatively common. The molasses adds sweetness and depth; the red wine offers some needed acidity, and tamari provides saltiness. The wild card is the Kahlua. It adds some coffee notes and that hint of interest that alcohol can often do when adding a splash to a soup or stew. It rounds things out in a different way.

I think that’s where I landed with these ingredients between the molasses, tamari, and Kahlua. I could have just used sugar, salt, and coffee, but I think these ingredients all have a bit more depth than the alternatives, for lack of a better word. At the end of the day, that’s what I was going for – something that tastes like it’s cooked for hours when really, 30 or so minutes is all takes.

Chili sin Carne

makes about 6 servings

1 large onion

2 cloves garlic

2 stalks celery

1 carrot

1 chipotle pepper in adobo

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 lb. butternut squash

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon

1 ½ teaspoons cumin

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups broth

1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes

2 cans of beans, such as kidney and black beans

1 teaspoon molasses

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon tamari

1/3 cup Kahlua

Roughly chop the onion, garlic, celery, carrots, and pepper. Heat a large pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. When hot, pour in the oil and chopped vegetables. Stir occasionally, cooking for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, peel and dice the butternut squash into about ½ inch pieces.

Stir the chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, and salt into the vegetables. Pour in the broth, tomatoes, and beans. Add the diced squash and stir in the molasses, vinegar, tamari, and Kahlua. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for about 30 minutes or until the squash is tender.

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