A few years ago I read Amy Sutherland’s terrific book Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America. In it, she she follows groups of amateur chefs across the country as they compete in national cooking competitions. Two of the competitions featured in the book are the the big chili cookoffs in Terlingua, Texas: the larger Terlingua International Chili Championship run by the Chili Appreciation Society International, and the smaller, rowdier Original Terlingua International Frank X. Tolbert-Wick Fowler “Behind the Store” Championship Chili Cook-Off.
One day, when I work up the balls and enough chest hair to do so, I would love to fly into Midland and check out the competitions. Sutherland reports them to be macho, testosterone-driven affairs, full of “nudity and carrying-on — like Spring Break only in the high desert.” She is warned by others to not assume that the little old ladies there are grandmotherly (they drink Jägermeister, a lot of it, and will drink you into your grave). People paint their Coleman stoves with images of men “running out from an outhouse with flames shooting out of their behinds.” There are wet tee-shirt contests and lots of trash talk.
The most important thing to know about chili is that there are rules. Strict, no-funny-business at all, rules.
“In competitive chili,” Sutherland writes, “There is only one bowl of red — meaning cubed meat and absolutely no beans — and you’d better not screw with it.”
Ever since reading about these desert chili-heads, I have been dreaming of coming up with the ultimate recipe for the perfect bowl of red. My recipe is derived from fancy-panted Napa chef Michael Chiarello’s recipe, which means that from the get-go, there is a fair bit of “funny business.”
But it’s effing delicious.
I’ve played with the recipe for several years now and have managed to come up with a version that I adore that also feeds a hungry army of football fans sans légumes.
‘Cause if you know beans about chili, you know chili ain’t got no beans!
6 pounds of beef chuck or sirloin, cubed
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon, plus 2 teaspoons
2 teaspoons of ground cumin, plus 4 teaspoons
4 tablespoons of chili con carne seasoning blend, plus 4 heaping tablespoons
Grape seed oil
8 large red onions, minced
12 cloves of garlic, minced
8 jalapeño peppers, sliced thin with seeds and stems removed
6 ounces of tomato paste
4 teaspoons of dried oregano
1 (12-ounce) bottle of beer (ideally lager)
1 (12-ounce) can of fire roasted diced tomato in juices
2 quarts of chicken stock, divided
4.5 ounces of bittersweet chocolate, chopped
How to prepare:
1. Place the meat in a large bowl. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Add 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon, 2 teaspoons of the cumin, and 4 tablespoons of the chili seasoning powder, and 2 heaping tablespoons of masa harina. Mix well with your hands, making sure that all the meat is evenly coated with the spice/corn flour mixture.
2. Preheat a very large cast-iron Dutch oven on the stove over medium heat.* Add enough grapeseed oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Heat the oil until it is almost smoking. Add the coated meat, spreading it out evenly so that it covers the bottom in a single layer. Do not overcrowd the pan — you want the meat to develop a nice crust. When one side is nicely seared, turn each piece with tongs. Once all the sides are seared, remove the meat from the pan let it rest. You will probably need to sear the meat in batches, adding more oil if the pan starts to get dry. Leave the oil and juices in the Dutch oven to sauté the vegetables.
2. When the last batch of meat is done, add the onions and garlic quickly to the pan and sauté for 10 minutes over medium heat (this way, the nice crusty bits on the bottom of the pan don’t get the chance to burn). As they start to caramelize and get soft, scrape up the tasty brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add the jalapenos and cook for 4 more minutes until they are soft. Add the remaining 4 teaspoons of the cumin, 2 teaspoons of the cinnamon, the oregano, 4 heaping tablespoons of the chili powder, and the tomato paste. Stir to mix everything up evenly and sizzle the tomato paste a little. Stir in the diced tomatoes, beer, and 1 quart of chicken stock. Add the reserved meat and accumulated juices.
3. Bring the pot to a boil and then lower the heat to a slow simmer. You will need to cook everything until the meat is wonderfully tender, about four hours depending on how big your chunks of meat are. Periodically skim the top of the chili. As it thickens, add the remaining quart of chicken stock, a little bit at a time, to keep the liquid level and the consistency consistent. Once the meat is tender, add the chunks of bittersweet chocolate.* Stir until it all melts.
4. Serve topped with sour cream, cheese, and sprigs of cilantro or chopped green onions.
• If you’re not making you own chili spice blend, make sure you buy one from a good spice supplier. Sometimes chili powder that you buy in a store is exactly that: one kind of chili, powdered. For this recipe, you want a spice blend. I like one that has some ancho chile in it. Penzey’s blends are wonderful, but for a little bit of real Terlingua, order online from Pendery’s.
• If need be, you can sear the meat in a large skillet, sauté the onions and garlic in it, and then transfer everything to a much larger pot before you add the liquids.
• I used a nice big chunk of Callebaut Bitterweet Belgian Chocolate. See? Lots of funny business here.
• My great friend, Gideon, brought over a bottle of Ghost Pepper Hot Sauce made from bhut jolokia, the hottest pepper in the world. It’s hot. Really, really hot. He put just a touch from the end of a skewer into my big bowl, and that was enough for me. If you are fan of lots of heat, I strongly recommend you give it a try. It adds a terrific, smoky dimension to this chili.