Sunday, 11 March 2012

Chili Challenged

My first few attempts at making chili (con carne and sin carne) had been rather epic failures. I used a pot that was way too small, I didn't add enough water so it reduced way too much and it was a bit bland. In other words, a mess and a disaster. But it takes more than one failed experiment to get me down! I tried again and again until I found a way to make a chili that looked and tasted exactly the way I wanted it to!

There has always been great controversy among chili purists about ingredients (generally, the argument revolves around the presence of beans and tomatoes). I wanted to keep my chili simple and colorful, because a plate full of festive food is really a necessity when that last leg of winter is so grey and boring.

For the chili pictured below, I only had red bell peppers in the fridge, which is fine, but to make it more festive, I usually mix up the colors, with one green and one orange (the first pic - of one of the failed attempts - captures that burst of color). That's purely aesthetics, so I leave the color scheme to you. However, I find that mixing two different kinds of beans is nice. It adds variety in the meaty bites. I love the red kidney and black turtle beans (so those are the ones that I wrote in the ingredients list below), but use any kind that you like. Pinto beans and chickpeas work very well! On my quest to making the perfect chili, I also discovered that tomato paste is essential to get the thick, saucy texture I wanted. Dose water carefully, mixing as you add until you get to the right consistency, or it will be too runny and more like a chunky soup than like a thick stew.

The spice issue was also challenging, because I do live with a spice-freak. I love spicy, but I don't like to sweat when eating, so it had to be carefully regulated to make sure it was piquant enough... but not so much so that it would kill me. If you don't like your lips to tingle, only use 1/2 a fresh red chile and forget the chili flakes. Don't be shy to taste as you cook and adjust your quantities!

This chili is also ridiculously easy to veganize. Simply use 1 pound extra-firm tofu, drained and pressed. Either cut it into bite-sized piece (like the little tofu triangles in the second set of pictures) or crumble it, if you want it to look like you used ground beef. You can reduce your simmering time to 30 to 40 minutes instead of an hour if using tofu instead of beef.

Enough talking: here is the product of a long and sometimes frustrating experimental cooking labor! It makes a good 6 to 8 servings, so make sure you use the largest pot you have.

2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 fresh chile, finely chopped (I used scotch bonnets, but jalapenos and habaneros are perfect here, too)
2 bell peppers, roughly chopped
1 bunch fresh scallions, sliced (optional)
Olive oil
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chili flakes
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon cayenne
Sea salt and ground pepper
1 (15 ounce) can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 (15 ounce) can black turtle beans, drained and rinsed
1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (13 ounce) can tomato paste
1 pound ground beef (or 1 pound extra-firm tofu prepared to your taste)
1 to 2 cups water
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Preheat a large (at least 6-quart) pot on medium-high heat. Add 2 lugs of olive oil and add all the chopped vegetables. Add the spices along with a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir every few seconds for 7 minutes, until softened and lightly colored. Add the beans, diced tomatoes and tomato paste. Mix well. Add the ground beef, breaking up the large chunks with a wooden spoon. Carefully add the water to the pan. Add the balsamic vinegar and season with a bit more salt and pepper. Mix again until all the ingredients are well blended. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer, and cover with the lid slightly askew for about an hour; stir occasionally to stop it catching. Serve with rice or tortillas, sprinkled with shredded Cheddar cheese and a spoonful of sour cream, to taste.

Chili con carne:

And chili sin carne!

I knew I'd finally hit gold after the first bite from this bowl. Thick, spicy, chewy, filling: the perfect chili! And both beef and tofu versions are equally delicious. Of course, if you make the tofu version, you can omit the cheese and sour cream. It's a lot of chopping, but oh so worth it if you need a big bowl of filling comfort food! The leftovers freeze and reheat very nicely, so don't be afraid to make a full recipe even if you are cooking just for yourself. It's also ideal if you have tons of hungry folks coming over for dinner.

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