Growing up in Texas, chili was a staple. My father would make really spicy venison chili. One time, he entered a chili cook-off at the local bar. His chili was dubbed "John Wayne's Nuclear Chili" and it was hot. After they announced what the prizes would be, he tried to change the name to "Third Place Chili" due to the prize for third place. It was some gift certificate to somewhere, maybe the hardware or auto parts store. He won second place which awarded him the prize of a gift set of boating equipment—life preservers, some ropes and a few of those rubber bumpers you throw over side when you tie-up in a boat slip. We didn't even own a boat.
Unfortunately, I must have not paid much attention when Pops was making that chili. My first go at chili many years ago was a complete failure. Epic, epic fail. For some reason, I thought that chili was water based. I had browned the meat, and cooked the onions and garlic and peppers (which were jalapeños, serranos and habeneros—no dried chilies or anything like that) and added the chili powder. Then I filled up the pot with water. The end result was like a thin, hot-as-shit broth that, after some minor excavation, would yield a piece of meat or maybe an onion. I tried to thicken it with flour to no avail, but we still ate it because there were four of us in a two bedroom apartment, we were all in college, and were pretty damn broke.
Years later, a co-worker of mine from the Land of Enchantment opened my eyes to two ways to make chili, both of which have merit and yield a similar result, yet one is far superior in flavor. One way is to take red chile powder—not chili powder—and toast it. Then you make a little roux, combine with the toasted chile powder and then add beer and stock and your own secret goodies until the consistency is to your liking. The other involves a variety of dried chiles, reconstituted in water or stock (save that shizz) that you then puree in a blender. This is the chile base for your chili. I prefer this method.
A few weeks ago, Co-Chef and I were going to prepare a lunch for the workers of the Black Star Co-op. Frito pie was our choice dish. We discussed chili methods and he made the batch that was to be served that day. It was delicious. It contained beef and pork, and had some really beautiful subtle notes of clove and cinnamon. He used ancho and chipotle chiles and some serranos and jalapeños for some heat. There was an excellent underlying smokey quality to this chili. I can't recall the beer he used. Near the time of service, he added a little masa to thicken it up. These made great frito pies enjoyed with a Stone 2006 Vertical Epic.
When he was making the chili, he reserved a bit of the base that was used to make a vegetarian version with chayote squash, portobello mushrooms and golden beets. This vegetarian chili had some balls. It was really substantial. The sweetness of the chayote and the golden beets played really well with the earthiness of the mushroom and the smokiness of the chiles. Total win.
Last week, I wanted to make some chili. To be honest, I wanted to make some clear-the-freezer-out-chili. There was ground lamb, feral hog sausage, and some pork stew meat that needed to be used up. For the base of the chili I used guajillo, ancho and de arbol dried chiles and fresh serranos and jalapeños. Samual Adams Boston Lager for the beer and beef stock were used as well. For some reason I feel lager needs to be used in chili, not a big stout or something dark or roasty—I want that roasty, smokey flavor from the chiles to stand out.
The resulting color was a glorious red. I like to use some coffee grounds in my chili, as well as some cinnamon and a bit of clove in addition to coriander and cumin. The spices really give the chili a warm, welcoming aroma as it approaches your feed-hole. Some acid at the end sets the whole thing off. Oh, and buttermilk-serrano cornbread. Ice-cold Lone Star was invited to join in the fun.
The subjective nature of chili recipes leads me to believe that there really isn't a wrong way to make it. That is, so long as it doesn't contain tomatoes. Beans, when I want them, are on the side and can be added as an extra. They are not necessary for the flavor profile or the thickness or anything, really. Just farts. My girlfriend frowns on farts, therefore, I frown on beans. Plus, there are no beans in Texas chili and I'm from Texas. You can still be hanged in Texas for things like that, so there's some powerful incentive to do right. Chili recipes are more than likely cultivated over a lifetime much like a writing style, kendo, or calf-ropin'. For now, I'll keep tweaking this recipe and see where the road takes me. As long as there's cornbread and ice-cold beer involved, I hope the road goes on forever and the party never ends.