Thursday, November 19, 2009


I still have several pounds of beans from the Rancho Gordo samplers I received last Christmas, and now that the weather’s grown cool enough to simmer something on the stove for hours, I’ve been looking for ways to cook them. This has been a bit challenging; I’ve used up the most straightforward beans (i.e, white beans and black beans), and I’ve found a great recipe for Christmas lima beans, so what’s left are the more unusual varieties, the kinds a recipe is unlikely to call for specifically. And of course you can always just cook up some beans and eat them, but A doesn’t really like straight-up beans and I’m not great at improvisation.

So the obvious answer was chili, especially when I was staring at a bag of pebble beans that said “great in chilis” on the label. (Yes, Texans, I’m sorry, I know you think it’s a travesty to put beans in chili, but I’m from the Midwest and that’s how we eat it there.) One problem: I wasn’t sure I liked chili. The only time I really remember eating it was when my mom made it when I was a kid, and I was always a little suspicious of it, as I was of any concoction containing a lot of different ingredients mixed together, particularly when one of those ingredients was beans. (How ironic that I used to dislike chili because it contained beans and now I needed to make chili because it contains beans!) But it sounded sort of good to me now, and I figured A would be down with eating anything that was spicy and had beef in it.

The next ordeal was finding a recipe, and let me tell you, it was formidable. I wanted it to contain beef, 1 pound of dried beans, beer, and nothing else that was too specialized or weird. This recipe on Epicurious was a contender, but the enormous volume of comments scared me off—most people liked it, a lot of people made adaptations, and a small but strenuous minority thought it was bland and awful. I dutifully read through all 296 of them, took copious notes, and tried to figure out how I would scale the recipe down (it served 10 and called for three pounds of beef but only 15 ounces of canned beans), but ultimately I gave up, went to Food Blog Search, typed in “chili beef beans beer,” and immediately found this recipe from Pinch My Salt. It called for three cans of beans, the equivalent of 1 pound of dried beans, so I didn’t have to mess with the proportions at all. It had a modest amount of beef, it had beer, it had a bell pepper and a jalapeno (I liked the idea of at least getting a little bit of fresh veggie in there), and it didn’t have particularly baroque seasonings.

I did incorporate a few details from the Epicurious recipe. I increased the garlic, used a dark beer (Negra Modelo), and used beef broth instead of the water originally called for. I made sure to buy brand-new chili powder, because old chili powder may have lost its flavor. I also may have added pinches and dashes of the following secret ingredients various Epicurious commenters swore by: unsweetened cocoa powder (maybe 1 teaspoon?), Worcestershire sauce (a generous dash), ketchup (a few squeezes), powdered mustard (a couple of pinches), and black pepper (a few grindings). I’m not sure whether any of these made a difference, but what I do know is I FREAKIN’ LOVED THIS CHILI. All along, as I cooked, I was suspicious. Would it be bland? Would it be unbearably spicy? I kept tasting it, and it seemed to be both at the same time—so spicy it made me cough, and sort of flat and blah due to the lack of salt (salt is added at the end). But with the long cooking, everything blended or mellowed out or something, because when we sat down to eat it was absolutely perfect. I loved that it was hearty but not heavy, simple but complex. I loved how it was spicy enough to be interesting, but not enough to be annoying or painful. I loved the smoky taste from the chipotle powder and fire-roasted tomatoes. I loved loading it up with toppings (I highly recommend cheddar, green onions, cilantro, and corn chips). I loved the leftovers the next day (and the next, and today).

Oh! And the beans? Exemplary. I finally achieved true tenderness (yet without being mushy), and I owe it all to this amazing new method of cooking them: Don’t soak, just cover them with water, bring it to a boil on the stovetop, cover, cook in a 250-degree oven for 75 minutes, and drain. Easy, efficient, and effective (as well as an apt use for my Dutch oven). I cooked the beans while assembling the chili and then dumped them in when they were done, about halfway through the chili’s simmering time—the recipe says to add them right away with the tomatoes, but since they’re already cooked you can really do it whenever you want; in fact, Epicurious has you do it at the end, but I like giving them a chance to absorb the flavor of the chili.

I’m so pleased to have found my go-to chili recipe on the first try. I’ll be trying it again soon, next time with Vaquero beans. At this rate, I’ll have to hope I get Rancho Gordos again for Christmas! (Ahem.)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 large bell pepper (I used red), seeded and chopped
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 large jalapeno, minced (seeds and all)
1 pound ground beef
3 tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons chipotle chili powder
2 teaspoons cumin
1 bottle dark beer (I used Negra Modelo)
1 14.5-ounce can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
114.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes (if you can’t find crushed tomatoes, which I never can, just puree a can of whole or diced tomatoes)
1 cup beef broth (preferred), chicken broth, or water
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 15-ounce can each of pinto beans, black beans, and kidney beans, drained and rinsed; OR 1pound dried beans in a variety of your choice (I used pebble beans), cooked until tender
2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
Optional extra seasonings such as unsweetened cocoa, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, mustard powder, black pepper
Optional toppings for serving such as shredded cheddar cheese, sliced green onions, chopped fresh cilantro, sour cream, and corn chips

1. In a large saucepan or dutch oven over medium heat, cook onion and pepper in olive oil until softened, about five minutes. Add garlic and jalapeno and cook, stirring, for another minute, then add ground beef. Cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, just until meat is no longer pink. Drain the fat from the pan, then return to heat.

2. Add the two chili powders and cumin, and cook the spices and the meat together, stirring, for half a minute or so. Add the beer, stir, and allow to cook while you open all the cans and drain and rinse the beans. Add all the tomatoes, broth or water, tomato paste, and beans; stir well. Bring mixture up to a slow boil then turn the heat down to low and simmer, partially covered, for at least an hour.

3. As the chili simmers, stir it occasionally, and taste to see if you need/want more chili powder, cumin, or other seasonings (don’t add salt until it’s done cooking). Once chili has reached the thickness you like add salt to taste.

Serves: 6–8
Time: 2 hours
Leftover potential: High—tastes even better the next day, and can easily be frozen.

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