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Classic Chili

February 28, 2011

This chili came thisclose to being an outright disaster, twice. It all started so innocently. After subsisting on a fridge teetering on empty, pizza delivery, pasta with cheese and shakshuka for the last week, I needed more. I needed chili. I needed chili with the works – beef, beans, spice, sour cream, shredded cheese, corn bread. I needed something to last a few days, something that I could eat cold straight from the fridge or heat up and top with all the cheesy goodness I wanted. Something to keep me studying for my first exam in law school. Something epic. I realized I’d have to settle for regular chili, though – nothing ancho- or chipotle-spiked – and none of those fancy bottled chilies, either. We’re in Australia, after all. That shit is hard to find. And I went shopping in Little Italy. I’m pretty sure we don’t have a Little New Mexico.

So I decided to follow an Epicurious recipe that looked reasonable enough. It called for kidney beans…I could do that…and ground beef…yup, they definitely have that in Australia…and chili powder, check! In my chili obsession, I invited over a few friends to partake (though my motives were far from selfless – John promised to bring homemade corn bread in the form of little, adorable cobs).

Once home, I started cooking immediately and with haste, which brings me to the first near disaster. The aforementioned reasonable recipe? Called for 1/4 cup of chili powder and a fine little bunch of hot chili peppers. And I, cooking while in a full-on, chili craving induced rage, on the phone long distance to my mother, and trying to keep the dog from throwing himself onto the kitchen counter (where the raw ground beef teased him from on high), absentmindedly followed the recipe.

But I never follow the recipe. Why did I have to do it this time??

Turns out, 1/4 cup of chili powder plus 3 full-seeded hot chili peppers is WAY TOO MUCH for a kilo of meat and a can of beans. After tasting it, I made a noise so disturbing my mother put on her serious voice and warned me, from 10,000 miles away, with the utmost concern, not to eat that. That cannot be good for you. Do you hear me? Do not eat that. I assured her, while wiping away my tears and blowing my nose, that I’d fix it. I had to! And I only had 2 hours.

So I did what anyone would do in my situation. I added half another can of kidney beans, two more cans of crushed tomatoes, two fresh tomatoes, and half a liter of whole milk. At that point, seeing as I’d strayed so far from the original recipe there was no turning back, I added some cinnamon and cocoa and generally went crazy. The result? A delicious chili, and only half mind-blowingly spicy. Tolerably spicy (with extra tissues handy) when topped with massive heaps of sour cream, cheese, chopped tomatoes, fresh corn and cilantro. And very, very yummy.

But there, my friends, was a second disaster, this time only narrowly averted by my refusal to live in a house with an understocked pantry. One of the guests I’d invited over for dinner? She’s a vegetarian. Francesco, of course, offered pasta as a natural solution to the problem, but the thought of having one person eating pasta like a 6 year old made me cringe. And I only had an hour before they arrived.

So I did what anyone would do in my situation. I whipped up a batch of vegetarian chili with whatever meager cans I had left in my cupboard. This time, instead of beef I used potatoes, instead of kidney beans I used bortoli beans, and instead of onions (I was all out! The horror!) I used shallots. Knowing this vegetarian likes things hot, I still added a good deal of chili powder and some hot chilies. I wasn’t going to let one of us off the hook, after all!

In the end, though, the chili was perfect. Chili should be spicy. You should need a stack of napkins on hand. Despite all my additions, there was only enough for six dinners (we sent The Corn Stick Maker home with a nice little Tupperware container full and we got ourselves another dinner out of it), so it didn’t go quite as far as I’d planned, but I blame that on the fact that we all had seconds.

I’d recommend you all go make some chili right now, con carne or not. Make it spicier than you should, pour in that chili powder, give yourself a good excuse to pile on the sour cream. It’s easy to forget how simple to make and satisfying to eat chili can be.

Especially when it’s a little scary. As I’ve been told the best things in life are.


The one time I actually tried to follow a recipe, the Beef and Bean Chili from Epicurious, it turned out to be hot enough to make me cry. Out of fear. So, out of necessity, I changed a whole bunch of things. If you don’t feel like adding milk to your chili (and I don’t blame you), just get non-spicy chili powder, and add half of the spicy kind and half of the mild kind. Or, if you love a challenge, go ahead and add all the spice. It is called chili, after all.

Serves 6

2 large onions, chopped

3 little hot red peppers, chopped (with seeds)

6 garlic cloves, chopped

1 kg (2 1/4 pounds) ground beef

1/4 cup chili powder (WARNING!)

2 tablespoons cumin

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon cocoa powder

1 large can diced tomatoes in juice

2 cans kidney beans, drained

1 cup beef broth

milk as needed



grated cheddar cheese

sour cream or labne

cilantro or curly parsley

fresh corn

fresh tomatoes, chopped

corn chips or fritos (mmm fritos)

In a large pot, heat  a little oil over medium heat and fry the onions until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the chili peppers and garlic, cook a few minutes more. Turn up the heat a bit and add the ground beef, breaking it up with the back of a wooden spoon. After a few minutes, add the chili powder, a little at a time so you can taste it as you go and adjust the spice to your liking. Add the rest of the spices (cumin, paprika, cinnamon and cocoa if using), stir for a few minutes until the meat is brown.

Once the meat is browned, add the tomatoes and their juice, the cans of beans and a cup of beef broth (or water). Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer, cooking uncovered for an hour or so, until it has reached the desired consistency. Salt and pepper to taste. Another reason to taste it is to check the spice levels. If it’s too spicy, add some milk or sour cream. If it’s not spicy enough, add some more chili powder. Can be made a few days ahead and refrigerated until ready to be reheated.

Serve hot with toppings such as grated cheddar cheese, sour cream, fresh diced tomatoes, chopped cilantro or fresh corn. Enjoy with corn bread!


5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2011 2:10 am

    Oh Leanne, that looks so good…you’ve inspired me to make some chili this weekend. Even though my kids won’t eat it, no way no how. More for the grownups!

  2. Brenna permalink
    March 5, 2011 5:41 am

    Those cornbread cobs are unbelievably precious!

  3. March 5, 2011 8:56 am

    I love chili and I even have the cast iron pan to make the little corn bread cobs, but it only makes six at a time. It is definitely time for a chili weekend!


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