Chilis, Soups, and Stews

“Now, observe closely: this is the secret ingredient,” said Uncle Richard as he poured in a serving of masa harina into his bubbling pot of chili.

It was an early December day, and I was at home in New York, watching my family celebrate Thanksgiving on a video they had made for me. I hadn’t been able to go home to Texas for the holiday that year, and so they had recorded the festivities for me so I wouldn’t feel left out of the family’s fun.

The night before Thanksgiving, my uncle had made chili. He’s a Dallas-based filmmaker, but like everyone in my family, he’s a passionate home cook—a quality I attribute to my family’s making time in the kitchen about fellowship as well as good food. So watching him on video prepare this iconic Texan dish was comforting, as he made it the same way everyone in my family cooks it—with lots of beef, chiles, and a dash of masa harina to thicken the gravy.

When I was growing up, cold nights at my house meant we’d be served supper in a bowl, whether it came from a pot of soupy beans or a pot of meaty chili. Texans are known for making both very well, though it’s common knowledge that the two are to remain separate, as most Texans will tell you that there is no place for beans in your bowl of chili.

I’m not sure of the origin of this belief, though I once heard a theory posited that adding beans to a bowl of chili disservices both—the two are strong enough to stand alone. I adhere to this belief, though I do have to admit that when I was in junior high, a northerner who had moved to Texas served her ver­sion of chili with beans at a church supper, and I was a bit fascinated by this combination. I spent the next year insisting that my chili have beans (let’s just say this was my form of rebellion), so my mom indulged me and would serve me a bowl of beans on the side to add to my chili; the rest of my family abstained.

But this brief dalliance with beans in my chili didn’t last long. By the time I moved to New York in my twenties, I was once again steadfast in my belief that beans did not belong. This, however, sometimes made for an uncomfortable evening with non-Texan friends. I’d serve them my chili, and they’d poke around with their spoons and say, “Isn’t there some­thing missing? Where are the beans?” (And if they were from the Midwest, they’d wonder where the pasta was, as well.) So as my mom had done for me, I’d offer a bowl of beans on the side so they could add them if they wished. But I always urged them to try my chili as it stood, so they could taste and under­stand how Texans prefer their state dish.

My first observation that Texas-style chili might not be available everywhere was on a trip to Wash­ington, D.C., when I was nine. We were visiting my cousin David and his wife, Pat, a military couple who had left Texas to work at the Pentagon. My parents had brought him a grocery bag filled with all the fix­ings you’d need to make a decent pot of chili, which I thought was a strange gift. But it all made sense when we got off the plane and handed David the bag. He smiled and said, “It’s been too long since I’ve had proper chili. Thank you. This is the best gift ever.”

Today, chili ingredients such as dried ancho chiles are more widely available, and I’ve learned to make a proper Texan chili in New York. I’ve also been made privy to my mom’s fantastic bean recipes, along with other Texan classics such as chicken and dumplings, carne guisada, and tortilla soup. So if you’re craving a comfortable meal that’s served in a bowl, with a little time and a big pot you too can make these dishes, which will warm you right up and make you feel closer to home.

Seven-Chile Texas Chili

People often ask if my chili is authentic Texas chili. I’ll say yes, because I’m a Texan and it’s the chili I grew up eating. Though defining what is authentic Texas chili can be difficult. The term chili comes from chile con carne, which translates to peppers with meat. That’s what I make, with the addition of some spices and aromatics. Some could say, however, that my chili isn’t the most traditional Texas chili, and there has been some grumbling.

Some people have grumbled because there’s cinnamon and chocolate in my chili, though these flavors are commonly found in Mexican cuisine. Some people have grumbled because there aren’t tomatoes in my chili, though I don’t think that cowboys on the range had access to tomatoes all the time. And some people have grumbled because I don’t use chili powder, though using fresh chiles will trump chili powder any day.

Feel free to experiment, however, with your own chili. It’s hard to mess up chili, as the longer it cooks, the more the flavors both deepen and blend in a complex dish where the sum of the bowl is greater than its parts. Even if you take some liberties with my chili, I will insist that you leave the beans out of the pot. Please feel free to serve them on the side for those who do like beans. But as I once read, serving the two separately shows the utmost respect for both dishes, as combining them only lessens both the beans and the chile con carne. And we wouldn’t want to do that!

6 to 8 servings

6 dried ancho chiles
2 dried pasilla chiles
2 dried guajillo chiles
2 dried chipotle chiles
4 dried chiles de arbol
4 pieces of bacon
4 pounds chuck roast, cut into ¼-inch cubes
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup brewed coffee
1 bottle of beer
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground clove
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon grated Mexican hot chocolate
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
4 dried pequin chiles
2 tablespoons masa harina
Grated cheddar and chopped onions, for serving

1. Remove the seeds and stems from the dried chiles. In a dry skillet heated on high, toast the ancho chiles, pasilla chiles, guajillo chiles, chipotle chiles, and chiles de arbol on each side for about 10 seconds or just until they start to puff. Fill the skillet with enough water to cover chiles. Leave the heat on until the water begins to boil and then turn off the heat and let the chiles soak until soft, about 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy pot such as a Dutch oven, fry the bacon on medium heat. When it’s done, remove from the pan and drain on a paper-towel-lined plate. Leave the bacon grease in the pot, and on medium heat, cook the beef on each side until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. (You may have to do this in batches.)

3. Remove the browned beef from the pot. Leaving the heat on, add the diced onions to the pot and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 30 sec­onds. Add the beef back into the pot, crumble in the bacon, and add the coffee, beer, cumin, oregano, cinnamon, clove, allspice, cayenne, chocolate, 3 cups of water, and salt. Turn the heat up to high.

4. While the pot is coming to a boil, make the chile puree. Drain and rinse the chiles then place them in a blender along with the pequin chiles (you don’t need to presoak these little chiles) and 1 cup of fresh water. Puree until nice and smooth and then pour the chile puree into the pot.

5. When the chili begins to boil, turn the heat down to low and simmer uncovered for 5 hours, stirring occasionally. Taste it once an hour and adjust seasonings. If it starts to get too dry, add more water. After 5 hours, scoop out ¼ cup of broth out of the pot and combine with the masa harina. Pour the masa harina mixture into the pot and stir until the chili is thickened. Let the chili simmer for another 30 minutes or so. When done, serve with cheddar and onions.

NOTE: If you can’t find all of these chiles, just use the more readily available anchos and chipotles.