Guess what everyone. It’s winter. Surprise!
We just made our way through a bitter cold front here in New York City, and though it was a bit warmer for a few days, today we’re supposed to be hit with another, along with several more inches of snow. I’m no stranger to harsh winters. I’ve lived in New York for my entire life and went to school in upstate’s Adirondacks, where I lived in the coldest town in the entire state. Winters in Saranac Lake often saw night-time temperatures dipping 20, 30, even 40 degrees below zero. The lakes would freeze so solid that people used them as extra parking during winter games, packing dozens of cars and trucks onto the ice when the parking lots filled up.
There were nights that were so frosty that the three block walk home after work would cause the condensation in my breath to freeze into my facial hair and turn my upper lip into a mustache-sicle. Winters in Brooklyn are nothing in comparison to the extremes upstate, but that doesn’t stop me from being affected by the seemingly unending frigid days and nights.
If there’s one thing that I’m consistently inspired to do by cold weather, it’s to cook. And to eat. I love making soups, stews, braises and any number of hearty slow-cooked meals during the winter, and one of my favorite cold weather meals is chili. Traditionally chili is thought of as a warm weather meal, something eaten in Texas and the Southwest, but maybe that’s what draws me to it in winter. Cranking the heat and sitting down in flannel pajamas to a big steamy bowl of thick spicy chili helps me forget that outside the wind is whipping snowflakes through the streets of Brooklyn.
Chili is a dish that people take very seriously. Web searches will turn up thousands of pages on the subject. The legendary outlaw Jesse James is said to have declined to rob a bank in McKinney, Texas because the town was home to his favorite chili parlor. The American mystery writer Rex Stout once said that, “Chili is one of the great peasant foods. It is one of the few contributions America has made to world cuisine. Eaten with corn bread, sweet onion, sour cream, it contains all five of the elements deemed essential by the sages of the Orient: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, and bitter.” That is a big reputation to live up to for such a simple, unfussy food.
Chili has a long history in the United States and there are a great many opinions about how this dish should be prepared. I’ve even seen people go so far as to say that adding beans to chili is sacrilegious. The thing is though, that I don’t really care what the chili experts say. I’m not from Texas. I don’t live in the old wild west. I like chili how I like it, and if some “purists” think I’m doing it wrong, so be it. It doesn’t change the fact that this recipe is friggin delicious.
In my defense, not that I believe I really need defending, not everyone takes chili so seriously. Texas native Carroll Shelby had ideas about chili that were closer to my own and said, “The beauty of chili to me is that it’s really a state of mind.” “It’s what you want when you make it. You can put anything in there you want, make it hot or mild, any blend of spices you feel like at the time. You make it up to suit your mood.”
I was a vegetarian when I lived in the Adirondacks, and chili with lots and lots of beans was one of my favorite ways to warm myself up on cold days. When I lived in Ithaca, New York, I worked at a restaurant that won a chili cook-off with a recipe that used chunks of stew meat instead of ground beef. My love of spice has grown since I’ve moved to a part of Brooklyn that is heavily dominated by Mexican and Puerto Rican culture. All of my past experiences have helped guide me to the recipe we have here today. Chunky beef chili made with stew meat instead of ground beef, with a variety of beans, and a healthy dose of heat and spice.
When I was growing up, chili was only ever made with ground beef, so when I first saw it made another way and started trying it myself, the idea of using stew meat was completely novel to me. Later I realize that it’s not really so uncommon, and that it’s probably how the dish originated. The idea used to be so foreign to me that I wanted to try to change the name to reflect its unconventional ingredients. The problem was that there’s no delicate way to combine the names chili and stew. No one wants to belly up to a steaming bowl of “Stewli”, no matter how delicious.
No thank you.
So. Chunky chili it is!
This recipe is thickened with corn flour, but if you don’t have corn flour feel free to use all-purpose flour. I used stew meat that was already cut into chunks at the grocery store, but ended up needing to do some cutting of my own to bring the chunks down to the right size. Most stew meat bought in grocery stores comes in pieces about two or three inches in size. This recipe works much better with smaller pieces and I cut them all down to about one inch cubes. I made this recipe with beef this time around, but I’ve made it with venison before and it’s delicious. If you love venison, by all means, knock yourself out.
I think this chili translates to a slow cooker recipe really well too. I would suggest that you brown all your veggies and meat ahead as stated in the recipe, and follow the steps through to where you scrape up the browned bits from the pot with half a cup of beef stock. Then you would transfer the browned meat and onions to the crock pot, add the remaining ingredients, and cook on high for four hours, or low for eight. The only thing that might be tricky is to get the chili to the correct consistency, so you may need to add more corn flour to help thicken it.
Since I’m usually just feeding myself and Russell, this recipe made plenty of leftovers for us, and I have to say, I think this chili improves with age. The second day the flavors seemed to have really married perfectly and the meat was even more tender and delicious. I suppose this is what he meant when John Steele Gordon said that “Chili is much improved by having had a day to contemplate its fate.”
Best Chunky Chili
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 to 2 jalapenos, seeded and finely diced
2 pounds stew meat, cut into 1″ cubes
2 tablespoons corn flour (or all-purpose)
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups beef stock
28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup tomato paste
15 oz can red kidney beans
15 oz can black beans
In a large heavy bottom stockpot of dutch oven, heat the vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, add the onions and saute for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the vegetables start to wilt. Add jalapenos and garlic and cook 1 to 2 minutes more. Season with salt and cayenne. In a large bowl, stir together corn flour, chili powder, & cumin, and toss and coat meat in the mixture. Brown the meat for 5 to 6 minutes. Add about 1/2 cup of the beef stock and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any brown bits of beef and corn flour stuck to the bottom of the pan. Stir in remaining stock, tomatoes, tomato paste, and beans. Bring the liquid up to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Simmer the liquid uncovered for the first hour, stirring occasionally. Cover the pot and simmer for another hour or until the beef is fork tender.
Taste and re-season with salt and cayenne if necessary. If the chili is too thin, simmer uncovered until it’s thick enough. If too thick, thin it out, a tablespoon at a time, with beef stock. Garnish the chili with the grated cheese, sour cream and avocado. Serve with cornbread.