Chile con carne (Texas red)
Few foods are as iconic, and deeply embedded in the American Southwest, and northern Mexico as chili rojo con carne. The origins of this recipe are with the vaqueros and rancheros of northern Mexico; and it’s traditionally been made with little more than chunks of steak, chili, and cumin; onion, garlic and oregano.
The definition of “classic chili” can be contentious, and ground for heated, almost violent, debate. If you grew up in the north, midwest, or especially the northeast, you’re probably thinking of a tomatoey stew, with red beans, and optional ground beef. Maybe with corn. That “chili” has nothing to do with the dark, earthy, moderate-to spicy classic version. There are no beans. There is no corn. There’s very little tomato. This version is within that tradition — similar to Texas red, or Eliseo’s mother’s chili.
Dried chiles form the basis for this sauce. Mexican (and American Southwest) food employ a variety of chiles, each with its own flavour and texture. Here, dried pasilla and negro chiles make a rich, slightly sweet, moderately hot base. Guajillo chiles add brightness, frutiness, and colour.
It takes a lot of chile to make chili — you can’t get by with a tablespoon of chili powder. In fact, don’t ever use chili powder. It’s a nasty mix of paprika, cayenne, cumin, garlic powder and salt. If you don’t have easy access to whole dried chiles, use a combination of paprika for flavour, and cayenne pepper (to taste) for heat. Or, just order from Amazon.
The traditional meat for chili is steak, cut into small cubes. As with any braise, you should use meat that has some connective tissue, and that isn’t too lean. I’ve used steak picado (small-cut steak), because it has a great texture when it cooks down. Hamburger meat is too rough. Most recipes call for beef broth for braising. I used roasted beef bones instead, to add richness.
Everyone has their “secret ingredient for chili”. Chocolate, coffee, even (God help us) peanut butter. Cinammon, orange peel, or wine. Bacon, whiskey, or sugar. This recipe is minimalist in comparison, and there are no secret ingredients (though you can, of course, add whatever you want). Instead, I’ve emphasised cooking ingredients separately, and slowly, for maximum richness. Besides the basic meat-onion-chile-cumin, I’ve only added a little beer, cloves and allspice; and tomato for sour-sweetness. I substitute ajiwan for oregano, because ajiwan is wonderful, but use whichever you like.
– 4lb beef
– 2lbs beef neck bones
– 2 cans (500 ml) beef broth
– 8 chiles ancho pasilla
– 5 chiles negro pasilla
– 6 chiles guajillo
– 1 chile chipotle
– 2 chiles ancho (fresh)
-1 c (250ml) paprika
– 2tsp (10ml) cayenne (or to taste)
– 1 head garlic
– 3 medium onions (about 3 c, chopped)
– 1 large can (800g) petit diced tomatoes
– 2 bottles of beer (choose something that tastes good, please)
– 1 tbsp (15ml) cumin
– 1 tsp (5ml) cloves
– 1/2 tbsp (10ml) allspice
– 1/2 tbsp (10ml) ajwain
– 1 tbsp (15ml) dried oregano
– 2 tsp (10ml) salt (or to taste)
Take the dried chiles and clean them of the stems and seeds. Heat a dry pan, and toast the chiles until they get slightly puffy, and tan in spots, but don’t burn (or they’ll be bitter). Put them chilis in enough boiling water to cover them, and leave them to soak for half an hour or so. Drain them before use.
Meanwhile, roast the bones (if using) in a 350F (180C) oven for 40 minutes. Flame roast the fresh chilis, and clean them. Toast the cumin, ajiwan, allspice and cloves in a dry pan over high heat. Grind them together.
You can, if you like, throw the onions, garlic and meat together, and then cook them quickly. It will taste much better if you brown everything separately, and then mix it together, and it will only take an extra ten minutes. Brown the meat, in batches, in a hot pan. Add a little oil as needed. Deglaze with beer. As the meat is done, put it aside.
Then, in the same pan you did the meat, cook the onions until they’re transparent, and just turning brown (again, add a little oil as needed; and deglaze with beer as needed). Add the garlic, and when the garlic has browned, add the ground spices. Cook the onions and the spices together for a minute or two, and add the meat. Stir to combine.
It should make a thick, dark, reddish-brown paste. If it’s too thick to process, use some of the water in which you soaked the chilis.
The chili paste might be a little bitter, and a little too spicy. Don’t worry, the flavour will moderate during cooking. If it’s not spicy enough, add a soon or two of cayenne. If you think it’s going to be too bitter, add a spoon of brown sugar.
Add the paste to the meat in the pan, along with any remaining beer. If you’re using the bones, put them in the pot, and add 1 cup (250ml) water — or enough to make a thick soup. Otherwise, add the beef broth.
Bring the chili to a boil over high heat. Reduce to low, and cover. Simmer for 4-5 hours, until the meat is tender. Remove the lid, and reduce the liquid, until the chili is thick (maybe another hour). Taste, and adjust salt. Add cayenne if you want it spicier.
Serve immediately, with rice, bread, beans, potatoes or tortillas. Thinly shaved cabbage, tossed with lime juice (pictured above), is another traditional accompaniment. It’s even better the next day, and keeps well in the fridge, for a week at least.
You can add an extra can of tomatoes toward the end of cooking, if you want a fresher, lighter chili.