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RECIPES: Chili recipes are as versatile and varied as the places where they are made

Pepper and spice by Kelly Brant | October 20, 2021 at 1:56 a.m.
Chicken Chili for Two (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

I am a firm believer that one can never have too many cornbread recipes. Even if you make the same one over and over again. The same goes for chili.

I'm going to let you in on a chili-making secret.

But first, a quick etymology lesson:

"Chile" means pepper in Spanish, so it is redundant to call them chile (or chili) peppers.

Whether you spell it chile, as we do, or chili or even chilli, is a matter of regional preference.

Chilli is commonly used in British English, while here in the Americas you'll often see it spelled with just one l and either an e or an i. Both are correct. The i spelling is considered standard American English, while the e spelling is most common in the Southwest and regions with large Spanish-speaking populations.

[RELATED | MORE RECIPES: Texas-style and Cincinatti chili showcase regional flair]

I prefer to use the e spelling for peppers and the i spelling for the stew and its seasoning mix. This is to avoid confusion (a teaspoon of pure ground ancho pepper is not interchangeable with a teaspoon of chili seasoning, which is a blend of spices, including pepper and often salt) and to honor/respect the origin of most recipes that use the peppers. Arkansas isn't part of the Southwest, but our cuisine has been deeply influenced by it: Cheese dip and tamales come immediately to mind.

But back to that secret:

Texas doesn't own chili. Nor does any other state.

There's no right or wrong way to make chili. Put whatever you like in your chili — beans, tomatoes, zucchini — and use

whichever cut of meat works for you — chunks of chuck, ground round, turkey — or skip the meat altogether; as long as it has a stewlike consistency and you include a hefty bit of chile powder or fresh peppers, it's chili.

Chili is all-American, with as many different iterations as there are Americans. A bowl of chili can be drastically different depending on where you are and who's doing the cooking.

Texas chili (con carne) aka "bowl of red" is made with beef and dried chiles, rarely tomatoes and never beans. (Recipe available at arkansasonline.com/1020chiliextras)

Cincinnati chili is made with ground meat and tomatoes and seasoned with chili powder, cinnamon and cloves. It is most often served over spaghetti with cheese, onions and/or beans. (Recipe available at arkansasonline.com/1020chiliextras)

I've read about but never eaten Springfield chilli (note the double l). From what I've read, it is often made with ground beef, a significant amount suet, typical chili spices, beans and sometimes tomato. The double l is thought to bring to mind and reflect its state of origin: Illinois.

I have friends who make chili with bear meat. Venison, bison and lamb are other common alternatives to the typical ground beef or ground turkey options.

My go-to chili recipe is simple: ground beef (or turkey), chili seasoning, fire-roasted tomatoes, pinto, kidney and/or chili beans and some tomato juice. I brown the beef, drain it if necessary, add the chili seasoning, stirring it to coat the beef and cooking for 30 seconds to a minute; and then I add the tomatoes, beans and tomato juice and simmer for at least 20 minutes. Sometimes I add a fresh chile to the meat while it cooks.

The recipe, though basic, is quite versatile. If I happen to have some homemade chili seasoning on hand, I'll use it, but most often I reach for a packet of Williams Chili Seasoning. You can replace the meat with a couple more cans of beans; up the nutrition by stirring in a can of pumpkin puree or any other cooked vegetable you desire, such as eggplant and summer squash. And it can be doubled or tripled as needed. You can make it with less liquid for serving over cornbread waffles or fried slices of polenta, or add a bit more tomato juice if you prefer floating oyster crackers, dunking chunks of cornbread or buttered soft sandwich bread in your chili.

Good chili starts with the peppers and other spices. These are, after all, what give chili its distinctive flavor. The best chili starts with chili seasoning you make yourself.

Toasting dried chiles on a comal brings out their flavor (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Toasting dried chiles on a comal brings out their flavor (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

For this you have two options: Toast and grind whole dried chiles, or use good quality chile powder. One benefit of toasting and grinding whole peppers is you have more control over the flavor and heat by varying the peppers used.

Many peppers go by different names depending on whether they're ripe, dried or smoked.

Ancho (called poblano when fresh/green) and guajillo (called mirasol when fresh) are readily available at many grocery stores and offer mild to medium heat. For a spicier, more fiery seasoning, add some chile de arbol or chipotle (smoked, red ripe jalapeno).

Homemade Chili Seasoning

  • 5 ancho or guajillo chiles
  • 1 chile de arbol, optional
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder

Using kitchen shears, cut the stem end off each chile and remove the cores and seeds.

On a comal or in an iron skillet over medium heat, toast the chiles, flipping every 30 seconds to prevent burning, until chiles are lightly toasted, about 2 minutes total. Transfer to a plate to cool. Place the cumin seeds in the hot pan and stir and shake seeds until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Transfer to a small bowl and let cool.

Cut the chiles into small strips. In a mini food processor or coffee grinder, working in batches if necessary, pulverize the chiles to a powder. Combine the ground chile, cumin, oregano and garlic and pulse to combine. If the mixture is still quite coarse, grind it, in batches if necessary, until it reaches desired consistency.

Store mixture in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 month.

Makes about ¾ cup.

Recipe adapted from "Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook" by Robb Walsh

Homemade Chili Seasoning is made with toasted chiles, cumin, Mexican oregano and garlic powder. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Homemade Chili Seasoning is made with toasted chiles, cumin, Mexican oregano and garlic powder. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

Here's a simpler powder for those who prefer not to toast and grind dried peppers.

Easy Homemade Chili Seasoning

  • ¼ cup onion powder
  • 1 ½ to 2 cups chile powder (ancho, hot, mild and/or dark)
  • 1 tablespoon salt or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons dried oregano (Mexican oregano, preferred)

Combine all ingredients in an airtight container and mix well. Use 2 to 4 tablespoons seasoning per pound of meat.

Makes about 2 ¼ cups.

Weeknight Chili tops a cornbread waffle with shredded cheese and green onion. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Weeknight Chili tops a cornbread waffle with shredded cheese and green onion. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

This fast, but flavorful chili is ready to eat in about half an hour.

Weeknight Chili

  • 1 pound ground beef or turkey
  • 1 Fresno or jalapeno pepper, minced, optional
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons chili seasoning OR 1 envelope Williams Chili Seasoning
  • 1 (15-ounce) can fire-roasted tomatoes (with or without garlic), pureed if desired
  • 1 or 2 (15-ounce) cans beans such as pinto, kidney or chili beans or a combination
  • 1 to 2 (5.5-ounce) cans tomato juice
  • Diced green onion, fresh or pickled jalapeno, shredded cheese, crackers or other desired garnishes

In a saucepan or Dutch oven, cook the ground beef or turkey and Fresno or jalapeno pepper, if using, over medium heat. Drain, if necessary. Sprinkle the chili seasoning over the cooked meat and stir to coat. Cook about 30 seconds and then add the tomatoes, beans and tomato juice. Bring mixture to a boil; reduce heat and simmer at least 20 minutes. Serve with desired garnishes.

Makes about 4 servings.

[Video not showing above? Click here to watch: arkansasonline.com/1020chickenchili]

This recipe makes enough for three generous bowls, making it ideal for solo cooks and small households. It gets its thick, silky texture from pureed hominy or beans. I prefer it with beans.

Chicken Chili for Two

  • 1 (15-ounce) can hominy OR 1 (15-ounce) can white beans
  • 2 cups chicken broth, divided use
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 poblano peppers, stemmed, seeded and diced
  • 1 small onion, diced OR 4 green onions, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced OR 2 to 3 teaspoons garlic paste
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 12 ounces chicken breast (see note)
  • Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
  • ½ cup jarred tomatillo salsa (salsa verde), plus more for serving
  • Desired chili toppings such as cilantro, diced avocado, shredded cheese

In a blender or food processor, puree 1 cup of the hominy or beans with ½ cup of the chicken broth. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the poblano, onion, garlic, cumin and coriander. Cook, stirring frequently, until the peppers and onion are softened, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook 1 minute more, stirring well to make sure there are no clumps of flour.

Slowly whisk in the remaining chicken broth, scraping up any browned bits and smoothing out any lumps. Stir in the pureed hominy or beans along with the remaining whole hominy or beans.

Sprinkle the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper, and gently lower the chicken into the pan. Bring to a simmer, cover and reduce heat to medium-low and simmer gently until chicken is cooked through (internal temperature of 160 degrees), 10 to 15 minutes, turning chicken halfway through.

Remove chicken to a cutting board; cool slightly. Shred chicken into bite-size pieces using two forks. Return chicken to chili, stir in the ½ cup tomatillo salsa and continue cooking until heated through.

Serve with desired toppings.

Makes 2 very generous servings.

Note: I've made this with boneless skinless breasts and breast cutlets; I prefer cutlets because they cook quickly and evenly. If you do use chicken breasts, flatten them to an even thickness before seasoning and cooking.

Recipe adapted from "The Chicken Bible" from America's Test Kitchen

This Vegetarian Chili gets its protein from quinoa, chickpeas and white beans. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
This Vegetarian Chili gets its protein from quinoa, chickpeas and white beans. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

Two kinds of beans and quinoa provide the protein in this vegan chili.

Vegetarian Chili

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced OR 1 tablespoon garlic paste
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons chile powder (I used ancho), more to taste
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin, more to taste
  • 1 ½ teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 (15-ounce) can cannellini or other beans, rinsed
  • 1 (15-ounce can) chickpeas, rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped chipotle chiles in adobo, plus more to taste
  • 2 teaspoons packed brown sugar
  • 24 ounces tomato juice
  • 1 cup quinoa, rinsed

In a Dutch oven or heavy pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, garlic and 1 teaspoon salt; cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are softened, about 8 minutes. Stir in the chile powder, cumin and oregano and cook, stirring for about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, beans, chickpeas, chipotles, brown sugar, tomato juice and ½ cup water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes.

While the chili simmers, prepare the quinoa: In a saucepan, combine 1 cup quinoa, a pinch of salt and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes.

Add the hot cooked quinoa to the chili; taste and season with additional salt, cumin, chile powder, sugar and/or chipotle. If chili is too thick, thin with water to desired consistency. Serve with your favorite toppings.

Makes about 6 servings.

Recipe adapted from Epicurious.com

Print Headline: Pepper and spice

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