If there’s a cold weather dish that I spring for most, it has to be chili. Or stew. Or soup. Or some kind of braise with a big hunk of meat.
But let’s go with my first answer. Because chili is one of those dishes that has so many variations that you can make it every week and never get bored.
I used to be fanatical about following recipes for chili- the world of dried chiles and spices can be overwhelming if you’re unfamiliar with it (which I admit, I still am for the most part). My go-to fruit & vegetable market in in NYC, the Manhattan Fruit Exchange, stocks a big variety of chiles, from the wrinkled, smoky ancho chiles to the tiny chile de arbol. Although I’m pretty adventurous with most foods, I’ve always been a little fearful about picking chiles off the shelf – how can you know how spicy they’ll be? Are there any special preparations that are needed, such as soaking or dry toasting? So for years I cooked chili with guided instructions only.
Fortunately, there are a ton of recipe to choose from both online and off – I even have a cookbook that has nothing but chili recipes. It’s right there on my bookshelf next to the book that has nothing but smoked salmon recipes, and the two separate mac ‘n cheese cookbooks. Thankfully I’ve slowed down on my cookbook purchases lately, leaving me with a little more money for other essentials like our gas bill, exotic fruits and light-up kids’ shoes.
But strangely, despite trying a huge range of dishes, I never found a chili recipe that I truly loved. And I’d end up doctoring and tweaking my dish until it resembled nothing like the dish I’d originally intended.
I’ll never forget the year that I entered a chili cook-off at a friend’s house. I was living in San Francisco at the time, and he suggested to a group of us that we bring over some beer and vats of chili and have a taste-off.
And so I began to plan. Eager to impress my crew of judges, I searched through cookbooks and hunted around online until I found a recipe that was impressive enough to wow the guests, who would be tasting each dish blind.
As luck would have it, after all of my effort, tasting at each step of the process, I was disappointed with the end result. The flavor was flat, the chiles I’d ground so meticulously were nowhere to be found. It just tasted overwhelmingly like tomato. So I did what any novice cook would do, and dumped a half pound of cheddar cheese into my dish and hoped for the best.
I did end up winning second place in our little competition. I won’t mention that there were only 8 contestants. Rodney fondly recounted the story in his speech the night of our wedding, mentioning that as the awards took place, he saw a bead of sweat roll down the side of my face.
That clearly didn’t happen, I’ve reminded him since. Yes, I’m competitive when it comes to these kinds of things, but really, I had doubts that my cheese-infused chili would win first place. Especially when we all knew who the winner would be: the guy who took his generations-old family recipe complete with a range of dried chiles and spent several days perfecting his dish. And it was worth the effort – I remember it to this day, smoky and spicy with a hint of sweetness. My only regret is that I didn’t get his recipe.
But I rebounded in fine form. These days I’m a chili-making machine. No recipes required, just a palmful of spices tossed in with my favorite short rib ground beef and the usual supporting cast of tomatoes and black beans. And I make it easy on myself – no grinding dried chiles, no trekking to grocery stores all over Manhattan looking for hard-to-find spices. It may not be the most authentic chili in the world, but it still tastes great.
And the best part is that I use my slow cooker. Nothing fancy, just my old wine-colored Rival crockpot, one of my first kitchen appliances. Not to rip off the title of my slow cooker bible – the “Fix It and Forget It Cookbook”, but really, you just fix it. And forget it. 15 minutes of prep, and then it just simmers away. Until it’s dinnertime, and your family asks “what’s for dinner” and you casually respond “just some short rib chili that’s been cooking all day.”
So prepare yourself for a pat on the back, a foot massage, and whatever other showering of gratitude that comes your way. You earned it. Sort of. Just don’t tell anyone how easy it was.
- 2 Tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 lbs ground beef short rib
- 1.5 Tablespoons cumin
- 1.5 Tablespoons chili powder
- 1 teaspoon chipotle powder
- ½ Tablespoon of salt
- A few grinds of black pepper
- 1 28-oz can whole tomatoes
- 1 14-oz can tomato sauce (or pureee)
- 1 14-oz can of black beans, drained and rinsed
- Sour cream
- Several sprigs of cilantro
- Heat a large sautee pan on Medium-High heat, and add the oil.
- Add the diced onion to the pan and sautee for 3-4 minutes until starting to soften.
- Add the ground beef short rib and cook, breaking up the meat until it’s no longer pink.
- At this point, the short rib mixture will have released a fair amount of oil into the pan – drain this off before continuing (I took a lid from a larger pot, covered the majority of the sautee pan, and poured the fat off into a bowl)
- Add the cumin, chili powder, chipotle powder, and salt & pepper, and sautee for one minute longer.
- Add the mixture to your slow cooker, and pour the tomatoes and tomato sauce on top. Stir to combine.
- Set the slow cooker to low, and let it simmer for 6-8 hours; Alternatively you can cook for 3-4 hours on the high setting.
- About half an hour before serving, check to see how much liquid is in the crockpot – it you have too much, take the top off and continue to cook while some of the liquid evaporates; alternatively, if you need a little more liquid, add some water to the chili and continue to cook.
- About 20 minutes before you’re ready to serve the chili, add the black beans.
- When ready to serve, check the seasoning, adding more salt if necessary.
- Ladle into bowls, topping with a spoonful of sour cream, and a few sprigs of cilantro.
- Ground short rib can sometimes be hard to track down, and don't be afraid to buy it in burger form and break it up in the pan. I buy my ground short rib at Dickson's Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market.
- This makes a relatively mild chili – if you're looking for more heat, bump up the chipotle powder, and/or add some cayenne powder. You can always do this towards the end of the cooking time when you're adjusting your final seasonings.