How to make great chili: Lightly brown chunks of premium buffalo in olive oil , liberally season with ground chiles, warm spices and a cup of black coffee, simmer slowly for at least two hours. Top with avocado. Eat with warm corn tortillas.
There are just three things you need for truly great chili:
1. Excellent meat.
2. Superb seasonings.
In other words, great chili is all about slow-cooking the very best ingredients. Of course this is heresy in some circles, chili having been “invented” as a way to tenderize cheap, tough cuts of meat by stewing them with spicy peppers.
But trust me. It’s better this way.
A few days ago, while the snow was swirling through the air, I became obsessed with the idea of chili. This happens every winter: When it’s cold and grey, I start hanging around the butcher, checking out cuts of meat to put in the pot. Chuck roast or bottom round? Beef or buffalo? Then I have to putter around my own pantry, sniffing jars of dried chiles and spices. Cumin is a must, but what else ?
What I’m aiming for is a savory pot of “red” bubbling on the stove and the rich aroma of meat flavored with chiles and warm spices drifting through the house.
My new 7 quart cocotte was the perfect pot for cooking chili for a crowd--heavy and capacious, it braised the bison until it was tender and succulent, and produced a rich "gravy" infused with all the wonderful flavors that had gone into the pot.
This year the chili session was also a chance to try out my new Staub cocotte, a ridiculously expensive pot that I justified by telling myself that I’ll be handing it down to my children and theirs. Oval, deep ruby red, and big enough to braise a whole leg of lamb, it’s better by far than a Maserati or a piece of a private jet. You can tell what counts in our house.
This recipe is one I’ve been wanting to try ever since I ran into my old friend Sonny at the Pearl Brewery Farmers Market in San Antonio last summer. Sonny is the man behind Thunderheart Bison, a purveyor of ethically raised, free-range buffalo meat. Shape Ranch bison lead an idyllic life, roaming freely over 13,000 acres of South Texas grassland, grazing on native grasses and mesquite beans, living out their days in the family groups into which they were born.
This healthy, relatively stress-free existence produces tender meat with a sweet, robust flavor. It is almost pure protein, low in fat, packed with iron and other nutrients. No steroids, no growth hormones.
And bison makes fabulous chili. Here are the three cardinal rules:
Rule #1: You can use bison, or you can use beef. But you can’t use ground meat. The most succulent chili is made with meat that’s cut into chunks and cooked slowly with seasonings for a few hours until it is falling apart tender and its juices have permeated the rich “gravy”. In this recipe I used buffalo chuck roast cut into 1 to 1-1/2 inch pieces, but if you prefer beef, go for the less fatty top or bottom round.
Rule #2: Do not even think of using chili powder containing flour or other thickening agents. If you’re buying a commercial blend, read the label. Such additives do nothing for the flavor of the chili and believe me, you won’t need a thickener with this recipe.
In the past I’ve experimented with making my own chili powder by toasting dried chiles—usually ancho and guajillo peppers—and then grinding them with herbs and spices. But a few days ago I ran across Frontier Fiesta Chili Powder in the bulk jars at Whole Foods. This fresh, fragrant blend of dried chiles laced with garlic, oregano, cumin, allspice, clove and cinnamon makes a easy starting point for a bowl of red, though you’ll probably want to round out the flavor with more garlic and spices, especially cumin.
Other ingredients can add depth and balance. Tomato sauce is certainly not traditional—in fact, it makes purists flinch—but I like its bright, fruity flavor. A cup of black coffee, which I could well imagine a camp cook tossing into the pot, adds backbone. Want a whiff of the campfire? Sprinkle in a pinch of smoked salt or smoked paprika when the chili is almost done.
Rule #3: Simmer slowly. This is where the Staub, a Le Creuset or any other enameled cast iron pot comes in handy. You want to let the mixture bubble very gently over a low to medium low flame for at least two hours, until the chunks of meat are tender and all the flavors in the pot have melded into a delicious “gravy.” No shortcuts: The process takes time.
Originally this chili was meant to be cooked uncovered, all the better to taste and smell the wonderful aromas as the liquid slowly reduces. But I like keeping the pot covered at least until the meat has begun to relax. Braising the meat in a heavy covered pot, especially one with self-basting spikes like the Staub, produces the tenderest meat. (If you think it’s a little too soupy, you can always let the chili simmer uncovered for another 15 to 30 minutes.)
Keep the toppings simple: Sliced avocado sprinkled with lemon juice and a little cilantro contrast nicely with the savory, spicy meat. Freshly made corn tortillas, if you can get them, are a perfect accompaniment. Otherwise a baguette warmed in the oven and torn into rough pieces will do.
Serves 6 to 8 people
4 pounds bison chuck roast (or beef top or bottom round), cut into 1 to 1-1/2 inch pieces
2 tablespoons olive oil
2-1/2 cups onion, chopped
2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
2/3 cup chili powder
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon clove
2 cups tomato puree, stirred with a pinch of sugar
1-1/2 cups strong black coffee
4 cups beef broth
¾ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
½ teaspoon salt (smoked, if you like)
½ teaspoon smoked paprika (optional)
3 cups canned or homemade black beans, drained and rinsed
2 ripe avocados, sliced and sprinkled with lemon juice
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
8 to 16 warm corn tortillas, or a baguette torn into rough pieces
1. Heat a heavy cast iron enameled pot, or a large skillet, over a medium flame. If there are juices with the raw meat, drain them into a bowl and reserve. Pat the meat dry. Add one tablespoon of olive oil to the pot or skillet and when it is hot, brown the meat in batches. Set each batch aside in a large bowl until all the meat has been done.
2. Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the pot if necessary and when it is hot, add the onions and the garlic. Saute gently until the vegetables have softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in the chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, allspice and clove, and cook, stirring constantly, about 30 seconds. Add the tomato puree and cook for one minute. Return the meat to the pot, along with the coffee, the beef broth and any reserved juices. Stir well and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover and cook for approximately two hours, or until the meat is very tender.
3. If the chili seems a little soupy, remove the cover and continue simmering for another 15 to 30 minutes, or until it has thickened slightly. (Do not reduce too much, however—there should be a fair amount of liquid in the pot.)
4. Taste and correct seasonings, adding the salt, paprika and cayenne if desired. Stir in the black beans and continue cooking for 5 minutes more, until the beans are warmed though.
5. To serve, ladle the chili into individual bowls and top with avocado and cilantro. Serve with warm corn tortillas or a baguette torn into rough pieces.