Updated: Sep 21, 2022
Entry #1 from REDNECK RIDGE BBQ– How to make the smallest possible batch of delicious chili with the fewest possible ingredients.
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The word “chili” means different things to different people. Thanks to elementary school cafeteria lunches, I grew up understanding it to be a tasty stew of ground beef, kidney beans, tomatoes, and onions. But hey– what do I know? To the orthodox Texan, true chili contains neither beans nor tomatoes… just beef, chili peppers, and very little else. At the other end of the spectrum, I included a recipe for vegan black bean chili in an earlier essay (The Big Bird Bowl) that, of course, contains zero meat. Scour dozens of chili recipes and you’ll find a wide range of ingredients, some exotic and unusual, including pork sausage, bacon, turkey, tomatillos, coffee, and even chocolate.
One of my favorite all-time chili recipes is CHILI FOR A CROWD from the seminal 1982 SILVER PALATE COOKBOOK, the unintentional masterpiece and yuppie bible that became the philosophical and stylistic successor to everything Julia Child taught us in the 60’s and 70’s. (After 40 years it is still relevant; you can buy it HERE.) This is a fabulous chili recipe… However, it calls for large quantities of NINETEEN ingredients, and I know from personal experience that it will leave the average civilian kitchen looking like Chernobyl.
I recently reviewed and cross-referenced a great number of chili recipes in search of the most common and essential ingredients. I settled upon fourteen, including the cooking oil, salt, and water. Of at least equal importance, I also “negotiated” the quantities and ratios of the various components to find the lowest common denominator, thereby making your both your shopping and your cooking much simpler.
So… here we go–
ONE 1 LB. Package of Ground Beef, preferably organic and/or grass-fed. Feel free to substitute bison (which is delicious, nutritious, and becoming widely available) or venison (if you are a deer hunter or know one.) I personally find it galling to see packaged ground venison offered at $15/lb. when the sons of bitches are probably right out back eating your garden as you read this. Click HERE for more on that.
ONE 15.5 oz. Can of Kidney Beans (a standard store size; available either light or dark depending on personal preference. Organic available.) It might tempt the purist to cook dried beans from scratch; if you are good at it, go for it. However, I have found dried beans quite stubborn and reluctant to cook completely, so be careful– contrary to reasonable expectations, undercooked beans won’t soften in the finished chili… any more than a woman can “fix” a man by marrying him.
ONE 14.5 oz. Can of Petite Diced Tomatoes (another standard size can, also available organic.) Please insist on petite.
ONE Small yellow onion (no other kind, please. You might want to read this.)
ONE Small Green Bell Pepper (the darker the better, in my experience.)
ONE Clove of Garlic (Is it me, or is organic garlic ten times better? Oh– make sure your garlic is American, not from The Country That Makes All That Cheap Crap, a.k.a., TCTMATCC.) Feel free to substitute high-quality granulated garlic, but not garlic powder.
¼ Cup Chili Powder and ⅛ Cup Cumin– the one-two punch of spices that give chili its distinctive flavor profile. (If you took my advice and now Shop Like A Pro, you’ll have large quantities of these on hand. Buying these spices in tiny retail containers is outrageously expensive.)
2 TBSP Tomato Paste (now available, at long last, in small jars as shown above, thereby eliminating considerable waste.)
1 TBSP Sriracha (or other source of heat) Use HALF this amount (or less) if you don’t like it hot.
1 TBSP Brown Sugar (Both the acids and the spicy heat in chili cry out for a mitigating smidgeon of sweetness. A little goes a long way.)
Grape Seed Oil
1 tsp. Salt
1 Cup of Water
Equipment– 1 large pot, 1 small or medium saucepan, 1 frying pan, a strainer, a whisk, and a potato masher. Also, some sort of double-boiler set-up and three containers for the veggie prep.
The Veggie Prep–
Dice the onion, dice the pepper, finely mince the garlic.
Brown the ground meat in just enough grape seed oil. Cook well enough so that some tasty bits remain stuck to the pan. Add cooked meat to the pot. Thoroughly deglaze the frying pan with the one cup of water, and then add this liquid to the saucepan. Add ⅓ to ½ of the can of beans to the water and raise to a boil.
Sauté the diced onion in the frying pan with just enough grape seed oil. When soft and translucent, add the diced peppers and stir until the peppers become fragrant. Add the garlic and stir for a minute, then add it all to the pot. Add the remaining canned beans to the pot. Strain the liquid from the petite diced tomatoes into the saucepan and then add the diced tomatoes to the pot.
Now, here’s my own personal CHILI HACK–
Simmer the liquid in the saucepan until it is significantly reduced and the beans are WAY overcooked, mushy enough to mash with the potato masher. THEN add to the saucepan the tomato paste, brown sugar, salt, and spices and mix thoroughly. This hack accomplishes two useful things– it forms a thick medium that, when added to the pot, holds the chili together nicely; and it also evenly distributes the powerfully flavored spices.
Add the contents of the saucepan to the large pot. Stir well, then remove from heat and transfer to a double boiler. (Pro Tip– NEVER put a pot of chili or any other stew on a hot burner unless you also stand there and stir constantly, because otherwise you will surely burn it. Instead, rig up a double boiler– you can spend big bucks on a fancy double boiler, or you can improvise with a small pot suspended by its handles inside a larger pot with a little water in it. Give it an hour for the flavors and textures to integrate.
Add more salt if you deem it necessary. Add a little at a time, stir well, and allow to sit for a while; re-taste, then repeat as needed. Adding more heat or spices is even trickier– I recommend that you separate some liquid from the chili, add what you think you need, add some of the chili, mix well, and then add all this back to the big pot. These optional re-seasoning operations might seem complicated, but they are both doable and foolproof.
This batch of chili went from the photo of the ingredients on my kitchen table to my stove-top double boiler in less than half an hour… AND, for what it’s worth, I did all the chopping with my Seven-Dollar Chef’s Knife. (Andrea shrewdly acquired this double boiler for five bucks at a local garage sale.)
As the SILVER PALATE COOKBOOK authoresses graciously suggest with their “Chili for a Crowd” recipe (and I paraphrase)– Make this recipe your own… follow it ONCE, then use a little more of this ingredient, less of that one, and feel free to swap your ingredients for ours as you see fit. Of course, such trial and error experimentation is a much simpler, faster, and less expensive process with my minimalist recipe than with theirs.
So how would I personally improve upon my own minimalist recipe? Well, in the spirit of legendary Lotus Car mastermind Colin Chapman– one of my artist heroes and an engineering genius for whom “simplify, then add lightness” was a zen-like design credo– I like to add very finely diced celery, which indeed adds lightness and also what I like to call “micro-crunch” to the texture of chili and other stews. (If you opt for this, please cook the diced celery for a minute with the onions.) I also like to replace the Sriracha with finely-minced pickled jalapeño peppers as an intriguing alternative source of the spicy heat… and, given the current state of the worldwide Sriracha supply, it might behoove all of us to similarly find backup sources of Scoville Units.
But of course, you are free to take this dish in any direction you like, for “chili” is more of a personal lifestyle philosophy and an expression of local traditions than it is a specific recipe. May this minimalist version we’ve posted here inspire you to great heights of culinary creativity.