One of the most commonly repeated assertions made by American home cooks might often be the most untrue: “I make a mean chili.”
Although I, too, used to think that way, I can now say with confidence that I make three mean ones, one of which contains gojuchang and galbi and another with fenugreek and paneer.
Growing up in the North and Southeast, I wasn’t exposed to “authentic” chili. The recipe in our house involved little more than browning ground beef and onions, adding canned tomatoes, water, kidney beans, tomato paste and chili powder.
Today I would find that dish one-dimensional and underseasoned. But I loved it back then, undoubtedly because its real purpose was to serve as a vehicle for big dollops of sour cream, mounds of grated Cheddar cheese and chopped scallions. The goal was to heap as much of it all as you could onto a Saltine and get it to your mouth before the thing crumbled.
My chili-making skills improved over time. Texans informed me I was a rube for adding beans, while others told me it was de rigueur to use beer or coffee. Ground meat was out; whole chunks were in. Tomatoes? Oh no, many tsked.
A method evolved. Browned chunks of beef, pork or lamb — all fine. Chicken doesn’t survive the long cooking time, in my opinion. If you add it late in the game, it’s not connected enough to the whole; plus stock, onions, garlic, a dry spice mix and an ancho chili puree. I may add black beans, disapproving sneers be damned.
The fall air that began to tease us a month ago turned my attention toward further chili refinements. Could I make my mean traditional chili meaner? And then expand to less traditional ones?
As I developed recipes for Korean-inspired Kim Chili , coffee- and chocolate-laced Dark Pot Roast Chili and an Indian-inspired, vegetarian Paneer and Butternut Squash Kashmiri Chili, a modus operandi surfaced: Seek to maximize flavor in the solids (aromatic and center-stage vegetables, meat, legumes), the cooking liquid, the spice blends and the garnish.
There are two ingredients I consider non-negotiable for any chili: onions and garlic. The former for body and sweetness, the latter for punch. These are my starting points for many savory dishes, especially soups. In my chef days, my response to the diner query, “I don’t like onions and garlic. What can I have?” was “A seat in another restaurant.”
When I opened the refrigerator to start my chili spree, I immediately spotted a jar of gojuchang, a Korean spicy red chili paste made with glutinous rice and fermented soybeans. It occurred to me that the only real common denominator in chili is the chili — some amalgam of chili peppers — and that just about every culture has some form of chili paste in its food profile.
Next to the gojuchang was kimchi (the Korean all-purpose condiment made from fermented vegetables and gochugaru, or crushed red pepper flakes) and galbi sauce, a marinade of soy sauce, onion, garlic, sesame oil, sugar and Asian pear used to tenderize and flavor the meat in Korean barbecue.
Kim Chili! I thought, matching the current craze for using kimchi in everything with pun-ditry. Would the cabbage’s tang of fermentation result in a shrill outcome or even out during the cooking?
Making chili is all about building, layering and melding. Maybe it’s not good news for cooks constrained by the five-ingredients-in-five-minutes formula, but chili requires multiple ingredients and time to cook. I simply see no other way to create body and concentrate flavor. Think of it as herding a gymnasium full of people through a long, narrow hall into a vestibule. It takes a while to bring it all together. At least I make sure to use just one pot.
To justify the effort, make a big batch. It’s a great party food, it freezes well and often lends itself easily to repurposing. Add stock to thin it out, it’s a soup. Blend it with lots of cheddar or pepper Jack cheese and sour cream and you’ve got a great casserole. Serve a smaller portion and it’s a side dish for a future meal.
For Kim Chili, pork was a natural choice, given its predominance in Korean cooking. I browned cubes of it and then added lots of onions, leaving them undisturbed as they browned. If you stir too quickly, their water releases and they boil instead. (For efficiency, use the browning time to prep other steps.)
To the meat I added a jar of cabbage kimchi, the gojuchang, galbi, garlic, tomato paste and water. The galbi provided salt, sweetness and body. I considered using stock instead of water, but the final result, cooked for two hours into a nicely thickened chili, was mellow and hearty with a sneaky piquancy. The acid note of the kimchi was just on the surface and complemented the sugar and salt.
The first batch lacked heat and oomph, so I added the gochugaru and upped the gojuchang and galbi. And ginger: floral, acid, hot and sweet all at the same time. On the third try, I decided on kidney beans for color and substance. I topped it off with chopped kimchi and scallions as garnishes — crucial, because they add an element of freshness and contrasting textures.
For the next chili, I decided to go vegetarian, which to me connotes Indian cooking, so rich in textures and highly spiced that I don’t notice when a dish is meatless. I had in mind dal (a thick, souplike lentil side dish) meets palak paneer (cubes of farmer’s cheese in creamed spinach) meets paneer makhani (paneer cheese in a spice, tomato, cream and butter sauce).
Paneer is a wonder cheese. It retains its faintly spongy, pleasant texture in hot foods and has a wonderful, pure dairy flavor that tofu just doesn’t. It can be hard to find, but Central American queso blanco is a perfect substitute.
To enhance the paneer’s substance for a main course, I roasted cubes of butternut squash in plenty of butter, to be added at the end. That’s also a nice seasonal touch.
For dry spices, I went for a combination of sharpness, fragrance, sweetness and heat: some of my homemade ground cayenne, fenugreek powder ground from seeds (smells and tastes like maple syrup, but with a tang and hint of bitterness), ground turmeric (a root known for its yellow color and musty tartness) garam masala (a blend of ground spices that differ regionally but are often black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin and coriander). As a kicker and final layer of flavor: an ultra-zesty Kashmiri paste made with red chilies, tamarind, ginger and garlic.
I started the chili with sauteed onions and black sesame seeds. The latter impart little flavor but have eye appeal. (No grand plan here. I actually meant to use the more distinctive black mustard seeds, but I didn’t have any.) Sauteeing the spices in the browned onions with the Kashmiri and tomato pastes releases their oils, a process called blooming, and heightens their flavor.
This made a large amount of very thick sauce, which I transferred to a bowl so I could make the lentils in the same pot. I boiled them with water, cream (to mirror makhani richness) and salt. I stirred in the chili mixture and cooked it at a low temperature for 20 minutes to bring the elements together. I added the squash, paneer and spinach (the palak paneer component) at the end.
The result was too thick, too bitter, too spicy. Adjustments: fewer lentils, less fenugreek, cut the cayenne.
On to good, ol’ American chili. The idea, again, was to do everything in one pot and cook the meat like a pot roast, cutting it into neat cubes or shredding it at the end of the cooking process. That would be less of a bother than cubing the meat and browning it first; easier to deal with browning one thing than 100.
For a dry spice mix, I went for deeper flavor and the suggestion of sweetness by adding unsweetened cocoa and espresso powders to a homemade chili powder. Not a revelation there. Coffee and chocolate are often found in Mexican moles.
The dish was all about the chilies. I made a puree with smoky anchos (dried, bold poblanos) which I puffed and charred slightly in a hot Dutch oven, plus garlic, bouillon cubes and water.
Then I proceeded as with pot roast. Sear the meat, saute the onions, add the seasonings (spice mix and chili puree, bay leaf, thyme) and liquid (water with tomato paste) .
A first attempt to speed up the process by cooking in the oven at 350 degrees resulted in dry, stringy meat. I should have known better. Low and slow is the mantra for braising meats. That allows the connective tissue to break but still retain the protein’s moisture.
The second attempt, at 225 degrees, was just right, although I needed to ratchet up the flavor by increasing the anchos, adding a can of green chilies, switching out smoked paprika for the generic kind. And anchovies, a chef’s trick for adding salt and body to savory dishes. I decided to make the dish heartier with black beans.
I broke out the slow cooker for a third try, which was the charm. The chili had a deep, solid foundation and provoked the same satisfaction that I get from a gumbo whose maker took the roux to the edge of crimson-tinged blackness, where it belongs.
The meanest chili I know.
Hagedorn’s column appears monthly in Food.