Fall holds two certainties in the realm of food - pumpkin-flavored everything and chili. One spoonful of the spicy stew can warm the body from the inside out.
Perhaps it’s the recollections of your grandmother’s dish on a crisp fall day. Or maybe it’s enjoying a heaping bowl while tailgating before a football game. Whatever the reason, chili is a must-have cold-weather dish, enjoyed equally at a cook-out or dinner party - and especially as leftovers.
“The one great thing about chili is the recipes are really kind of guidelines,” said Stephanie Anderson Witmer, author of Killer Chili: Savory Recipes from North America’s Favorite Restaurants. “People can change it depending on their tastes.”
Though many families have hand-me-down recipes, Anderson said there are a few things to remember when concocting your stew. Namely, chili can be as unique as the chef stirring the pot.
“The main thing is going to be the chili peppers,” Anderson said. That includes both fresh peppers and chili powder.
For those that like a mind-numbing spice, the Habenero pepper will take you well past four alarm chili. Chipotles take it down a notch and add a smoky flavor, while plain old chili powder can be added or subtracted for a milder meal. But beware: The longer your stew simmers, the spicier it will get.
“Start by adding less,” Anderson said.
2. Add meat
Meat is the most universal chili add-in, and for most recipes, it’s a necessity.
“Certainly beef is the most popular, but a lot we included in the book experimented,” Anderson said. “We had everything from chicken and turkey to elk and catfish.”
Almost every chili variety contains some type of meat, minus vegetarian chili.
For Anderson, sweet Italian sausage is a favorite. “I think it adds a nice depth of flavor,” she said.
3. Stick with a style
There are many different types of chili, Anderson said. Though all use chili peppers and the majority use meat, there are other ingredients that make a recipe unique.
For example, Texas Red, a traditional chili from Texas, uses big chunks of beef and no vegetables other than the chili peppers.
New England varieties use beans and tomatoes in addition to beef, while New Mexico Chili is made with pork.
There’s also Vegetarian Chili and White Chili, made with no meat and chicken or turkey, respectively.
“A lot of the spices are the same,” Anderson said. “Many use cumin to get that consistent flavor.”
And then there’s Cincinnati Chili, a “really interesting” variety that uses spices like cinnamon, cloves and allspice, and sometimes chocolate.
“It doesn’t really resemble the idea of chili that we have,” Anderson said. “The consistency of it is runnier than the thick stew … and it’s typically served over something else, like spaghetti.”
4. Allow plenty of time for cooking
“If a chili recipe says simmer for three hours, you should simmer for three hours,” Anderson said. “You want all of those flavors to marry, and that happens over time.”
This is one of the reasons that chili tastes even better the next day or two after you’ve made it.
“The more time you can allow those flavors to combine, the better it’s going to be,” Anderson said.
If you plan on making your chili on the stove, make yourself available to watch and stir. Otherwise, a Crock-Pot can be an invaluable chili-making tool.
5. Add your favorite embellishments
For Anderson, cornbread is a favorite complement to her chili, but there are many other common additions - chopped raw onion, cheese, avocado and corn chips are just a few.
And don’t forget something to wash that piping hot chili down - ice cold beer or a tall glass of milk usually does the trick.
Main Street Chili from Princeton, New Jersey is Anderson’s favorite. It combines beef, beans and tomatoes and is by all accounts traditional, as far as chili goes.
“It’s not going to ruin it if you make a couple substitutions here and there,” Anderson said. “You can really play around with chili.”
How do you take your chili? With beans? Without? With meat? Without? Share your favorites in the comments.
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