What is chilli con carne?
Chilli con carne, or chilli as it’s commonly known, is from America but its definition is often a point of contention. Roughly speaking, it’s a complex stew of meat – although you can make killer vegetarian chilli, too – chilli peppers, spices and earthy vegetables. In America it’s usually served with a slice of cornbread, sharp cheddar, sour cream and onion, to taste. You can check out olive’s ultimate chilli con carne recipe here.
To my knowledge, the dish finds its origins on the cattle trails of the American west, but has evolved to a wonderfully micro-regional dish, showcasing the American diaspora. Whether it’s a spicy, meaty Texan chilli, a sweeter Cincinnati version, or a Portobello mushroom chilli from the left coast, you get a sense of the people and their history all under the binding of chilli. It’s very American.
You need to bear 12 steps in mind when learning how to make chilli con carne…
1. Should chilli be spicy?
Not necessarily, although we personally love a bit of heat. Some dishes, such as Cincinnati chilli, use spices such as cinnamon, clove and paprika, while our family recipe is made from very slow-cooked brisket, which would be ruined if we added too much spice. Always have a little hot sauce and sour cream nearby when eating, so you can adjust the heat yourself.
2. What are the essential ingredients?
We use well-marbled pork leg mince, lots of well-made stock, jalapeno brine, dried ancho pepper, cayenne, cumin and… time. Low and slow is key. We won’t serve anything that hasn’t been slow cooking for 24 hours.
3. Are there cuts other than mince that you could use?
For a more rustic, Texan-style chilli, use leg meat cut into cubes: the slow cooking makes it delightfully tender. With something like Cincinnati-style chilli, mince is best, but ask the butcher to finely mince the meat; the finer the better.
4. Fresh or dried chilli?
Both! Fresh in most cases works well, but dried chilli can turn up the heat and, in the case of something like an ancho pepper, can even add a hint of fruit to the end flavour.
Choosing the right chilli is like determining the best kind of grape for wine. There are so many great ones to use and the best blend together. Jalapeno, habanero, New Mexico green and ancho are always a good start, but chilli-making is a lifelong learning process, so never stop looking! There are hundreds and we try to use as many as we can for complexity and balance.
5. Herbs and spices: do they have a place?
You bet. Herbs work well in a turkey/chicken chilli, which thrives on a bit of sage and rosemary. Spices? Where do we begin… chilli is not a simple dish: the more you can infuse while maintaining balance and harmony, the more interesting and delicious it becomes.
More than one of our chillies contains dark chocolate, but we always use chocolate with 90% cocoa solids.
7. Should it be eaten straight away or is it better the next day?
After 24 hours is best. With time comes complexity.
8. What’s the ideal serving temperature?
73.88˚C, to be exact. Or 165˚F, if we’re talking to the people back home. That’s 347 kelvins, which should make our high school chemistry teachers proud!
9. What should chilli be served with?
Never, ever Nachos – and the same goes for hot dogs. What a waste of beautiful chilli! Cornbread, always. No matter what. And with most of our other chillies we serve a bit of coriander-infused rice. If it’s Cincinnati chilli, serve it with spaghetti (really) with a bit of malt vinegar on the side.
10. What should you drink with chilli?
Beer or wine works, but they have to be done right. Beer needs to be ice cold. IPA and lager work well and should be served in a frozen glass. For us, a Samuel Adams or Sierra Nevada IPA work impeccably, but closer to home Kernel IPA is a world-class match for chilli.
When it comes to wine you need to make sure it’s low in tannin and high in body. American Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi California has a lovely spice to it and full body, and a Southern Rhone grenache blend from Gigondas is another good choice. Digest with a Virginia Rye whiskey, served neat.
11. Talking of booze, does it ever have a place in the chilli recipe itself?
If it tastes good, then do it! We use a dark porter in our family recipe, and a little lager in others.
12. Are there any other secret tricks or ingredients we should know about?
Sounds cheesy, but chilli-making is an individual expression, so be creative. If it sounds like it would be tasty, give it a go. Just add new ingredients a little at a time to see how they blend; you can always adjust as you go. Put on some good tunes, have a beer while you cook and come up with something new that screams your personality.
The Lincoln Chilli boys will be hosting a series of supper clubs in central London 1-3 April 2016. Follow them on Twitter for more details.
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