Beans or no beans? In many kitchens, that question throws down the gauntlet. Is it really chili if it uses legumes? Or tomato? There are seemingly as many variations on prize-winning chili recipes as there are stars in the sky — or at least stars on the American flag. Texas style means chili con carne, which has neither beans nor tomatoes. In the Southwest, they favor a bean and tomato version with ground beef, which is served over Fritos corn chips as a “Frito Pie,” or often as a chile verde with chunks of pork and a sauce of tomatillos and lime. Head to Louisiana for Cajun-style chili (no beans, but lots of tomatoes, hot sauce, Cajun spices, and often roux), or to Ohio for 5-Way Cincinnati Chili (also known as Skyline Chili) served over pasta, with a cloud of shredded cheddar, chopped onions, and oyster crackers on top. Then there are chilis made with chicken, turkey, meat substitute (tofu, tempeh, seitan, etc.), or even all legumes.
There is room for everyone at the table, so why the controversy? What they have in common is whether red, white, or green, they are all spice-laden, piping-hot, soul-satisfying dishes that go great with a big hunk of fresh cornbread — and are easily transportable for tailgating. Pile on the toppings, from cheese and sour cream to chopped green onions and avocado. You’re gilding the lily, sure, but you won’t hear any complaints.
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is revered in the food world for his seminal work, “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science,” for which he won a James Beard Award, and his work on the Serious Eats blog. I mean, the man knows his stuff, and he is continually fiddling with and testing recipes until he has wrested every ounce of flavor out of the ingredients. Tips like toasting and blending your own dried chiles and searing the beef chuck whole for better browning pay off big time in the final product. He heightens the umami with a bit of Asian fish sauce, and this classic dish is all the better for it.
If you’re anything like me, you still harbor a secret yen for the little bag of Fritos that often made its way into your childhood lunchbox. Imagine my delight when I visited Santa Fe for the first time and discovered this amazing regional dish (sitting at the Woolworth’s counter, if memory serves), which was served in individual brown bags. Beans, tomatoes, onions, garlic, red peppers, a generous dose of chili powder, and a bit of cumin and cayenne join lean ground beef in the chili that is at the heart of this homey dish. Here, it is topped with Fritos and melted cheddar rather than being served over the Fritos, but why quibble? The flavors and textures are spot on.
Hot pork sausage is first crumbled and browned in the soup pot, the excess fat drained, then chopped red onion and garlic are added, along with cumin, smoked paprika and, of course, chili powder. Once the pan is deglazed with red wine, you simply stir in canned fire-roasted tomato (layering that smoky flavor), white beans, and hominy. The result is smoky, spicy, and oh-so-comforting. You could substitute spicy fresh turkey sausage for the pork if you prefer, or even one of the meatless crumbles available.
This is a one-pot meal, whether you make it on the stove or slow cooker. If you’re a regular Instant Pot user, I’m sure you can even figure out a cooking time for that. You are literally throwing all of the ingredients into one pot and making magic happen. Once the boneless chicken, cut in big hunks, is cooked, simply shred it into the chili. This one has beans and tomatoes, so you know it will hit the spot (and piss off some Texans, but you’ve already got them worked up by using chicken instead of beef).
One of the things I really like about this blog/website is that there are lots of process pictures taken along the way, so you can see just how brown the meat has to be, or what it looks like when the peppers are properly roasted. Very helpful, especially to a more tentative cook. This chile is really a saucy stew, so feel free to serve it on top of rice and black beans with some warm corn tortillas.
Chili and gumbo had a little too much to drink at a recent party and decided to hook up. The results were delicious! Although it doesn’t start with a roux (de rigeur of course for any NOLA dish), you do add oil and toasted flour to the mixture after sautéing the Cajun holy trilogy of onions, celery, and bell peppers, plus garlic, of course. Andouille and ground sirloin add some heft, and the spice comes from dried chilis, chili powder, and Cajun seasoning. Dark beer gives it depth. This one is dark and mysterious. Rice would not be unwelcome.
Healthy doesn’t mean tasteless, it just means mindful. Subbing in extra lean ground turkey or chicken in a classic chili recipe like this (containing beans, tomatoes, and chili powder) doesn’t hurt the flavor at all. The key is in the aggressive seasoning, and making sure that you simmer it long enough that the flavors really coalesce. Her Honey Pumpkin Cornbread Muffins are the perfect accompaniment.
This vegan chili packs a real punch, both in terms of flavor as well as nutrients. Tons of veggies and legumes (onion, sweet potatoes, red peppers, tomatoes, chickpeas) combine with chili powder, cumin, smoked paprika, and cayenne — not to mention garlic and jalapeno — to create a chili that’s equally at home in front of a fire or out on the parking lot tarmac. If the vegan thing is a selling point for you, garnish with chopped cilantro, avocado, and some crushed tortilla chips. But there isn’t a chili in captivity that wouldn’t benefit from the addition of shredded cheese and a dollop of sour cream!
Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.