Season the meat, not the mixture.
This tip, plus technique, plus two secret ingredients, which never really were secret and surely won’t be after I publish this history, are what, if anything, sets my chili apart from others.
I don’t follow recipes, which doesn’t mean I don’t use recipes. I use them for ideas and inspiration, but I leave taste to experience and, as I said at the start here, technique. That said, here’s a list of ingredients in my steak-based chili (ground beef, aka beef mince work similarly, but use only when appropriate, such as when making chili for nachos or hot dogs):
- steak, in cubes
- onion, diced
- red pepper, diced
- black beans
- tomato puree
- beer, a splash
- cinnamon, a pinch
Those last two are the secret ones. Now, on to the technique.
Heat up your cast iron skillet (you’re using cast iron, RIGHT??!) and add the cubed steak. I’m not sure how to describe how big the cubes should be, but imagine this: when you eat the chili, you want to get a taste of everything on your spoon. So, the cubes should fit on a spoon with space to spare for the beans and peppers and such.
Once the steak is seared, add the onions and peppers. They’ll add some flavour to the meat, and that’s precisely what you want.
Now, this is one of the most important points, and it’s a point my dad made to me and I’ll make to my kids, and so on to eternity: SEASON THE MEAT, NOT THE MIXTURE. Bland meat in tasty juice does not make tasty stew.
At this point, add your seasonings. What are they? In the US, there’s a thing called chili powder, which is often cumin and powdered onion and garlic and a bunch of other stuff all bundled together. That works. Or, you can use a packet of taco seasoning. Or any variety of seasonings that make a taste you like to taste in your chili. In any case, use these seasonings now, while the stuff is cooking in that deliciously patina-ed cast iron skillet of yours.
Keep the mixture moving and get the outsides of the meat coated with those seasonings as best you can. Don’t overdo it though: you don’t want the end product to taste all seasoning and no meat and onion and peppers. The balance is delicate here and subtlety is key. In the end you want to taste food, not powder.
At some point soon, you’ll want to deglaze the skillet with a few splashes of beer. Save some for yourself, of course. Don’t drown the food; give it flavour. What kind of beer? Whatever you like; it’s your chili!
Let the beer cook off a bit before adding the beans and tomato puree.
At this point, the mixture should look a whole lot like chili. Because it is. Give it a taste. How is it? If it’s bland, it might need a bit of salt. Try that. Or it might need a bit more of the seasoning mix. Proceed slowly, if this seems the case, as though you’re painting in thin, even coats. Patience.
When that balance seems right, flick a pinch of cinnamon in mix. Now, you should never TASTE cinnamon in the chili. It’s just there to give the dish an edge, and to bring out other of the flavours. Proceed with extreme caution with the cinnamon; it’s essential to the final taste, but it can completely ruin the dish if it’s overused.
Do you like it hot? Add hot sauce. Add hotter peppers in the pepper stage. Whatever you like really. (But I recommend you don’t overdo it. You can go too far and lose the taste of the meat and beans and the rest you put all that time into.)
Now just let it stew for a while. The meat will continue to soften up. The flavours will continue to blend neatly. Keep stirring it regularly over very low heat until you’re satisfied with the taste.
Next time you’re in Auckland, I’ll make you a batch.