How to make your best pot of chili
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A pot of chili may be one of winter’s ultimate comforts. Hearty, filling, hot and well suited for a long cook time on your stove top, filling your kitchen with warmth and enticing aromas. It’s also the kind of meal that lends itself to improvisation, at least for the home cook. (As one 1998 Washington Post story said about competition chili, “Cookoff chili has become a rarefied beast, like a well-groomed show dog. Think of it as the NASCAR of the food world. It looks like chili on the outside, but under the hood it’s a whole ‘nuther thing.”) “I think it is pretty flexible and up to the individual,” says Dan Farber, chef de cuisine at the Washington location of Texas-inspired restaurant Hill Country, home to an annual chili cook-off. [A guide to dried chile peppers — your secret flavor weapon in the kitchen] There are, in fact, many ways to make chili — so many that food writer and restaurateur Robb Walsh wrote a whole book dedicated to the topic, “The Chili Cookbook: A History of the One-Pot Classic, with Cook-off Worthy Recipes from Three-Bean to Four-Alarm and Con Carne to Vegetarian.” That’s not to say there aren’t strong opinions, particularly when it comes to regional specialties (Texas, New Mexico, etc.), beans and vegetarian versions. “People have strong opinions on the right way to make all kinds of provincial dishes,” Walsh says. “Everybody puts some sort of provincial pride into their foods.” Even if you’re making up your own rendition on the fly, you can make something to be proud of, too. Here’s how to get started: Think about the chile peppers, and the chili powder. Despite the many iterations, the one unifying thread among everything calling itself chili is the chili powder, Walsh says. (According to Post style, the whole peppers are chiles, the spice blend and dish are chili.) The chili powder “is the backbone” of chili, so that’s the first thing to figure out, he says. You can certainly buy chili powders, but what’s in the blends is often not disclosed. If you prefer to have more control, start with your choice of ground chiles, or grind them yourself, and combine them with other typical spices, such as cumin, oregano and garlic or onion powder. Toast the spices first for extra oomph. Among the types of chiles to consider: ancho, pasilla, chipotle and New Mexican long red. If you want even more deep pepper flavor, you can reconstitute and puree dried chiles to incorporate into the chili, even using some of the soaking liquid for additional taste and color. Tex-Mex Chili. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post; tableware from Crate and Barrel) [Recipe: Tex-Mex Chili] Consider other additional flavors and ingredients. Farber suggests coriander as a complementary spice, as well as smoked paprika (itself a ground pepper). He also likes to incorporate tomato paste, which briefly cooks in the pot after any aromatics have been sauteed in the fat left over from searing the meat. He deglazes (gets up those tasty brown bits) with beer, too.
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