A funny thing happened a few weeks ago… Lyle and I tied another group for first-place at our local chili cook-off! We were pretty darn excited for our first try out to say the least. Mind you, we didn’t just wake up that week and decide to enter. Oh no! Our plan started at the LAST cook-off where the winning pot of chili had been DELICIOUS. We thought perhaps ours could give it a run for the money… with a little tweaking that is. My basic recipe for chili wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t award winning either. And so the obsess… I mean, experimentation began and continued, over the next year.
I think what makes this chili so tasty is the attention to detail. This is NOT a quick pot of chili by any means, and in fact requires a fair amount of prep work. However, we did a LOT of research while testing different ingredients and a variety of cooking methods, tasting each variation carefully and keeping notes. On a side-note, I have to thank Lyle as my official “Keeper of the Notes”. When I cook a familiar dish, I’m the type of gal that knows what needs to go in and therefore throws in a bit of this and adds a dash of that. A recipe??!? Who needs a stinking recipe??
Sigh… Apparently I do. Sometimes. Like when I’m trying to come up with a recipe for a contest. After one variation just didn’t taste quite right, Lyle asked me what I did differently. Uhhh… Well, didn’t I write it down? Ummm… The question that finally got me thinking that perhaps, just maybe, writing things down would be best was this- even if we make the best chili ever, how will we recreate it for the cook-off? Damn, that was a great point. Luckily his point struck my perfectionist side and I began writing down those changes and whether they worked or not.
Now lest you think this was all me, I need to clarify that it most certainly was not! Lyle may not have the culinary skills to whip up a recipe on his own, but dang-it that man has an incredible palate. He’s able to pick up fine nuances of flavor that I’m not always able to get, so his tasting notes were absolutely instrumental to our success. Lyle is also excellent at being a sous chef and keeps me giggling and happy, which is VERY important to a process like this! Furthermore, whenever Gramma T was around for a pot we got her excellent tasting notes and years of cooking experience. Invaluable!
As this was a year-long experiment with many different variations, I want to share a few things we learned in our experimentation.
Homegrown and canned tomatoes: They have a sweetness that no sugar or molasses could possibly duplicate. We saved local tomatoes from last summer that were canned by our very own Gramma T, and used frozen-fresh peeled paste tomatoes. Using store-bought tomatoes lost some of that natural sweetness that had to be made up with added sugars. If you have to use purchased canned tomatoes, purchase the best quality you can.
Hot Italian pork sausage: More people commented on the sausage than I think anything else, as it was absolutely divine. We again saved our best for this cook-off, using our locally homegrown and harvested local pork that was transformed into amazing hot Italian sausage.
Save your expensive beef cuts: There is no point in wasting your money on expensive cuts of beef for chili! When you’re cooking a dish as long as you do chili, you actually need those tougher (i.e. cheaper) cuts of beef to hold up to the sustained heat. Tender cuts would turn tough as leather, while tougher cuts do the opposite, becoming tender bundles of tasty muscle.
Layer your flavor: Chili is all about layers of flavor, so don’t be afraid to experiment with ingredients and techniques! This is why I believe cooking the beef in the chili is so important, as well as searing many of the ingredients before adding them in.
For the best flavor, make it a day ahead: No joke. Trust us.
Secret ingredients and techniques: Well… I guess they won’t be a secret any longer! As I said before, chili is all about layered flavors, with each bite revealing another nuance and flavor combination. We did this with a few slightly less than usual ingredients: cocoa powder, liquid smoke, espresso powder and coffee stout beer. Technique wise, I believe that our blackened poblano pepper along with searing all of the fresh ingredients really helps with the layered flavor. We also like to make our own beans as it’s cheaper and healthier. Canned beans often have loads of salt that really aren’t necessary. However, if you don’t have every single one of these ingredients or don’t have the time to do every technique, don’t worry about it! Do the best you can and it will still be tasty 🙂
So you may be asking yourselves, why are we sharing our recipe? Because we’re Seven Points Farm. Our Seven Points of Living gives us a purposeful way of living, and sharing what we know and what we’ve learned seems like the right thing to do. And so now we move on to the recipe! As this chili recipe requires a bit of prep… OK, a LOT of prep, I’m going to go through the steps in detail first, leaving the briefer version on the recipe card.
I enjoy cooking my own beans, as opposed to buying cans of beans. Call me an oddball, but I’m OK with that label! Cooking beans is actually quite easy and MUCH healthier for you. Why? Look at the back of that can at how much salt is added. Que ridicolo! Most of the time spent cooking beans is hands off, so you won’t be chained to the stove I promise! In fact, I think after trying this out you may find yourself cooking beans more often.
For this chili recipe we’ll be cooking 2 cups of beans. I use a mix of pinto, kidney, small red chili and black beans, but you can use just one of those or any variation. Toss your dried beans in a bowl and add twice as much water, along with 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda. Black beans especially will need the baking soda to soften up. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and allow them to soak for 8-10 hours. So far it’s easy, right?
After soaking, give your beans a mix with your hand in the water and then drain off the water. In my house, this water is thrown on a house plant as we reuse our gray water. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil, turning down the heat to low once you’ve added the beans. I personally like to add seasoning, but that is up to you. For the chili beans, I add to the water: 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, 1 teaspoon chili powder, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, 2 cloves of garlic cut in chunks, and 1/2 an onion cut into a few large chunks. Cook the beans while covered on low, until just tender, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Remember, they’ll be cooking more in the chili so you don’t want them to be super-soft. Check the pot every once in a while to be sure there’s enough liquid left, stirring the beans when you do. If too much water has cooked off and the beans begin to dry out on top before they are tender, add water a cup at a time until they are covered again. Once the beans are cooked, you have several options. If you’re ready to cook the chili right away, drain off the liquid and add the beans to your slow-cooker. If you’ll be making the chili the next day, just throw the whole pot in your refrigerator once they’ve cooled a bit, lid and all. Just be sure to drain any extra liquid off before adding the beans to the chili.
Some people like fewer beans in their chili, which I don’t understand but can respect. Throw the extra beans in a bowl with a little grated cheese and some hot sauce and you have a tasty snack!
Fire-roasted poblano pepper
Mmm… fire-roasted chilies are delicious! They bring a smokiness from the charring and yet the same heat often mellows their spicy temperament. We used a poblano pepper, but feel free to use a jalapeno, or even a bell pepper if that sounds too spicy for you. I like to roast my peppers on the BBQ, but sometimes the weather just doesn’t cooperate. In that case, I use my gas stove top with the vent turned on high! Use a pair of tongs to place your pepper over the flame, leaving it in one spot for a minute or so to allow the skin to char to a deep black. Yes, it is burning. No, this isn’t a bad thing. You’ll hear a popping sound as the water inside the pepper heats up, and the skin will blister. Once the pepper is charred over the vast majority of the skin (don’t worry about the top or the stem), drop that sucker into a paper bag, close the top and allow the skin to steam.
After a few minutes, pull the pepper out and using the blade of a knife angled towards you, scrape away the now softened, blackened skin of the pepper off and discard. Now you can slice down the side, open up the pepper, and scrape out the membrane and seeds. The prepared pepper is now ready to be sliced up into bite sized pieces and added to the slow-cooker pot.
The meat portion of our chili inspired many a good conversation as the winner of the previous year had marinated and BBQ’d an entire tri-tip before adding it to his chili. The beef was delicious… like, way delicious and could stand on its own in terms of delicious goodness. We debated a long time on following suit by using a better cut of meat. What it came down to however, was those layers of flavor. We like the gravy part of the chili to have the meat flavoring incorporated into it as well, which can only come with cooking the meat in the chili itself. Good cuts of meat will turn into tough leather if cooked for too long, whereas the cheaper cuts actually benefit from a long slow cooking time (think pot roast). We went with a classic, chuck roast, but made sure to utilize it to its best potential. The chuck roast itself came from a local butcher (Chico Locker & Sausage Company) known for their excellent quality beef, sliced into ½ inch slices, which made it simple for us to later cut down into bite-sized proportions.
Ever the opportunists for more flavor, we purchased the beef in advance with the intention of air chilling it before cooking. The idea was to allow the beef to dry out on the surface, which would in turn help create *the most* beautiful brown crust in a skillet before adding it to the chili. Aging beef is a tried and true tradition for creating an ideal flavor, and I believe this small step really made a difference with the finished beef. Could you skip this step? Absolutely. We were trying to create an award-winning chili and our competitive sides added an entire level of complicated to do just that. On a personal note, let’s be real. I will probably skip this step every time I make it at home from here on out. But! For the sake of giving you our full recipe as promised, I’m telling you every last step we did…
Laying out the sliced chuck roast on butcher paper placed on cookie sheets, we seasoned the roast with salt and pepper on both sides. We then allowed the beef to air chill in the refrigerator loosely covered for 2 days prior to cooking. About 2 hours before cooking, I brought the beef out and sliced it into roughly 1×2 inch pieces, then allowed it to rest and come to room temperature. The size of our beef bites, like everything else, was carefully calculated. Once cooked, these shrunk down to easy-to-eat bites of tender deliciousness that still maintained their shape and were big enough to enjoy the flavor on their own. I browned them in the skillet prior to adding them to the slow-cooker pot, doing it in small batches with plenty of space between the pieces to ensure a nice brown crust. Patience really is the name of the game with good chili!
The sausage we used… oh the sausage! Was again an example of layering independent flavors to create overall harmonious bites. The pork we used in our contest chili was saved from our personal stash just for that purpose. Friends of ours, the Seaters family, humanely raised and harvested a pig for us which provided our family with some of the most incredible pork we’ve ever had. Never you worry though! We’ve had great success with this chili using just a good-quality bulk hot Italian sausage from the butcher too. Just be sure to use one that doesn’t use nitrates or nitrites, as celery seed is a perfectly acceptable and much healthier alternative in preservation. The pork was cooked in two batches to avoid too much moisture and the resulting steaming, instead of browning. We broke up the chunks of sausage into 1 inch pieces, which again left enough of a bite that you knew you were eating sausage. The grease was poured off and SAVED to be used while sautéing the vegetables. Why waste that divine pork flavor?
Final preparations and cooking
The rest of the prep work is your basic run of the mill chopping and dicing of onion, garlic, celery and bell pepper. One note about celery tops, the unsung hero of herbal flavoring! For too long I used to throw away my celery tops (gasp!), slightly advancing as I got a wee bit smarter to at least composting them, before graduating finally to my current state of enlightened bliss where I will go through multitudes of celery packages before picking the one with the healthiest and the most amount of tops. Turns out celery tops are delicious and I now use them generously where I once would have used parsley (I’ll give you an insane roast chicken recipe using celery tops in another post). Long story short, be sure to add in those beautiful tops whenever you add celery to a mixed dish such as a dip, or to a cooked dish such as this chili!
After your other preparations and the meat browning, add about a Tablespoon more of the sausage grease back to the pan, or another high-heat oil. In small batches, sauté the vegetables on medium-high heat just until they begin to soften. A little bit of browned edges is perfectly fine here! Throw the cooked veggies into your slow-cooker pot, which should be beginning to smell amazing by now. Once all of your veggies are accounted for, it’s time to de-glaze the pan. Do you see all of that dark stuff on the bottom of your pan? Yeah, we want that. Turn the heat down a bit to medium-low, and then add about 1/2-3/4 cup of liquid to the pan. For the contest we used local favorite Sierra Nevada’s Coffee Stout beer from their winter collection, but you could use another coffee stout in its place, or even any half-drunk beer sitting on your counter. Or your leftover coffee from this morning. I’ve even used the leftover tomato juice from my canning jars! The point is to find a flavorful liquid that will loosen up all of the delicious darkness off the bottom of the pan, then pour all of that tastiness into your slow-cooker.
Add in the rest of the flavorings and ingredients and give it a good stir. EXCEPT SALT. Wait on adding any salt until your cooking time is almost complete. I find the salt tends to disappear the longer you cook something, so that you end up adding even more at the end to get any taste of it. Also, I learned the hard away that not all chili powders are created equal! Many have added salt and cumin, so be sure to check your ingredient labels carefully and TASTE your dish before adding any further salt or cumin. When it comes to heat, we really toned it down for the contest, which is reflected in the recipe. Generally we like to keep fans at the table while eating chili to cool ourselves off. OK, I may be exaggerating just a tad there, but we like it spicy! Instead of a mix of mild and medium-hot, we generally just use a 1/2 cup of medium-hot only. But wait, there’s more! We use an extra tablespoon of smoked hot paprika, a tablespoon of chipotle powder and a tablespoon of habañero powder as well. Hot enough for ya??
Once everything is added, it’s time for you to relax and let your slow-cooker take it from here on out! Set that baby on low and forget about it for at least 7 hours but no more than 9. Any longer and I use a light timer to delay my start time by a few hours. For example, if I expect to be home about 7:00 I’ll set up the timer to turn on at 11:00 or 12:00, allowing us to come home to the tantalizing smells of a delicious dinner ready to be served as we walk in the door. You can’t beat that! If you’re going to be home and want to bump up your cook time a bit, you can set it on high for about 4-5 hours, stirring it occasionally. Watch it though as depending on your slow-cooker it may scorch on the bottom.
For maximum flavor, but only if you have the patience and time, put the whole dang thing in the fridge overnight and let it sit. Reheating it the next day really gives all of the flavors a chance to melt together and blend. Again, is this extra step really necessary? No. However, many of these little extra beautiful steps we take in life aren’t necessary. Ultimately those little steps lead to a more diverse flavor and richness that nurtures our bodies and minds though, and eating can become an enhanced experience that is hopefully shared with others, engaging our whole self. Sometimes these extra steps seem tedious, but I will say they’ve made our chili… and our life… taste pretty damn good.
- 1 1/2 pounds chuck steak, sliced into strips or chunks
- 1 pound bulk hot Italian pork sausage
- 2 cups mixed dried kidney, pinto, black and chili beans, soaked overnight and cooked until soft
- (or an estimated 3 cans store-bought beans)
- 2 quarts canned chopped tomatoes, liquid poured off
- 2 pounds frozen peeled paste tomatoes
- (or substitute all tomatoes with 4- 28oz. cans chopped tomatoes with liquid)
- 6 large cloves garlic, rough chopped
- 1 large white onion, chopped
- 1 large green bell pepper, deseeded and chopped
- 3 large stalks of celery plus tops, chopped
- 1 poblano pepper, fire roasted and chopped
- 1/2 cup California chili powder
- 1/4 cup mild chili powder
- 1/4 cup medium-hot chili powder
- 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 2 Tablespoons smoked hot paprika
- 2 Tablespoons coriander
- 1 Tablespoon cumin (only if cumin is NOT present in chili powder)
- 1 Tablespoon cocoa powder
- 1-2 Tablespoons molasses
- 1 Tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons Mexican oregano
- 2 teaspoons espresso powder
- 1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2-3/4 cup Coffee stout beer to de-glaze pan (or substitute beer with strong coffee and eliminate espresso powder)
- Salt to taste (be careful- many chili powders have added salt)
- For the beans: Soak the beans in 6 cups water with 1/2 teaspoon baking soda for 8 hours or overnight. Drain the beans, then add them to 2 quarts boiling water along with seasonings. Cook until tender, about 1-1.5 hours. Drain before adding to chili.
- For the poblano pepper: Blacken the pepper over a high open flame from either your gas stove or a BBQ, using tongs to rotate the pepper until most of the skin is charred and blackened. Put the pepper in a paper bag and close it up for several minutes. Once the skin is softened, use a knife to scrape off and discard the charred skin. Now slice open the pepper and scrape out the seeds and inner membrane. Chop into bite sized pieces before adding it to the slow-cooker pot.
- For the chuck steak: Slice into 2 inch strips, then season with salt and pepper.
- For the chili: In a skillet over medium-high heat, brown the sausage before adding it to your slow-cooker pot. Break up the sausage into 1 inch pieces. Save any leftover grease for searing the rest of the ingredients. Do this in small batches to keep ingredients from steaming. Sear the beef, onions, celery and bell pepper, adding the sausage grease or cooking oil as necessary to keep ingredients from burning. As each ingredient is finished, add it to the slow-cooker pot. While the pan is still hot, use the beer (or coffee) to de-glaze the pan, using a spatula to scrape up the cooked bits off the bottom. Add that liquid and the deglazed bits to the slow-cooker.
- Add the rest of the ingredients: Cook on high-heat for 5 hours, or on low-heat for 7 hours. If the chili seems a little watery, crack the lid for the last hour of cooking. The chili WILL thicken if allowed to rest overnight! Makes about 6 quarts.
- When we make this at home, we like it a bit spicier! We do this by skipping the mild chili powder and instead using 1/2 cup medium-hot chili powder. We also add an additional tablespoon of smoked hot paprika, as well as a tablespoon of chipotle powder and habanero powder. Adjust the heat to your liking though!
- Feel free to add toppings such as sour cream or cheese, but we don't even think it's necessary for this chili. We wanted it to be able to stand on it's own without toppings for the contest.