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A long time ago, I heard an anecdote about a couple of guys who crashed a chili competition, and it changed how I think of making chili. Growing up, it was always the same recipe. Chicken chili with kidney beans, green bell peppers, lots of cumin and brown sugar. If I’m honest, I never really liked it. Beefy chili with pinto beans was more my speed. But that doesn’t truly matter when it comes to chili. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s just a funny story, but rumor has it a couple of guys went to a chili cookoff and set up their station. They didn’t get there at the crack of dawn. They didn’t even bring ingredients. What they did was they went to all the other chili stations where they were giving away samples, brought them back, dumped them all together to cook, and supposedly won first place.
True or not, this story changed the way I think about chili. It’s not a recipe; it’s the ultimate dump dinner/clean out the fridge dinner. Cans of beans, cans of tomatoes, that half an onion left in the fridge, some jalapeños that are on their way out. You can even hide an entire head of garlic in a batch of chili if you simmer it long enough! Cook it for a couple hours, and that’s some of the best healing food for when you’re under the weather.
How I make chili: Different. Every time. And it is always delicious.
Here’s the thing, there aren’t really any set ingredients for chili. For a while, I was a fan of a three-can dump-in-the-pan chili. A can of fire-roasted tomatoes, a can of tomatoes with chili seasonings, and a can of “ranch-style” beans. Simmer that together, and it makes a fine budget meal with plenty of flavoring. Add lots of chili powder to it, for good measure, and you can’t go wrong!
My strategy has evolved over time, but for the most part, if you have a can of beans and a can of tomatoes, you can make chili. Baked beans work. Chili beans work. Pork ‘n’ beans works. Black beans, pinto beans, all kinds of beans. It all works. Fire roasted tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, tomatoes with chili seasonings. It all works.
More is more, so because of that, for a long time I’d base my chili on a pound of ground beef and a pound of ground breakfast sausage browned together. Drain, then throw in the beans and tomatoes and go from there. If you’re going for meaty chili, why not go for all the meats?
You can sautee veggies like onions and celery and garlic at the beginning, or you can just throw it all in together. I would stick to classic chili veggies like tomatoes and peppers and aromatics, and maybe a few southwestern favorites like corn. I wouldn’t add soup veggies like spinach or broccoli. Your mileage may vary!
So you throw in the canned beans and the canned tomatoes and the canned whatever-else-you-have. Tomatoes with green chilies is a good option. Canned jalapeños diced up work well.
Add your boozy things. Vermouth that’s too old for good martinis works, beer works, white wine or red wine works, liquor works (such as a low-quality kirsch mixer that you bought eight years ago and can’t seem to make a dent in, or maybe that’s just me with that problem).
Add spices. Chili powder, cumin, paprika, turmeric, steak seasoning rub, seasoning blends, cinnamon. Whatever strikes your fancy. You can pull from the classic chili playbook, and you can pull from the curry playbook. It’s all going to meld together with the ultimate secret ingredient: Simmering.
Simmer, simmer, simmer, simmer, simmer. As long as you do that, you can get away with a lot in the chili.