Make a mean chili with international intrigue
How to create chilis with a multicultural kick. Paneer and Butternut Squash Kashmiri Chili. Illustrates TECHNIQUE (category d), by David Hagedorn, special to The Washington Post. Moved Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post; tableware by Crate and Barrel.)
One of the most commonly repeated assertions made by American home cooks might often be the most untrue: “I make a mean chili.”
Although I, too, used to think that way, I can now say with confidence that I make three mean ones, one of which contains gojuchang and galbi, another featuring fenugreek and paneer.
Growing up in the North and Southeast, I wasn’t exposed to “authentic” chili. The recipe in our house involved little more than browning ground beef and onions, then adding canned tomatoes, water, kidney beans, tomato paste and chili powder.
Today I would find that dish one-dimensional and underseasoned. But I loved it back then, undoubtedly because its real purpose was to serve as a vehicle for big dollops of sour cream, mounds of grated cheddar cheese and chopped scallions. The goal was to heap as much of it all as you could onto a Saltine and get it to your mouth before the thing crumbled.
My chili-making skills improved over time. Texans informed me I was a rube for adding beans, while others told me it was de rigueur to use beer or coffee. Ground meat was out; whole chunks were in. Tomatoes? Oh no, many tsked.
A method evolved. Browned chunks of beef, pork or lamb - all fine. (Chicken doesn’t survive the long cooking time, in my opinion. If you add it late in the game, it’s not connected enough to the whole.) Plus stock, onions, garlic, a dry spice mix and an ancho chili puree. I may add black beans, disapproving sneers be damned.
The fall air that began to tease us recently turned my attention toward further chili refinements. Could I make my mean traditional chili meaner? And then expand to less traditional ones?
As I developed recipes for Korean-inspired Kim Chili, coffee- and chocolate-laced Dark Pot Roast Chili and an Indian-inspired, vegetarian Paneer and Butternut Squash Kashmiri Chili, a modus operandi surfaced: Seek to maximize flavor in the solids (aromatic and center-stage vegetables, meat, legumes), the cooking liquid, the spice blends and the garnish.
There are two ingredients I consider non-negotiable for any chili: onions and garlic. The former for body and sweetness, the latter for punch. These are my starting points for many savory dishes, especially soups. In my chef days, my response to the diner query, “I don’t like onions and garlic. What can I have?” was “A seat in another restaurant.”
When I opened the refrigerator to start my chili spree, I immediately spotted a jar of gojuchang, a Korean spicy red chili paste made with glutinous rice and fermented soybeans. It occurred to me that the only real common denominator in chili is the chili - some amalgam of chili peppers - and that just about every culture has some form of chili paste in its food profile.
Next to the gojuchang was kimchi (the Korean all-purpose condiment made from fermented vegetables and gochugaru, or crushed red pepper flakes) and galbi sauce, a marinade of soy sauce, onion, garlic, sesame oil, sugar and Asian pear used to tenderize and flavor the meat in Korean barbecue.
Kim Chili! I thought. Would the cabbage’s tang of fermentation result in a shrill outcome or even out during the cooking?
Making chili is all about building, layering and melding. Maybe it’s not good news for cooks constrained by the five-ingredients-in-five-minutes formula, but chili requires multiple ingredients and time to cook. I simply see no other way to create body and concentrate flavor. Think of it as herding a gymnasium full of people through a long, narrow hall into a vestibule. It takes a while to bring it all together. At least I make sure to use just one pot.
To justify the effort, make a big batch. It’s a great party food, it freezes well and often lends itself easily to repurposing. Add stock to thin it out, it’s a soup. Blend it with lots of cheddar or pepper Jack cheese and sour cream and you’ve got a great casserole. Serve a smaller portion and it’s a side dish for a future meal.
For Kim Chili, pork was a natural choice, given its predominance in Korean cooking. I browned cubes of it and then added lots of onions, leaving them undisturbed as they browned. If you stir too quickly, their water releases and they boil instead. (For efficiency, use the browning time to prep other steps.)
To the meat I added a jar of cabbage kimchi, the gojuchang, galbi, garlic, tomato paste and water. The galbi provided salt, sweetness and body. I considered using stock instead of water, but the final result, cooked for two hours into a nicely thickened chili, was mellow and hearty with a sneaky piquancy. The acid note of the kimchi was just on the surface and complemented the sugar and salt.
The first batch lacked heat and oomph, so I added the gochugaru and upped the gojuchang and galbi. And ginger: floral, acid, hot and sweet all at the same time. On the third try, I decided on kidney beans for color and substance. I topped it off with chopped kimchi and scallions as garnishes - crucial, because they add an element of freshness and contrasting textures.
For the next chili, I decided to go vegetarian, which to me connotes Indian cooking, so rich in textures and highly spiced that I don’t notice when a dish is meatless. I had in mind dal (a thick, souplike lentil side dish) meets palak paneer (cubes of farmer’s cheese in creamed spinach) meets paneer makhani (paneer cheese in a spice, tomato, cream and butter sauce).
Paneer is a wonder cheese. It retains its faintly spongy, pleasant texture in hot foods and has a wonderful, pure dairy flavor that tofu just doesn’t. It can be hard to find, but Central American queso blanco is a perfect substitute.
To enhance the paneer’s substance for a main course, I roasted cubes of butternut squash in plenty of butter, to be added at the end. That’s also a nice seasonal touch.
For dry spices, I went for a combination of sharpness, fragrance, sweetness and heat: some of my homemade ground cayenne, fenugreek powder ground from seeds (smells and tastes like maple syrup, but with a tang and hint of bitterness), ground turmeric (a root known for its yellow color and musty tartness) garam masala (a blend of ground spices that differ regionally but are often black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin and coriander). As a kicker and final layer of flavor: an ultra-zesty Kashmiri paste made with red chilies, tamarind, ginger and garlic.
I started the chili with sauteed onions and black sesame seeds. The latter impart little flavor but have eye appeal. (No grand plan here. I actually meant to use the more distinctive black mustard seeds, but I didn’t have any.) Sauteing the spices in the browned onions with the Kashmiri and tomato pastes releases their oils, a process called blooming, and heightens their flavor.
This made a large amount of very thick sauce, which I transferred to a bowl so I could make the lentils in the same pot. I boiled them with water, cream (to mirror makhani richness) and salt. I stirred in the chili mixture and cooked it at a low temperature for 20 minutes to bring the elements together. I added the squash, paneer and spinach at the end. The result was too thick, too bitter, too spicy. Adjustments: fewer lentils, less fenugreek, cut the cayenne.
On to good, ol’ American chili. The idea, again, was to do everything in one pot and cook the meat like a pot roast, cutting it into neat cubes or shredding it at the end of the cooking process.
For a dry spice mix, I went for deeper flavor and the suggestion of sweetness by adding unsweetened cocoa and espresso powders to a homemade chili powder. Not a revelation there. Coffee and chocolate are often found in Mexican moles.
The dish was all about the chilies. I made a puree with smoky anchos (dried, bold poblanos) which I puffed and charred slightly in a hot Dutch oven, plus garlic, bouillon cubes and water. Then I proceeded as with pot roast. Sear the meat, sauté the onions, add the seasonings (spice mix and chili puree, bay leaf, thyme) and liquid (water with tomato paste).
I broke out the slow cooker, which was the charm. The chili had a deep, solid foundation and provoked the same satisfaction that I get from a gumbo whose maker took the roux to the edge of crimson-tinged blackness, where it belongs.
The meanest chili I know.
1½ pounds pork shoulder, fat trimmed, meat cut into 1-inch cubes
freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
4 cups chopped yellow onions (from 2 to 3 large onions)
6 cups water
2 cups medium-spiced cabbage kimchi, such as Sunja’s brand, plus 1 cup chopped kimchi, for garnish
½ cup gojuchang
¼ cup coarse gochugaru
¾ cup galbi sauce
3 tablespoons peeled, grated ginger root
6 cloves garlic, sliced
6 ounces canned tomato paste
2 15-ounce cans no-salt-added kidney beans, drained and rinsed
3 whole scallions, chopped
8 tablespoons Salvadoran crema or sour cream (optional)
Use paper towels to pat the pork cubes dry. Season the pork generously with salt and pepper.
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the meat in an even layer and let it cook undisturbed for 6 to 8 minutes or until it is well browned. Stir in the onions, then cook without stirring for 8 to 10 minutes, until all of the released liquid evaporates and the onions have browned slightly. Stir in the water, 2 cups of kimchi, the gojuchang, gochugaru, galbi, ginger, garlic and tomato paste.
Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and cook uncovered for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the kidney beans and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the pork is very tender and the sauce is thick.
Serve over steamed rice, garnished with chopped scallions and the remaining cup of kimchi, plus crema or sour cream, if desired. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Paneer and Butternut Squash Kashmiri Chili
For the spice paste:
1 teaspoon fenugreek powder
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons garam masala
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces canned tomato paste
¼ cup Kashmiri paste
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon peeled, grated ginger root
For the chili
3 tablespoons canola oil
4 cups diced yellow onion (from 2 to 3 large onions)
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds, plus 2 teaspoons for garnish
28 ounces canned whole peeled plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, crushed with your hands, plus juices
1¾ cups red lentils, picked over and thoroughly rinsed in cool water
8 cups homemade or no-salt-added vegetable broth
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon salt, plus more for the squash
8 ounces chopped fresh spinach (4 cups, packed)
1 pound peeled, seeded butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes (4 cups)
freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
16 ounces paneer or queso blanco, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
2 cups plain yogurt, for garnish
1 cup chopped cilantro, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
For the spice paste: Combine the fenugreek, turmeric, garam masala, salt, pepper, tomato and Kashmiri pastes, garlic and ginger in a medium bowl.
For the chili: Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the onion and sesame seeds and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion starts to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the spice paste and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the tomatoes and cook for 1 minute. Transfer the mixture to a bowl.
Return the same pot to the stove. Add the lentils, broth, cream and salt and bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are soft. Stir in the chili mixture. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the spinach and cook for 5 minutes, until the spinach wilts.
While the lentils are cooking, roast the squash: Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place the squash pieces in a large bowl and season them with salt and pepper, then stir in the melted butter and toss to coat the squash. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, until the squash has softened but is still slightly firm.
Stir the squash into the chili, then stir in the paneer. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed. Serve immediately, garnished with yogurt, chopped cilantro and black sesame seeds. Makes 10 servings.
Dark Pot Roast Chili
For the spice mix:
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons smoked Spanish paprika
1 tablespoon espresso powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons dried minced onion
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons salt
For the chili puree:
6 dried ancho peppers (4 ounces total)
2 chipotle peppers in adobo, such as La Morena brand
6 cloves garlic
4 oil-packed anchovy fillets
3 cups low-sodium beef broth, heated, plus 5 cups broth at room temperature
For the chili:
3-pound chuck roast, trimmed of excess fat and patted dry with paper towels
freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 large yellow onions, chopped (4 cups)
6 ounces canned tomato paste
4 ounces canned green chili peppers
1 large bay leaf
1 small bunch thyme, tied together with kitchen twine
2 15-ounce cans no-salt-added black beans, drained and rinsed
8 tablespoons Salvadoran crema or sour cream, for garnish
½ cup grated pepper Jack or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, for garnish
4 whole scallions, trimmed and chopped, for garnish
½ cup chopped cilantro, for garnish
For the spice mix: Combine the chili powder, cocoa powder, smoked paprika, espresso powder, garlic powder, minced onion, crushed red pepper flakes, cumin, oregano and salt in a medium bowl.
For the chili puree: Heat the ancho peppers in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium high-heat, turning them often, until they soften, puff up and char and blister slightly, about 2 minutes. Transfer the peppers to a plate to cool. When they are cool enough to handle, remove and discard the stems and seeds and transfer the peppers to a blender along with the chipotle peppers, garlic, anchovies and 3 cups of hot beef broth. Remove the center knob from the blender lid and hold a clean kitchen towel over the opening to contain any splash-ups. Puree for 1 minute, until the mixture is smooth.
For the chili: Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. Season the roast generously on both sides with salt and pepper.
Heat the oil in the Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the roast to the Dutch oven and let it cook undisturbed for 5 to 7 minutes, until it is well browned. Turn the roast over and brown for 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the roast to a plate or a slow cooker.
Add the onion, spice mix and tomato paste to the Dutch oven. Scrape up the browned bits from the bottom, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes to allow the spices to bloom. Stir in the chili puree, the remaining 5 cups of beef broth and the green chilies. Submerge the roast in the liquid and add any juices from the plate. Add the bay leaf and thyme. Cover, transfer to the oven and cook for 4½ hours, until the meat is very tender, occasionally skimming off any fat that floats to the top.
Transfer the meat to a cutting board and let it rest for 10 minutes. Use two forks to shred the meat into bite-size chunks. Return the meat to the Dutch oven with the cooking liquid, add the beans and cook, covered, for 20 minutes.
To serve, discard the bay leaf and thyme bundle.
NOTE: To make this in a slow-cooker, place the roast in the slow-cooker after browning it. After cooking the onion, spices and tomato paste and adding the chili puree, broth and green chilies, stir to combine and pour over the meat in the slow-cooker. Add the bay leaf and thyme, cover the slow-cooker and cook on high for 4½ hours. Shred the meat as directed, return it to the slow-cooker with the beans and cook for 20 minutes.
The chili improves if it’s made a couple of days ahead of time so the flavors can meld.