Some foods are so hearty and so beloved that selecting one among the many variations is like waging war upon all the others. This is probably the case with beef chili, which some claim to have evolved from a Northern Mexican dish, and some a purely American one. My childhood memory of beef chili would more accurately be: “ground beef with kidney beans,” or the faintest memory of that other, “vegetarian” kind, which never held my attention for more than a few bites. In fact, I never really understood what the “chili” part of the dish was referring to, except for some faint red spice bombarded by too much oregano and cumin.
When Matt and I came across a recipe for carne con chile in The Feast of Santa Fe, we jumped in immediately. With large chunks of beef chuck stewed for a few hours, a lot of broth, and enough chile powder (I thought) to blow a house down, it seemed like the right time to start over. Admittedly, starting over for me does not mean faithfully cooking a recipe out of a book. I substituted the kidney beans for pinto, made beef broth for the first time (ooooh how it jiggles!), added in some salt pork to the beans (why not?!), bumped up the oregano, and substituted some wine in place of cider vinegar (but if you’re not drinking, your chile doesn’t need to either). The resulting stew is peppered with succulent chunks of beef in a thick, spicy stew broth. It has a mellow sweetness from the red chile powder, carrots, onions, and a tiny crunch of sweet pepper. It has such a satisfying, rounded taste, I found myself not caring whose recipe it was. But I do appreciate the ways in which nourishing, spicy foods can wage wars or make peace givers of us all, depending on who is cooking.
While every chili has a secret ingredient (many times in the spice), I would say this recipe derives a lot of its flavor from being cooked faithfully, wholly, and with good ingredients, namely the red chiles and beef (as in grass fed) used. Many times the spirit of a dish, and especially a native one, is lost when we use dried out bottled spices. While I can appreciate their availability in times of need, they really do more harm than good. Many times, when a soup or stew turned out eh, and I wondered whether or not I had put enough ingredients in to make its broth, I’d open up my spice containers or sniff through my canned soup stock and find it smelled, well, eh.
In New Mexico, where the official state question is: “Red or green?” you can’t go wrong with buying some chile. When we first came to Santa Fe and asked where to get good chile, the response was, “ask a chef.” So we did. We’ve been using our chile from the downtown restaurant The Shed for the last month.
A little history on the chile in chili
Second to sight, touch is probably the sense we use most. While we generally try to avoid painful sensations and gravitate towards things that tickle us, give us goose flesh, or make us feel comforted and safe, sometimes a little pain can be just as pleasurable. That’s where the capsicum comes in. It’s variety is startling, and well, exhilarating. Each variety of plant results in a vibrant, beautiful fruit, all so different, and all so tempting. Chiles and their constant burn make silly idiots out of us all. The mildest kiss results in a slow tingle on our lips and tongue, causing us to breathe in slowly as though it were the coolest, freshest breath of air we have ever tasted. Taken too far and we find ourselves, arms flailing, writhing, or curled up into a ball like an infant. Chiles are no joke. Like other members of the nightshade family, capsicums developed a defense to ward off predators from eating the fruit before the seeds had fully developed and ripened.
I will admit, I am somewhat of a capsicum cooking newbie. While I grew up eating the Indian cayenne chile varieties, they are used more as a spice additive than as the basis for such a variety of flavors. In fact, my favorite way to get spiciness into Indian food is not through adding a couple green chiles into the mix, but from an accompaniment of mango pickle, most probably the family favorite Bedekar’s. Capsicums, along with corn, beans, tomatoes, squash, and potatoes are indigenous only to the New World. Chiles have been here much longer than in the Indian subcontinent or anywhere else in Asia where their spicy is much loved. It’s no wonder love for spicy foods and chiles grows deeper the farther south you go. Chiles, in addition to making us feel on fire, help to regulate body temperatures in the sweltering climates by causing the body to sweat and therefore cooling it down. In colder climates and in winter, we generally want to keep as much body heat as possible. The moisture lost from sweat producing on the surface of the skin would most likely make us colder.
Chiles derive their heat from capsaicin, an oil which stimulates our nerve endings to feel the familiar burning. If this oil is concentrated it can do a lot of damage to our body. Those who eat chiles all the time grow more insensitive to them. So if you find yourself in competition up against a regular chile eater, think again. In addition to feeling the burn, capsaicin also heightens sensitivity for everything it touches. If your mouth is burning from a chile, the air you breath in will feel cool and refreshing. The tastes of other, stimulating spices and aromatics will also be heightened. So when used in relative proportion to what you can handle, chiles can actually make food a more sensual experience. Taken too far and your brain will start to feel alarmed, your skin can swell up, and you can even do temporary or permanent damage to your mouth and digestive tract.
Continual stimulation and overuse of chiles, can, like coffee, or other pungent and acidic foods, eventually throw off your digestive system. Indians like to eat other fats, and specifically dairy products, with their chiles. In addition to completing their vegetarian proteins, the dairy will help to soothe the system and minimize effects. Not so much in Santa Fe.
When cooking with chiles it’s important to remember that, like sweet peppers, they are a fruit, not a vegetable. Like with any fruit, the longer it’s left to grow and mature on the plant, the sweeter, more vibrant, and more supple it becomes. As a result, green chiles will tend to be harder, more bitter, and in the case of capsicums, more spicy as the plant attempts to defend its seeds against predators. The fully ripened chiles will be, if not sweeter, at least mellower, with a softer and thinner skin. Once its fruit is ripe, the capsicum plant shows off its fruit, begging the predator to pick it and disperse the seeds! Green chiles are best fresh, and if not then frozen. While red chiles can be fresh, they are also excellent dried or ground. Either way you eat them, though, its always, always best to roast them and remove the skin before cooking, drying, or grinding. This is true of most of the larger, thick-skinned chiles, from the poblano to the jalapeño. In addition to being a different culture with different tastes, Indian cayenne chiles and smaller, slimmer chiles are kept whole and not roasted because they have a much thinner skin and less meat.
Chiles in Santa Fe can only be harvest in September and October. Those found fresh other times of the year are carted in from somewhere else. Thankfully, people here are very into local foods, local chiles, and local cuisine, so they rely on the methods of preserving chiles to enjoy them throughout the year.
So if you’re thinking of making some chili, any time of year, regardless of what variant of recipe you go after, make sure your secret ingredient goes something like this.
Carne con Chile
2 cups pinto beans, cooked (see below)
5 cups beef broth, homemade (see below)
2 1/4 pounds beef chuck
3 thin slices of salt pork
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 carrots, washed, peeled, and chopped
4 large stalks celery, washed and chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 28 oz can whole peeled tomatoes, squashed between fingers
1/3 cup dry, red wine (optional)
6 tablespoons powdered medium heat red chile
1 tablespoon ground cumin, toasted then ground
1 tablespoon ground oregano
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 orange bell pepper, chopped
Juice of 1/2 lime
cheese as garnish
A good handful of cilantro leaves, washed and minced
Remove some of the excess fat and cut the beef into 1/2 inch cubes. Heat the oil to 300F and brown the beef in batches, allowing an even layer in your saute pan. Turn over at least once. Remove the beef from the saute pan and place on a plate. Drain and strain the cooking fat. Clean pan, add fat, and heat on medium. Add the onions and saute, until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 3 minutes more. Add the celery and carrots and saute until softening, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato paste and the chile paste. Mix and saute 2 minutes more.
Tip: If you sort of burn your fat, like we did, you can use a few pieces of bacon or salt pork or some olive oil.
Transfer vegetable and chile mix to the a 4 to 6 quart pot along with the beef. Add in the beef stock, 3 cups of water, wine (if using) and the salt. Turn up to boil. Turn down and simmer, covered, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours until the beef is just tender. Add in the bell pepper and the beans and simmer for 10 minutes longer. Add in the juice of 1/2 lime. Garnish with cheese and cilantro.
2 lbs worth meat on bone (ask at whole foods)
1/2 onion, peeled
3 cloves garlic, peeled and slightly crushed
2 bay leaves
1 carrot, washed, peeled, and cut in half
A handful of peppercorns
1 tablespoon of beef base (better than bouillon, organic beef base)
3 quarts water
Place all ingredients in a 4 quart stock pot. Bring to a boil and then turn down to simmer, covered, 4- 5 hours, until reduced to about 5 cups. Remove meat and vegetables then strain through a cheese cloth. Cool and refrigerate until ready to use.
2 cups dried pinto beans
3 thin slices of salt pork
2 bay leaves
1/2 onion, peeled
Rinse and pick over the beans in a colander. Soak the beans overnight in enough water to cover them plus two inches. Drain. Place all ingredients in a 2 quart stock pot. Add eight cups of water. Turn on to boil. Turn down to simmer, covered, for 2 hours. The beans are completely done when they are smooth, tender, and not starchy. Remove from heat and drain, reserving 2 cups of cooking liquid.
New home and new neighbors in Pojoaque…
We have some new neighbors, and new reasons to appreciate the pleasures of good pastured beef. See, we’re living on a ranch with 17 month old Angus bulls and Angus and Charolais crossbreeds. We’re also living amongst some pea fowl, geese, chickens, a beautiful 24 year-old horse, a whole bunch of birds, and a couple of wonderfully friendly dogs…