Let there be no debate: Chili is all about meat and peppers. If you do not agree, then just stop reading now. For this year’s BURP Chili Cookoff I wanted to make a chili that boldly brought these two main flavors together with a supporting complement of freshness, rounded heat, smoke flavors, just the right texture, and a deep red hue. I typically only make my competition chili once a year, just for BURP, so I put a lot of work in to get it the way I like it. My recipe roughly follows the same recipe and process I have been using since 1998. Of course, every year there are a few variations and refinements. Folks who know me understand that I don’t keep culinary secrets. I love to share techniques and discoveries with others so they can participate in the adventure.
For this year’s chili cook off, I also really wanted to do something special to commemorate BURP and the craft beer community’s friend, Charlie Gow, who passed away last September. Charlie and I shared a friendship bonded by, among other things, a love of great beer, cooking in large quantities, big slabs of juicy meat, and anything spicy. Charlie was a collector of many salts and spices. In spite of my own well-stocked pantry, I acquired some of Charlie’s treasured spices with the intent to use them in the ways he himself would have done. Charlie was forever laughing at my 60 quart stock pot, claiming it was a chili pot. I was going to surprise him one day by making that pot of chili and throwing a “Big Ass Pot of Chili” party, but sadly it never happened. Yes, Charlie was a big inspiration for my chili this year.
In addition to using a bunch of Charlie’s spices and salt and wearing his chili shirt to serve my chili, I had one other major change from my normal chili this year. This part also comes due to another great friend and fellow BURPer, Jim Tyndall. Jim has not recently had a big birthday (I will leave it to him to tell you how big). He asked me to cook a meal for a small group of friends. Well, small is a relative term, so I planned a feast around cooking a small pig on the Porkulator (which was Jim’s idea to build in the first place). The pig just fit on a full size sheet pan. I stuffed it with chopped fennel, garlic, salt and pepper. When we were done pulling the meat from the bones, there was a pan thick with sticky, brown, rich and smoky pig juice. I deglazed the pan and tossed it into a stock pot (not the big beast) with all of the bones. The resulting stock was thick, amber and as brilliant as a gem stone. It could be cut into cubes with a knife, and it smelled just like bacon. That had to go in my chili.
There are a few other things I do with my chili that make it different, and all of these have been published in my chili recipes of the past. There is nothing easy or cheap here; it’s a special dish for sure and it only comes once a year for the BURP Chili Cook-off. The chili I make for home use is much simpler and easier for sure. That’s probably enough of the backstory for now, so you probably are looking for the recipe. Here goes!
I start with a tomato-less sofrito. This gives a bright, fresh vegetable character to the finished chili.
3 Green bell peppers, seeds and pith removed, minced very fine
4 White onions, minced very fine, rinsed with ice water
12 large cloves garlic, minced very fine
20 fresh Jalapenos, seeds and ribs removed, minced very fine
Once minced, I let these veg all drain in a fine mesh colander, then seal in a container. It’s about 1 gallon of minced vegetables. You want them minced fine enough that there are not notable pieces floating around in the chili pot. Meat is the star of this show.
Speaking of meat, here is what I used this year:
2 Pork cushion muscles, about 6 lbs meat, trimmed of connective tissue and fat, cut in 2 inch cubes
1 Whole Angus brisket (point and flat cut in one piece), about 15 lbs meat trimmed of connective tissue and fat, cut in 2 inch cubes.
I put the meats through my grinder with a 0.5” die (plate with ½ inch holes). The makes the meat coarse enough to provide texture in the chili and saves a lot of hand cutting. I had about 8 quarts of meat once processed.
Now the peppers…
60 New Mexico dried chile pods
20 Costeño dried chile pods
10 Chile Negro (or Pasilla)
10 Cascabel chile pods
Cut the tops off the chilies to remove the stem and shake out any loose seeds. Heat several cast iron skillets on medium heat, and then toast the pods in the pans for about 15 seconds or so per side. I flip them when they give off a good aroma. Do not burn them! Place all of the pods into a large bowl. Cover with hot water, and weigh them down with a plate. Work in batches filling a blender about ½ full of peppers and a cup or two of the soaking liquid (taste the liquid and if it is bitter, just use water or stock instead. Puree the peppers. Pour into a fine mesh strainer and press through with a rubber spatula. This will produce about 8-10 cups of chile paste about the consistency of loose pancake batter.
Time to make some Chili!
I set up two burners. A butane burner holds my large Le Creuset stew pot, and my 35K BTU Cajun Cadillac burner holds a well-seasoned wok. I melt about half a cup of lard (good lard or bacon drippings….not the pure white supermarket stuff) in the Le Creuset pot. Once it is hot, add all of the minced vegetables. Add a few teaspoons of smoked sea salt to let it give up moisture, and stir. Check on this frequently to make sure it does not scorch. While the moisture is cooking off of the veg, fire up the wok as hot as possible. Working in batches, sear the meat on all sites. Season a bit with smoked salt and fresh ground black pepper. You should still see some pink, and some black spots are OK, too, but not burned and not boiled either. If it gives off juice and boils, then you added too much to the wok at once. You want a good crispy sear. Reserve the seared meat to the side and keep working.
Once the liquid is mostly cooked off of the vegetables, then it is time to add in the beer. I used a Weizen beer to get a fruity, wine like flavor (and low hops). Belgian ales also work well here. Continue cooking the veg until the beer is evaporated off. When it’s almost gone, add the dry spices to toast them a bit with the veg. I added 2T of dried Mexican oregano, 1 T of ground cumin, 1T ground, toasted coriander seed, 2T fresh black pepper, ¼ cup ground New Mexico chile powder, ¼ cup smoked sweet Spanish paprika, and a big pinch of ground habanero powder. As soon as there are signs of caramelization, add in the meat and stir to mix it up. Add the smoked pork stock and a quart of the homemade chile paste.
Then just to take it to another level, I brought a smoked brisket point cut. I had cooked a few briskets the week before for my dad’s 80th birthday dinner, so I cooked a bit extra to have a point reserved for my chili. They were cooked for 15 hours over a low pecan log fire. I cut the point in ¼ inch cubes. It made about 3-4 cups. I handed the burnt ends around to the other chili cooks. Brisket in the chili adds smoke flavor, a depth to the meat flavor, texture that is different from the other meats, and a yummy look. Looking into a bowl of chili and seeing a glistening piece of brisket bark and smoke ring covered with peppery goodness, who wouldn’t want that?
Bring the pot to a good boil and then immediately drop to a low simmer. Taste for salt and seasoning. Add more as needed. I usually add more chili powder at this point to adjust the color.
Now there is nothing to do but wait, talk with friends, and sample some beers. As it gets close to tasting time, I keep a close eye on the pot. I want the solid to liquid ratio just right. Not too wet, like soup. I want there to be some broth but the pot has to have a certain sheen. I also taste a few pieces of meat to make sure the texture is right. I stir around and look for any pieces of gristle or blood vessels that were missed. No one wants that in their sample. I do a final adjustment of the seasoning, add some Rocoto chili paste (2-3T) to brighten the fresh pepper flavor, and another cup or two of the homemade chile paste. I did bring some beans (I love beans), but made a game time decision not to use them as the flavor I wanted was there. The last thing, I taste a full sample to make sure it works and I like it.
Although his spirit was with me all week while I prepped, I donned Charlie’s cool chili shirt. Ready to serve, and I brought some homemade corn tortilla chips with sea salt and some finely grated cold smoked Cotija cheese for garnishes. I also brought homemade (and homegrown) tomatillo salsa as an acidic palate cleanser, and assorted homemade/homegrown hot sauces for those who dare.
It is my great pleasure to serve some tasty chili. I love to see folks savor the result of all the effort, and hearing the sounds of satisfaction.