Some food, some drink.
Easy Weeknight Chili: Kick that starter packet to the curb.
Abstract: The only consistent thing about the way I make chili is that it does not involve the use of a chili starter or seasoning packet. Making a traditional ground-beef based chili is not so much a recipe as it is a method. Good chili doesn't require inordinate amounts of time or fancy ingredients; usually it's just a matter of having a well-stocked pantry. The style of ground beef chili I make considers ingredient substitution the norm, and employs the oven and the stove-top to quickly build layers of flavors that don't need half a day to develop.
Purpose: The last time I followed a proper
recipe to make chili, everyone was wearing flannel regardless of the
weather, and I was listening to my second cassette dub of Faith No
Real Thing. My go-to
solution was one of those all-inclusive seasoning packets that's
used to spike ground beef prior to combining with a can or two of
tomatoes, and sometimes beans. The method is dead-simple, but the
results are questionable. I don't know anyone that uses those
seasoning packets as-is; and worst part of it all is that the
majority of what goes into said seasoning packet is usually salt,
sugar and a thickening agent. Knowing that, one comes to realize
that any chili starter is nothing more than a crutch. Most people
already know how to make chili, they just don't realize that they
don't need “the packet”.
In the past, when I've put together chili in a slow cooker that involves ground beef, I given pause to consider what benefits (if any) are granted by that eight-hour simmer. Starting with tough whole cuts of meat is most certainly a cause to stew, but in the case of ground beef, the tenderizing work's already been done mechanically. Knowing that frees someone to whip up a batch of quality chili, suitable for any weeknight dinner, in about an hour.
Recipe: Jump to the detailed recipe. (or, keep reading for the gist of it) -
Brown ground beef with seasoning until two-thirds done (you want some pink yet). Drain unwanted grease and set aside.
Preheat oven to 450F. Toss onion with veg seasoning and oil. In a large oven-proof skillet or pot, roast onion for 15 minutes. Add tomatoes (with liquid) and roast another 15 minutes. Take to the stovetop (mind the hot handles!) and add beer and beef; simmer on med-low for 15 minutes uncovered. Add chocolate. After chocolate melts, stir it in to integrate and kill heat. Add vinegar and adjust seasoning if needed. Add beans if desired and serve.
- Do not be intimidated by the seasoning list. When I was writing up this recipe, I literally just picked stuff out of my cabinet, so if something's lacking in your coffers or if you don't like the proportions I use, by all means change things up.
- I split the seasoning into two factions because I want to season both the meat and veggies separately. In theory, this means that different tastes should be discernible in different bites. As a side, I tried to pair stuff with the beef that would have probably burned under the intense heat of roasting.
- If you're looking at seasoning subs, a good rule of thumb is to use a teaspoon of stuff you like, a quarter-teaspoon of pungent flavors, and a half-teaspoon for everything else. Leave the salt where it's at, and adjust right before serving.
- All ten of you who regularly read what I write (up from five; whoohoo!) might recognize the veggie roasting method I use here. High, dry heat is great for caramelizing sugars and concentrating flavors.
- Although no one likes runny chili, some folks prefer chunks and some don't. Cut the onion and use a dice of tomato that jibes with your family's tastes. Flavors and cook times will only be marginally affected by the methods used here.
- Resist the temptation to do anything tomato-based in your cast-iron, The acid in said fruit will strip the seasoned finish clean-off. That said, enameled cookware is ok.
- Other thickening agents to use in the stead of unsweetened baking chocolate include peanut butter or a big handful of smashed tortilla chips. We're not looking so much for proper thickening per se, as we are a helper to assist in keeping the chili consistent so as to better carry flavors.
- Beans should be an eleventh-hour add to chili. If you're making ahead, add the beans the next day when you warm it up, or after you bring the chili out of the freezer (you don't want previously-frozen beans). The beans you're adding are probably canned anyway; what's the hurry?
Results: Back in my high school (flannel-shirt wearing) days, I took a home ec.
class in which we had to make chili. I don't say this lightly when I
tell you that the shit was absolutely as hot as I've ever made it. That said, it
was also about the least-flavorful chili I've ever made. Making
chili isn't so much about the heat as it is controlling the flavor.
Oh sure, you'll still taste a bit of spice, but you should also
taste the caramelized sweetness of the onion and the tang of the
tomatoes, as well as the er, “beefiness” of the beef. The
chocolate may seem a bit odd to some, but it makes for a wonderful
stock-like texture, and gives the chili the appearance of having
been simmered all day.
It may only take half the time to whip up chili from the starter packet, but the hour it takes to get packet-less chili to the table is certainly a small price to pay for something that tastes like it's been cooked all day. Anyway, most of the cook time is hands-off; which for the time you spend in the kitchen on a weeknight anyway, makes this chili an easy fix with the possible bonus of leftovers the next day.
Notes: Wanna see how other folks do chili on the easy? There are a bevy of options over at Foodista.