The Perfect Beef Chili

I have been on a chili kick this winter. I’ve tried various versions, from meatless with quinoa to white chicken chili, to chicken barley chili, even to a slow cooker mole chicken chili (from America’s Test Kitchen). I liked them all well enough; the quinoa one was a little bitter and could benefit from the addition of a few tablespoons of sugar to round that out. Chili is one of those comfort foods that really takes you home, and that many people are really passionate about. To many people, there is only one right recipe. I suppose, in some ways, I’m one of those people. I really enjoy the white chili and the barley chili (and the white chili makes regular appearances in our dinner rotation), but I yearned for a perfect beef chili. I grew up loving my mom’s chili, and really disliked the canned stuff. (But then, who does like the canned stuff? Really?) I’ve been making my mom’s recipe for chili for years; it’s a really easy recipe, and you can get it on the table within about 40 minutes. That quickness is what really made me question the recipe. After all, isn’t part of the point of chili to have really developed and complex flavors? So shouldn’t simmering for a while to develop those flavors be a part of the equation? I began searching for a more tasty, more perfect recipe for chili.

Beef ChiliEnter America’s Test Kitchen.

I love them. I hate their marketing (and therefore don’t subscribe; I pick up their magazines from Sam’s Club), but I love their recipes and their explanations. Out of the many recipes I have made from their books and magazines, I have had only a few I didn’t care for. Generally, they come out superbly. When I noticed a recipe for beef chili, I had to try it. They touted it as their favorite, and the recipe looked really promising. It relied on regular beef, for starters, instead of ground beef, and it used dried beans and dried chiles. It didn’t call for any chili powder, and that’s when I knew I was on the right track.

Don’t get me wrong. I love chili powder, and I’m particularly partial to Spice House’s chili powder. We use mild in our house because we have a toddler, and the mild is almost too spicy for her. But it has a nice kick and is still very flavorful, which I love. But, chili powder is a blend; it’s like using Italian seasoning instead of measuring out the individual herbs. It works, but it’s a shortcut. I was ready to try (at least once) making chili from scratch.

I’m not going to lie; it was a lot of work. A lot. It took two hours of hands-on prep work before it simmered for an additional 2 hours. Luckily, Sous Chef and Babycakes cooperated, and I was able to get it prepped without too much heartache. And when it came down to it, it was nice to have all the prep work done early in the afternoon. But, it was still a lot of work. I was really skeptical as we sat down to dinner, and really didn’t expect much. I should have, after all that work, but I didn’t expect it to live up to the work.

But it did.

I took my first bite, and my eyes grew wide. I know that sounds cliche, but I really felt them grow wide. I smiled. Really smiled. And I said, with disbelief, “this is really good!” Engineer laughed, and asked why I was so surprised. Then I explained how long it had taken, and that I hadn’t expected it to be worth the work, but that it surprisingly was. It was exactly what you expect out of a basic beef chili. It wasn’t fancy, it didn’t pretend to be healthy by adding in a bunch of vegetables, it didn’t have surprise ingredients to make it trendy (okay, it did have cocoa powder in it…), it was just a good bowl of chili. Something to make you feel warm inside at the end of a long day, particularly in the winter. It somehow evokes memories and feelings you don’t really have. That’s what comfort food is really about, isn’t it? Transporting you back to pleasant memories, even if they aren’t true.

We’ll be making it again, and I don’t think we’ll wait until next winter. I don’t think I can, it was really that good.

Our Favorite Beef Chili

adapted from “The Best of America’s Test Kitchen: Best Recipes and Reviews 2012″

8 ounces dried pinto beans, sorted and rinsed

3 dried ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded, and cut open

2-4 arbol chiles, stemmed, halved, and seeded

3 tablespoons cornmeal

2 teaspoons dried oregano

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons cocoa

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth, divided

2 onions, cut into 3/4 inch pieces

1 anaheim chile (or 2-3 small jalapenos), stemmed, seeded, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon light molasses

1 teaspoon brown sugar

2 1/2 pounds blade steak, cut into 3/4 inch cubes

Combine 16 cups water, 3 tablespoons salt, and beans in a Dutch oven. Bring to a boil over high heat, then remove the pot from the heat, cover, and let stand for 1 hour. Drain and rinse well.

Preheat the oven to 300. Toast the ancho chiles in a 12 inch skillet over medium heat until fragrant, turning to prevent scorching, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and let cool. Set the skillet aside without washing.

Add the arbol chiles, cornmeal, oregano, cumin, cocoa, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the food processor with the ancho chiles. Process until finely ground, about 2 minutes. With the processor running, slowly add 1/2 cup broth until a smooth paste forms, about 45 seconds, scraping down the bowl as necessary. Transfer the chile paste to a small bowl. Place the onions in the now-empty processor bowl and pulse until roughly chopped, 3-4 pulses. Add the anaheim chile and pulse to the consistency of a chunky salsa, 3-4 pulses, scraping down the bowl as necessary.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in the Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion mixture and cook, stirring occasionally, until the moisture has evaporated and the vegetables are softened, 7-9 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minutes. Add the chile paste, tomatoes, and molasses. Stir until they are thoroughly combined. Add 2 cups broth and the drained beans, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.

Meanwhile, pat the beef dry with paper towels and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in the 12 inch skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the beef in batches, avoiding overcrowding, and cook until all sides are browned, about 7-10 mintues. Transfer the meat to the Dutch Oven. Add about half the remaining chicken broth to the pan, scraping the bottom to stir up the browned bits, and bring to a simmer. Add to the Dutch oven, and repeat with the remaining meat and broth. Once it has all been added to the Dutch oven, stir to combine and return to a simmer.

Cover the pot and transfer it (carefully! It’s heavy and hot) to the oven. Cook until the meat and beans are tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Let the chili stand, uncovered, for 10 minutes. stir well, season with salt and pepper if necessary, and serve.

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