My Kick-Ass Chili

I wanted to post this a few days ago, but the web server for this site went down and then I was off to Mexico for a few days………

Given the Ice Station Zebra conditions outside, I think it’s time for something to warm us up, in this case my recipe for chili. I wish the name sounded a little less like chilly but trust me, a bowl of this will heat your innards and stick to your ribs, ward off the cold.

I’ve been fooling around with making chili for 20 or 30 years now and my good friend John Sumner is another enthusiast, we’ve been swapping tips and ideas for years now; it was John who first introduced me to the idea of making bacon a base and using several kinds of beans. Chili is to cooking what the blues or I Got Rhythm are to jazz, a simple form you can work on for years, adding new things and taking others away as your ideas and expectations evolve. This is not an exact or scientific recipe; the amounts, ratios and ingredients may change a little each time depending on my mood and what’s available. The basic method and elements are here though, I’ve developed it to the point where it’s fairly consistent. As I see it, chili is jazz food and I’m a jazz cook, so I want it to be a little different each time, life is too short for assembly line thinking.

Despite its name my chili isn’t particularly spicy; although there is some heat, it’s kick-ass in other ways. It’s rich and meaty, has a lot of flavour and body; it’s not for the faint of heart, the diet-conscious or those with vegetarian tendencies – if The Two Fat Ladies made chili, it would be like this. And if you’re in the least bit observantly Jewish – or Jewishly observant for that matter – forget it, this has both bacon and ground pork in it. Oddly enough, my best Jewish friends not only eat pork but really like it. I’ve gone lighter and lighter with the spices over the years, learning the hard way that you can always add some more heat to your own bowl later if you want, but if it’s too hot to begin with there isn’t much you can do about it.

Operating on the “nothing exceeds like excess” principle, I also tend to make a lot. Really, really a lot. If you follow this recipe you’ll need a soup pot at least eight inches high and about a foot across, if you want to make less, try halving everything. Despite the massive yield we’ve never thrown any chili out, people somehow have a way of magically appearing out of the woodwork right after I’ve made some. Also, it freezes very well and we often give some to friends or family, it’s a moveable feast. A few miscellaneous notes :

Beans. The combination of red and black beans can produce a lot of, ahem, gaasssss. Another musical chili enthusiast, Ed Bickert, taught me something about this when I took him some of my chili a while ago. It seems that whatever produces the gas in beans is contained in the skins and Ed told me if you soak them in water overnight these properties are reduced. I haven’t actually tried this because I’m lazy and not that organized, plus I think it ruins part of the post-prandial fun, but then again I’ve never entirely grown up. It’s good to know about this though, I’ll probably start doing this as I grow older, or simply out of self-defense.

Meat. As with my spaghetti sauce, I eschew ground beef in favour of ground pork and in this case also use ground turkey, along with the bacon. This is a lot of meat and ground beef is just too heavy and greasy in this combination, plus I’m not digesting it as well as I used to. Pork to me is the magic meat, it’s lighter than beef and has a subtle taste that takes on other flavours better, same with turkey. I always use about a pound each of lean ground pork and turkey and if I want to make a bigger batch or want it to be more meaty, I add a second pound of pork and use more of the liquid ingredients accordingly.

Flavouring. It’s desirable to have most of the flavour come from the combination of bacon and meat, tomato, wine and the beans. I tend to go easy with the dry spices like chili powder and especially cumin, which can become bitter if overdone. Besides, as this is so meaty, it’s a good idea to use some liquid flavourings like the two salsas listed below. I use the green tomatillo salsa because I love the taste and it adds a lot of tang without being too hot or overpowering. Over time, I wanted to add an element of smokiness to my chili; chipotle peppers are the way to do this, but they can be tricky to use. At first I used the canned Herdez brand chipotles from Mexico, which come whole in their own fairly hot, piquant sauce. I made the mistake at first of using too many and chopping them into small pieces, the result was overwhelming, far too hot and acidic for me, and I like spice. The next time I used fewer and left them whole, fishing them out after a while. This was much better, but still not quite right. About a year ago, I stumbled on a lazy solution when I discovered President’s Choice Smoky Chipotle Salsa at my local grocery store, it’s quite an exceptional product for the price. It’s a nice reddish-brown colour and very fresh tasting with just the right amount of zing and a nice consistency, not too chunky. There’s no crap in it, nothing in the ingredients that you can’t pronounce. I tasted a spoonful of the salsa and it was so good I added the whole jar to a batch of chili and have done so ever since. Some would call this cheating, to which I would reply, “OK chief, you caught me.” The other flavour I like to add is cilantro, a key ingredient in Mexican cooking. The trouble is that it’s not always available fresh and doesn’t keep too long, but there’s a handy solution to this too. Most grocery stores stock a number of herbs in tubes of paste, the cilantro version tastes real and keeps forever in the fridge. You have to be careful though, it’s concentrated, so go easy, a couple of dabs’ll do ya.


1 lb. of bacon (avoid any with maple flavouring.)

 2 onions and 6 cloves of garlic, chopped medium-coarse. 

 1-2 lbs. lean ground pork, 1 lb. lean ground turkey.

 2-3 28-oz. tins of crushed tomatoes (I swear by the Utopia organic brand, but others will do. The amount used depends on whether you use the extra pork.)

 Red wine, about a cup, maybe more to taste. (John Sumner has obtained excellent results using a can of Guinness stout instead of red wine; this produces a darker, thicker sauce, but I prefer the wine.)

I jar of PC Smoky Chipotle Salsa, 3-4 tbsps. green tomatillo salsa (PC also makes a good brand of this, the Herdez is also good and generally available.)

2 28-oz. (or 3 19-oz.) tins of red kidney beans, preferably the dark red variety. 4 19-oz. tins of black beans. The amount of beans is a kind of grey area, depending on how much chili you’re making and the consistency you want; if you like it more watery, use less beans. I prefer more black beans than red though.

Salt, white pepper, oregano, Worcestershire sauce, red chili flakes, Tabasco (or a hot sauce of your choice), chili powder, ground cumin, cilantro paste, all to taste. (I like white pepper because it’s very fine and adds considerable heat without being visible.)

Method. The basic preparation takes about an hour, only the first half of this is labour intensive, the rest is just stirring and tasting as the chili cooks for an hour or two after being assembled. I like to listen to music when I’m cooking, so before I begin I load up the CD player with four or five discs. Making chili often outs me in a mood for the “latin tinge” – maybe Mingus’ Tijuana Moods, Ellington’s Conga Brava Suite or his Latin American Suite, maybe some Cal Tjader or Buena Vista Social Club. Or some good old Texas blues, maybe some Jimmy Guiffre. Whatever’s your pleasure though, and since you’re opening some red wine for the chili anyway, well….I don’t have to spell it out for you, do I?  Have a taste or two. Making chili is some work but fun, it’s a festival. And, as Lester Young once said while smoking a joint in public at The Newport Jazz Festival, “Let us be festive.”

1. Remove the packaging from the bacon and place the whole pound flat on a cutting board, lengthwise. Using a sharp knife, cut across the whole slab against the grain of the strips, in intervals of about one inch. Separate the small pieces of bacon and place them in the bottom of the big pot over medium-low heat, stirring.

2. While the bacon is cooking, peel and chop the onion and garlic. In a separate skillet, heat some olive oil and saute half the onion and garlic until slightly soft. Add the ground turkey and one pound of the ground pork, using a wooden spoon to break up the meat into small pieces and stir to avoid clumping. I add a pinch of salt, white pepper, oregano, chili flakes and a dash of Worcestershire and Tabasco to the meat and cook over medium heat till brown, stirring occasionally.

3. When the bacon has cooked some (you want to avoid crispness), add the remaining garlic and onions and saute them till soft, this smells pretty heavenly. If using the extra pork, add it with spices as above at this point and stir. While the meat is cooking, open your cans except for the fourth tin of black beans, you may not need them.

4. Drain the excess fat and liquid from the turkey-pork mixture and continue to cook. When the pork in the large pot is cooked, add the turkey-pork from the skillet and stir thoroughly. At this point, you have a lot of onion, garlic, bacon and ground meat, it should be slightly scary. The amount of bacon fat may be a concern to the more health-conscious among you and I get it, but keep two things in mind here : 1 – Fat is what’s put in food to make it taste good and 2 – There’s not much fat in the other meat and none in any of the coming ingredients. The bacon fat acts here much as okra does in a gumbo, it creates some viscosity and depth, a lustrous, thick sheen in the sauce.

5. Overcome your cardiac fears by adding the healthy liquids – the tomatoes, wine, two salsas – and stir. Add the beans; I drain the kidney beans because I don’t like the clear goopey liquid they’re in, but I add the liquid from the black beans. At this point you’ve assembled most of the ingredients and should turn up the heat to about 4 and do a lot of stirring. A big, strong spoon helps, it’s a pretty dense mixture and you want to allow the flavours to mingle and heat. Carefully add the cilantro at this point, about four little squirts.

6. When everything heats and starts to bubble a little, turn down the heat to about 2 and taste the chili for spice. It should already have some flavour, I usually add the dry spices gradually here, then stir and taste. Some chili powder – no more than a tbsp. Easy on the cumin, maybe half a teaspoon in total, added in several installments, according to taste. It may need some salt and some heat, in which case I add some more white pepper, and a few more dashes of hot sauce. If you want more tang, add more green tomatilloes or even some lime juice. The key is to not add too much of anything at once and always stir and taste. This is also when you check for thickness, consistency and colour. There should be plenty of sauce, but it should be thickish and rich. If it’s not liquid enough, add some more wine, if it seems too watery, add the extra tin of black beans and keep stirring every few minutes, making sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. The colour should be just a little darker than terracotta.

7. If you’re happy with the flavour and spicing at this point, your work is basically done. It should taste savoury and tangy, not too hot, with some freshness from the cilantro and smokiness from the chipotle salsa and bacon. It should have a fairly luxurious mouth feel too. This is what I like to call the “screwing around phase” – if you have any sudden fancies, now is the time for them. Last time out I added a couple of shots of tequila at this point strictly on a whim, they added a small amount of bite. Sometimes I add frozen corn niblets for colour, crunch and an extra degree of vegetable content, they also add a bit of sweetness. Turn the heat down to minimum, put a lid on it and let it cook with an occasional stir for about an hour or so, then it’s ready.

I often serve it with garnishes of sour cream or shredded cheddar cheese, I also like it with some grated romano cheese, just as on a pasta sauce. It’s very good with some toast on the side or chunks of baguette for dipping and if you want more heat, go for it. There’s no shortage of ways to fire it up – hot sauces, dry chillies, jalapenos, etc. So that’s the basic template for my chili and I hope you enjoy it sometime during a cold snap in the fall or winter. As it’s sort of a jazz recipe, I invite you to try it and play around a little, adapt it to your own tastes, have some fun with it.

Oddly enough I’m off to tequila-central in Jalisco, Mexico for a few days, so happy eating and hasta la vista, babies.


© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “My Kick-Ass Chili

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