A Tale of Two Chilis, Part I

by Terry B on January 10, 2007

My Three-bean Chili is a hearty, spicy, satisfying bowl of red you can have on the dinner table in 45 minutes or less. Recipe below.

You know, I was going to start this post about two chili recipes with a semi-apologetic note about some of the less than traditional ingredients in them. Then I got an email newsletter from Better Homes and Gardens’ site, bhg.com, with 20 chili recipes that used everything from chocolate bars to portabella mushrooms, cream cheese, wild rice, pineapple chunks and sprigs of fresh thyme! So maybe non-traditional is the new traditional.

Besides, who gets to say what’s traditional? In Cincinnati, traditional means adding cinnamon. In Texas, adding beans to chili is akin to a hanging offense. So who’s right? Not Cincinnati or Texas, as far as I’m concerned—but that’s just my opinion, nothing more. In the end, maybe all you can say of what’s traditional is that chili is a comfort food with robust flavors and spices [although not necessarily fire] and a bigger personality than, say, most soups or stews.

I said I was going to talk about two chili recipes. Marion and I each have our own separate but equal recipes, and we like them both—a lot. Whose chili gets made any given time depends on who has the time to cook at the moment and which flavor we’re craving. Both recipes include beans [adios, my Texas readers]. Both also use red wine, and one uses soy sauce. But these aren’t precious, dainty chilis. The less than traditional ingredients disappear into these robust dishes, leaving behind only a satisfying depth.

The more astute among you probably noticed that part of this post’s title was Part I. So today, I’ll give you one recipe, mine. You’ll have to wait for Marion’s delicious chili in a future post.

Terry’s Three-bean Chili
Serves 3 to 4, with potential stretchable leftovers

This hearty chili uses plenty of spice to deliver a big flavor, but not big heat [if it’s fire you want, you can adjust for it]. I use three varieties of beans not so much for taste, but because it looks cool. You can mix it up or use all the same. And while this simple recipe may not be the chili to end all chilis, it produces a reliably satisfying bowl of red—and quite possibly one of the best you can put on the table in 45 minutes or less.

1 14-1/2-oz. can diced tomatoes with juices, preferably unsalted
3 15-oz. cans beans, drained and rinsed [black, red or pinto and great northern]
2 tablespoons tomato paste, preferably unsalted
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup [plus more] water
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon olive oil
1-1/4 to 1-1/2 lb. lean ground beef [I use ground round or sirloin]
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 medium yellow onion
2 stalks celery
salt to taste

Combine first eight ingredients in a stock pot and bring to boil over medium high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium low and continue to cook, uncovered.

Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add olive oil and ground beef, breaking up beef as you brown it for about five minutes. Grind a generous amount of black pepper over the beef as it browns. Sprinkle roughly half the cayenne pepper over the browning ground beef; add the rest to the stock pot. While beef is browning [or immediately after, if you don’t feel like multi-tasking], peel and roughly chop onion and slice celery into 1/2″ pieces. Using a slotted spoon, transfer beef to stock pot. Add celery and half of the onion, stirring to mix completely.

Let chili cook, uncovered, for about 30 minutes to let flavors mix and develop, stirring occasionally and adding water by 1/4 cups if chili gets too thick [be judicious here—you don’t want to make it too watery]. About 15 minutes into the half-hour of cooking time, add the rest of the onion. This will give some of the onion a little more bite, a trick I learned from Marion. Taste and add salt [as needed—canned products, particularly tomatoes, can add lots of salt on their own].

Serve chili as is, or with grated cheese, sour cream, chopped green onions, hot sauce or additions of your choice. Myself, I like it naked.

Kitchen Notes

How spicy is good for you? This recipe, made as above and using only a half teaspoon of cayenne pepper, is very flavorful but [to my palate, at least] not hot. But heat is very subjective. If your taste runs to mild, rather than reduce the amount of chili powder, choose a mild one. The Spice House offers chili powders ranging from mild to hot, so you can get all the flavor while controlling the heat. Don’t skimp on the cumin either—it doesn’t add much heat, but its big aroma and flavor are the very foundation of the taste of chili. I didn’t realize this until once, years ago, I was buying chili powder at the wonderful spice shop at Soulard Farmers Market in St. Louis. The clerk asked me if I needed cumin too. I said I didn’t know. She said, “If you’re making chili, you do.” With that, she opened a container of cumin and gave me a whiff of its distinctive, powerful aroma. She was right—I needed cumin.

Getting a headstart. Over the years, I’ve refined the order of cooking steps to get from raw ingredients to steaming bowls of red as quickly as possible, making it a great work week dish. But this is a dish you can easily start the night before, getting it to the table even quicker the next night. And if anything, it tastes even better because the flavors have been swapping and percolating in the fridge overnight. Just mix the first eight ingredients in a large pot or bowl, but don’t heat them. Brown the ground beef as described above and stir it into the tomato/beans mixture. Let it cool briefly and then store covered in the fridge. The next night, just put the chili on the stove and add the onion and celery as described above.

Stretching leftovers. Depending on how many people you serve the first time around and how hungry everyone is, you can usually get an extra meal out of this recipe. Two variations we love are chili mac—just cook up some spaghetti or vermicelli and serve the reheated chili over it—and chili dogs. When it comes to chili dogs, by the way, if you can pick it up, you haven’t put enough chili on it. Put the dog and bun on a rimmed plate and add chili ’til you can’t see the dog. You can add various condiments—mustard, onions, relish—or grab a fork and eat it as is. If you’re running a little low on leftover chili, add another can of tomatoes to stretch it. My first choice is a 10-ounce can of Rotel Original Diced Tomatoes & Green Chilies, juice and all. First, the small amount is usually all I need to stretch what’s left of the chili for a second meal. And second, it delivers a wonderful spicy kick, both heatwise and flavorwise. It’s available in Latino markets and the ethnic aisles of many supermarkets.


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Carolyn January 10, 2007 at 2:23 pm

My mother’s chili was the best, and we ate leftovers the next morning for breakfast! When I began tinkering with the recipe, I added a secret ingredient: an apple. I just cored one, plunked it in the pot and let it cook its self away. The apple sweetens the tomato paste (which you probably do with wine). Yep, I still add in the jalapenos, which go wonderfully well with apples.

Mimi January 10, 2007 at 2:53 pm

Lot of good chili ideas here. Terry, yours sounds layered – I like that. My husband is the chili maker at our house — and he’s got his own “classic.” Unlike Marion, I don’t have my own recipe, so perhaps I’ll adopt this one with the addition of the apple. Thanks!

Ronnie Ann January 10, 2007 at 4:16 pm

Sounds yummy. Never used cumin before when making chili, but I will now. Also might try Carolyn’s apple idea, since I use apples to cut the acidity when making stuffed cabbage. I’m a reluctant cook most of the time, but you inspire me to break out the stock pot and skillet. By the way…love the title of your post, Terry.

Patricia Scarpin January 10, 2007 at 10:28 pm

Hi, Terry,

I have never had chilli and this post really made me curious about it. I think it’s time I tried it.
Brazilians love beans and our “basic” meal is rice and beans with some sort of meat (beef, chicken, pork, maybe fish) and salad on the side.
We buy the beans dried and cook them using a pressure cooker. Then we cook chopped onions and a little garlic in oil and add the beans with a little of the broad formed during the cooking process. Then we season it with salt, pepper, bay leaves. Pretty simple, actually.
I think that if people here knew chilli they’d love it! 😀

Terry B January 11, 2007 at 1:33 am

Great comments, all.

Carolyn, it sounds like your apple idea is getting good reviews. May have to try it myself, except this cooks so quickly, it would never have time to “cook itself away.” But maybe if I cut it into a few big chunks, I could let it flavor the chili, then fish it out before serving.

Patricia, your Brazilian beans sound delicious. We also cook with dried beans in the U.S., but generally soak them overnight to soften them up, rather than using a pressure cooker. I need to explore cooking with dried beans more, but when a rock star chef like David Burke thinks cooking with canned beans is okay [can’t remember now where I read that, but I did], it’s too easy to go the quick, lazy route. Do try the chili and let me know what you think. And send me a more exact recipe on your Brazilian rice and beans meal—I’d be happy to share it here and give you credit!

Beans are a big favorite in our house, in many forms. Great source of protein and so tasty and versatile. I’m sure there will be many varied posts on the topic to come.

kevin January 12, 2007 at 1:27 pm

About 10 or 12 years ago I quit using ground beef and started using cubed beef (I cut chuck into 1/4″ x 1/4″ cubes). It’s a hassle cubing the beef, but it has an extraordinary affect on the mouth feel of the chile.

Terry B January 12, 2007 at 5:09 pm

Kevin—I occasionally like to use cubed beef too, for a change. But that adds considerably to the cooking time, to cook the beef until it’s tender. This version gets chili on the table in 45 minutes or less. Cubed pork is also an interesting variation.

Shaunab January 14, 2007 at 2:39 am


Here in Tejas, they sell chocolate with the chilis right in it. It’s so wonderful! Have never thought of putting it in chili til a flash of this inspiration when I read your blog today. I just might try that idea.

I use cumin in chili, also in tortilla soup (try it sometime!). But if you don’t like things too spicy on the tongue, careful; I find cayenne pepper is a must if you use cumin.

I also use good old stew meat for chili- cut it up smaller than it comes. (never use the ground stuff, unless it’s ground bison meat).

Now I’m anxious to try the onion trick, and the apple trick! Yum!

run around paris January 17, 2007 at 1:06 am

i found your blog through mimi’s and mmmmmmm…more excellent food photos and ideas! great blog! erin

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