I've made quite a lot of chili in my life. When I was at university, it was my stock meal that I cooked. And since then… not a great deal has changed.
I think the way I made it was probably pretty much the same as most people's; fry onions, brown beef, chuck in tomatoes and spices and simmer for a while. But my 'base' recipe changed a couple of years ago, when I was introduced (by my mum) to Heston Blumenthal's recipe for Waitrose.
The key difference is that as well as making the 'base' chilli, you make up a chilli butter (which has all of the cumin, chili power and so on.) Which means that when you serve it up, you can also add more chilli butter for more spice. So, I get a hot chilli, my wife gets a medium-mild chilli, and my son gets a chilli with no chilli powder in it at all.
The way I follow most recipes is to stick to it as best I can once or twice (ingredients permitting – Fragata Pimiento Piquillo peppers can be a bit hard to come by if you don't shop at Waitrose), then start playing around with it. So this is a brain dump of how I do it now;
- The real trick is to have plenty of time to slowly reduce everything – it isn't really necessary, but its the difference between a good chilli and a great chilli. It might seem like a lot of wine and a lot of stock, but its the long, slow reducing that really makes the chili. (Also works well with lasagne, bolognaise etc.) For some reason, the recipe says to make the butter first – forget that. Start with getting the meat simmering away as soon as you can, then deal with the butter.
- True to form, Heston's recipe includes a few unusual ingredients; marmite, tomato ketchup and star anise. I don't really know what effect these have on the final meal, but I stick them in the pot if I've got them in.
- Chipotle Tabasco is my new favourite thing in my kitchen cupboards. I put it in everything I can get away with. Obviously, chili is no exception, so get hold of a bottle and splash a load in with the butter.
- Speaking of which, don't be afraid to make the butter spicier. Otherwise, if you want a hot one, you end up putting in more chilli butter than you might expect, leaving you with a very greasy chili.
- Burnt chili powder and cumin isn't just smelly — it's like a reasonably mild version of mustard gas. It's a horrible thing to have in your kitchen. Be mindful of this. Fry the cumin and chili powder on a low heat. If it starts smoking, take it off the heat and open a window. If it smells burnt, throw it out and start again, because it will ruin everything.
- Coleslaw is also a good addition to have on the table — get the flavour of the spices while tempering some of the heat and adding some crunch. Between coleslaw and soured cream, accidentally adding too much spicy butter is an easily solved problem.
- Don't overlook the lime– it adds a lot of freshness. But one lime is probably enough. Maybe two if you have guests and want to be sure that there will be plenty on the table. (Although you could always chuck the leftovers into a Mojito or something…)
If you're making this for guests, sprinkle some of the lime juice and grated lime zest when you serve it up (or strongly recommend that your guests put it on themselves – it doesn't make a massive difference to the flavour, but the smell makes a big first impression.) Serve up with some fresh bread, rice, and maybe a glass of Shaky Pete's Ginger Brew…
Finally, make sure that you make too much chilli – partly to make absolutely sure that you don't run out and leave hungry people gorging on rice, but that way, the leftovers microwaved for a couple of minutes and wrapped in a flour tortilla make a good office lunch the next day.