THERE’S a nip in the air as I write this week’s piece.
The skies above the valley, although dark, are completely cloudless and the stars are shimmering in that icy way they do in winter. Perfect, crisp weather, my very favourite.
It’s glorious, although it does mean walking to the car a little more trepidatiously on a morning, and sitting in it, shivering, for five minutes, while everything warms up.
Similarly, it’s dark when I get home, so it’s lovely to occasionally have something to eat already planned and cooked, which will warm the cockles of the heart, and nourish the soul. Something with a little fire in its belly.
And for a dish that takes that lick of flame in its stride, we need look only as far as the classic chilli con carne.
You’d imagine that the dish originated in Mexico, given the stereotypes reinforced by decades of television advertising, yet it is an American dish.
It has its roots in Central American cuisine, however, and in a rather grisly manner.
The Spanish conquistadors noted that the Aztecs were fond of boiling up vast pots of vegetables and tomatoes, along with healthy doses of fiery chilli peppers, especially on the eve of battle. The only missing ingredient was the meat, which was to be obtained from the bodies of the defeated enemy.
A slightly more palatable version began to circulate around the region, but the modern-day version, which we know as Texas chilli, only really got going in the late 1800s.
Since then, countless recipes have evolved, and in the southern states competitive chilli is an incredibly popular pastime, both for competitors and hungry observers.
Vast State Fairs almost always host a chilli cook-off, with teams vying to out-flame their competition, or use fiercely-guarded secret ingredients to win over the judges.
The basics remain pretty static, however; a concoction based on onions and garlic, with chilli and bell peppers, plots of tomato, some selected spices and plenty of meat, either diced or ground beef (though pork is sometimes used) and a few herbs.
The main seasonings are dried cumin (this lends that unmistakably ‘Mexican’ smokiness) and ground coriander, which imparts an aromatic sweetness. Some people add fresh coriander leaf, others parsley.
This week’s recipe, though, is what one might call a supercharged chilli. Not only does it feature the two cuts of beef, it’s very tomato-rich and also gets a depth of flavour from dark ale and a touch of coffee.
To finish, I use fresh oregano and some 100% chocolate, which gives it a very traditional Mexican flavour.
The Aztec Indians used unsweetened cacao in many of their savoury dishes, and it’s worth going along with this; it adds body to the chilli, a warmth and roundness, as well as a lovely gloss to the sauce.
To accompany the chilli, you could go crazy with all the full complement of traditional stuff, from tortillas to guacamole and grated cheese, or crunchy golden tacos, or even rice and refried beans, but I prefer to pair this unique chilli with the sweet, crumbly simplicity of cornbread.
Native American in origin, it seems to work well with the seriously savoury attack from the hot chilli without getting in the way too much. As ever, it’s entirely up to you. Tinker as you feel fit.
Also, as with many stews and slow-cooked stew-y dishes like this, you’re better off making the chilli one day, and eating it the next.
It really does taste better after a night’s rest, when the flavours magically mingle. Aprons on!
For the chilli:
2 tbsps olive oil or a good dollop of beef dripping 3 large onions, finely diced
5 sticks celery, finely diced1 carrot, finely diced
1 head garlic, minced
2 green peppers, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 scotch bonnet chilli, minced2lb ground beef, not too lean1lb shin of beef, cut into 1cm cubes2 tins chopped plum tomatoes
1 tube tomato puree 200ml dark ale 2 shots espresso 1litre strong beef stock125g unrefined dark muscovado sugar1 tablespoon ground cumin 1½ teaspoons Cayenne pepper1½ teaspoons ground coriander 1½ teaspoons Maldon salt 4 tins kidney beans2 tablespoons grated 100% cocoa chocolate or cocoa powder
A small bunch of fresh oregano
For the cornbread:
120g plain flour
120g fine cornmeal or polenta
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon Maldon salt
2 medium eggs
285ml buttermilk (or 50/50 milk and natural yoghurt)
50g butter, melted and cooled, plus a little extra for greasing
Several muffin tins or a large baking dish
First, let’s get the chilli under way. Melt the dripping or heat the oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan, and add the onion, garlic, celery, carrot and chilli. Cook over a low heat until the onions are soft and translucent.
Add the cumin, cayenne and coriander and cook for a few minutes to allow the oils in the spices to be released.
Add the green and red peppers, then tip in the tomatoes, tomato puree, coffee, ale, stock and sugar. Add the kidney beans too.
Bring the pan to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer very gently. In a separate frying pan, cook the minced beef in small batches, separating the lumps, and making sure the beef gets a good colour all over.
Tip each batch into the vegetables as you go. Finally, sear the cubes of beef to get a good colour all over, and add to the chilli.
Deglaze then pan with a little water and add to the chilli. Simmer for several hours, stirring frequently.
When you think it’s ready, check the seasoning and adjust as necessary, then add the chocolate and chopped oregano.
Serve hot with the baked cornbread, and a little soured cream.
For the cornbread, lightly grease the muffin tins (or baking dish). Heat the oven to 200°C/Gas 6.
Combine the flour, polenta, baking powder and the salt in a mixing bowl. In another bowl, beat the eggs into the buttermilk, and then add the milk and the melted butter, whisking until amalgamated.
Pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients and stir to a smooth batter.
Pour into the tins and bake for 20-25 minutes until risen slightly and golden brown.
The cornbread should be just beginning to pull away from the sides of the tin.
Allow the muffins to cool a little before turning out and serving with the chilli con carne.