Half the Battle

I am not, and will probably never be, a “hey let’s see what we have in the fridge and throw something together” kind of cook. I recognize and appreciate the talent that takes, but I just don’t have it. I cook almost exclusively from recipes. So whenever my cooking receives accolades “It was my honor to cook for you your majesty” or “I’m glad you enjoyed the risotto Ms. Alba, but I am a happily married man, please put your clothes back on” I usually say something like “hey i just picked a good recipe and didn’t screw it up.” So, how do you pick a good recipe? You cook it in your head.

Professional chefs do this all the time, in fact Chef Thomas Keller’s damn near signature dish “Oysters and Pearls” he’s never tasted. Which is too bad, because it’s awesome and he could probably get a reservation pretty easy. Now there are going to be plenty of recipes with unfamiliar ingredients or techniques, or even familiar-looking ones that surprise you with the synergistic alchemy that is great cooking. Yeah I really wanted to shoehorn “synergistic alchemy” in here somewhere, sorry. But the first step to picking a good recipe, is figuring out what you want to eat.

The example we will be using for this series is chili. I made a New Year’s resolution a few years back, to go on a year-long search for the “Citizen Chef family chili recipe”, to cook one recipe a month to find the best of the best, that would be passed down to future generations of Citizen Chefs. I never really found one I liked, but I never really stopped looking either. So let’s figure out what we’re looking for here. I’m looking for a chili with some heat to it, but a nice smoky heat with some flavor to back it up. I’m a big sausage fan, but I find that it can overwhelm a chili with grease, so we’ll stick to mostly beef meat-wise. Beans or no beans? Well I want a nice thick chili, and CASI would say that a chili with beans isn’t really a chili at all. But I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and now I live in Wisconsin, so I can’t say I would be offended if my bowl o’ red had beans in it.

Throwing our net out into the wide intarweb, we have this as a first contestant:

Winter Chili Recipe

  • 1 finely chopped onion
  • 3 finely chopped garlic cloves
  • 2 piece of bacon cut crosswise into pieces
  • 2 tablespoons of chili powder
  • 2 cans of cannelloni, pinto or red kidney beans
  • 1 ½ teaspoons of dried crushed oregano
  • 1 ½ teaspoons of paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ground pepper
  • 3 cups of water
  • Coarse salt
  • 3/4 cup of Monterey Jack Cheese or cheddar (shredded)
  • 2 tablespoons of fine cornmeal
  • 1 ½ cups of chopped winter squash or zucchini
  • 1 ½ cups of frozen or fresh kernel corn (whole)

Ok, we have bacon, that’s a good start. But there’s no other meat? Not a good sign. Beans, ok I can be talked into beans. 3 cups of water? I am suspicious of any recipe that calls for this much liquid and chooses water, when there are so many other options that provide flavor. Zucchini? Frozen corn?? I don’t have to actually cook this to see it’s not what I’m looking for. NEXT!!

Chili 1 (ooh catchy name!)

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 3/4 pound beef sirloin, cubed
  • 1 (14.5 ounce) can peeled and diced tomatoes with juice
  • 1 (12 fluid ounce) can or bottle dark beer
  • 1 cup strong brewed coffee
  • 2 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste
  • 1 (14 ounce) can beef broth
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 (15 ounce) cans kidney beans
  • 4 fresh hot chile peppers, seeded and chopped

Ok this is better, we have cubed sirloin, and ground beef. We got beer. We got coffee. Winter chili recipe, are you seeing this? Peeled and diced tomatoes, hmm. Tomato paste is good, but relying on diced tomatoes in my opinion doesn’t lead to a cohesive sauce. Cocoa powder. Ooh yes how mole of you, eponymous chili recipe! Fresh hot chile peppers. Ok there’s only like a million kinds of chile pepper, and if you don’t care enough to specify, then we’re gonna take a pass on this one too.

Ding Dong Eight-Alarm Chili

  • 2 oz dried ancho chiles (4 large), stemmed and seeded
  • 6 large garlic cloves, 3 of them finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon salt, or to taste
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder (not pure chile)
  • 4 lb well-marbled beef brisket or boneless chuck, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2- to 2-inch pieces
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 (28- to 32-oz) can whole tomatoes in juice
  • 1/4 cup canned chipotle chiles in adobo
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 1/2 lb white onions, chopped (4 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican), crumbled
  • 1 to 4 fresh serrano or other small green chiles, finely chopped, including seeds (1 is fine for most tastes; 4 is the eight-alarm version)
  • 1 (12-oz) bottle beer (not dark)
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 1/2 cups cooked pinto beans (optional; 30 oz), rinsed if canned

Beef brisket in cubes, good start. Also a huge plus for this recipe is that the beef is seasoned with cumin and chili powder before browning, a step too often missed in chilis. Whole tomatoes, but also in the directions (omitted here for space, but we’ll get to them soon) they are pureed with some of the chiles, the cilantro and garlic. See that’s the kind of flavor fusion from the get-go that we’re looking for. We got beer. We got some water but not too much, and not just water. And we got chiles. Oh we gots us some chilis. We got anchos, chipotles and serranos. That is going to give us the depth of flavor behind the heat that we need. Beans optional, and enough onions to probably not need the beans. Also, the beef gets shredded. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

Next time, hold on to your hats… Citizen Chef actually cooks something.

~Citizen Chef

One thought on “Half the Battle

  1. Being a HUGE fan of eating chili and not so much a fan of actually making chili, I appreciate the effort that CC is actually putting forth for me in this series. I hope that he likes the chili… And then makes some for me to try. 🙂


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