chili for the end of the world

I think I’ve done it—I’ve finally mastered my mother’s chili.

My mother is not what I would think of as an adventurous cook, but there is a fair list of household staples that she does very, very well. Her chili is one of my favorite meals ever. It’s a far cry from any kind of traditional chili in the Texan or Mexican tradition, but who cares? It’s thick and hearty and warming and comforting, and consistently delicious. She serves it invariably with hot hoagie spread that comes in a jar, and cornbread baked in a special cast iron pan of hers that is divided into six sections so each slice is uniform and perfect. It freezes well, and it’s delicious cold out of the fridge in the middle of the night with tortilla chips, shredded cheese, and sour cream. In short, it’s wonderful.

It’s also great survival food. As the country shuts down and people shut themselves in, as grocery store aisles are rapidly depleted of meat, canned food, and butter (of all things), I—like so many others—derive immediate comfort and security from having a lot of something stored up in the freezer. This particular chili is simple, quick, and cheap to make in large quantities…as evidenced by the VAT I used to cook it in and the six or more quart containers that resulted.

I’ve made this before and I couldn’t get it quite right. My mother, of course, has adapted her own recipe over the years and substitutes what she has on hand, or adds things that she has lying around, so the flavor has varied slightly from time to time. But there is, to me, a sort of Platonic ideal chili to which all iterations of it aspire…some more successfully than others. This week, I came as close as I think I ever will.

Here is how to make my mother’s chili. Please note that her “recipe” is simply a list of ingredients on a faded and stained recipe card, with the only instructions to, essentially, put everything together in a big pot, more or less at once, and let it simmer a while. I’ve made a few adjustments of my own, as well. So, really, this is how to make my mother’s chili the way I do it—to me, it still tastes the way I remember hers tasting.

Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large Dutch oven or frying pan. Dice three large, or five small, white onions (I use a food processor to save my eyeballs) and sauté them in the butter over moderate hit. (I used a Dutch oven because the stock pot is inconvenient for sautéing, but you can do everything in one pot if you want.) Salt the onions well as they’re cooking so they release their liquid and don’t burn too quickly. When they start to become light and transparent, set them aside in a bowl, and add olive oil to the now empty pot. Throw in a diced green bell pepper (this is very important), two or three cloves of chopped garlic (not original to my mother’s recipe but, to me, essential), and one or two chopped jalapeños, with or without the seeds. Cook all of that together with some salt until softened.

Now, add the onions back in, and throw in a whole can or 4 oz. of tomato paste. Let it toast in the pot and season everything for a couple of minutes, and then add the spices: 2-3 heaping tablespoons of chili powder, 2 generous teaspoons of paprika, and a good spoonful of hot hoagie spread OR your favorite hot sauce. This time, I used tabasco and Louisiana hot sauces together. Let all of this cook together for a few seconds, and adjust as you like for spicier chili. You can always add more later.

To a separate pot, or to the same pot with the vegetable-spice mixture set aside, add three pounds or so of good ground beef, ideally 80/20. Add salt, and let it brown, stirring frequently to make sure all of it browns evenly. When the meat has browned, add it to your largest stock pot, or, if it’s already in there, add everything back together—onions, peppers, garlic, spices, and meat.

Add three 1-lb. cans of crushed or diced tomatoes, one 8-oz. can of tomato sauce, and three to five cans of beans, depending on how hearty you like your chili. I used two cans of chili beans with the sauce, two cans of kidney beans drained and rinsed, and one can of black beans drained and rinsed. I thought it was perfect.

Here’s the secret ingredient to my mother’s chili: sugar. Add about a tablespoon of sugar, not more than two, after everything else and stir it all in. Let it come to the boil for a moment, then reduce the heat to medium or even low if you aren’t in a hurry. Let it go for at least 30 minutes—if it’s a weeknight, for instance—or up to a couple of hours to really let the flavors meld. Taste and adjust seasoning periodically. I like it a little hot, but not Texas hot.

Serve with fresh cornbread and shredded cheese, maybe sour cream and tortilla chips for good measure. I always do. Share a quart with a friend, and put some in the freezer for later when you just can’t be bothered to cook but you need something great. We’re all going to need something great in the weeks to come. I hope you keep cooking, and above all eating well. We’ll get through this.

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