Friday, January 6, 2012

Let's Lunch: A Texas Bowl o' Red

Dried ancho chile peppers: one of two main ingredients
in a real Texas chili. (IStockphoto)
Whenever I think of chili, I think of my older brother, Michael. 

He's my only brother. And h
e's the one who taught me the secrets to a real Texas version, and how to distinguish it from imitators -- of which there are many. Most importantly, he said, whenever anyone tells you they make a good chili, you should ask two questions: 1) What kind of beans do you use? 2) What sort of tomatoes go in? If their response is anything other than "None and none," then you are supposed to sound a loud buzzer (or make the noise of one yourself) and let out a scream, "Wrong!" Or I suppose you could politely say, "Hmm. Well, that sounds nice and all, but it's not chili. Let's just call it a stew."

In Texas, you see, the dish's full name is chili con carne, which pretty much sums up everything that's in it: chile peppers and meat. And the version Michael taught me to make uses very little of anything else -- some garlic and onions, beef stock (although water, beer and/or tequila are acceptable in place of some or all the stock), and maybe a bit of herbs such as oregano, perhaps some cumin.
Beans on the side, if at all. Right, Mike?

So several years ago, when my Washington Post colleague Bonnie Benwick and I took on chili for our annual Super Bowl recipe smackdown, I naturally played the purist, and I even persuaded Michael (quite easily, it turns out) to come up with a recipe that we could use for publication. He went at it with his natural sense of obsessiveness -- something important for any chili cook -- and
the result was delicious. The only thing I would tease him about later was his use of a shake of the wrist rather than a flick of the knife when it came to some of the aromatics. Really, bro: Onion powder?

I put a version of the recipe in my cookbook, "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One," and this time I adjusted that onion powder misstep and added a couple more flourishes: dark beer and pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika, one of my favorite ingredients). And of course, I use cubes of chuck roast or other beef stew meat, not ground beef. What happens is that the chili cooks so slowly, the beef eventually melts into the broth. 
Actually, Mike, I've been thinking we should add the ground-beef thing as trick question No. 3 when divining the authenticity claims of OPC, or other people's chili. Agreed?

I have to talk to Mike in parentheticals here, you see, because, well, we don't talk otherwise anymore. He decided a few years ago, for various reasons, that he didn't want to have further contact with any of his family members, actually. It's a tale too complicated to explain in a mere blog post -- especially one about chili -- but suffice it to say that depression takes its toll in many different ways, and it's not only the depressed person who suffers. 

If I could give you one snapshot that might encapsulate a bit of the effect that it has, it would be the picture of myself and three of my four sisters, outside Mike's little house in Ballinger, Texas, a couple of Christmases ago, trying to get him to answer the door. We had called from my mother's home in nearby San Angelo, where we were visiting, and we had left voicemails. We had emailed messages that went unanswered, we had baked, and we had shopped -- for barbecue, one of his other favorite foods. We were carrying some powerful lures. We knocked. We waited. We called out. We knew he was inside. We even broke into song: "If Ever I Would Leave You," from the Camelot soundtrack, a favorite of Mike's, although none of us sounded nearly as good as he did singing it, especially as we started to break into tears as we sung.

It all came to naught. Now we keep up with Mike from time to time by ringing up the Ballinger police chief, who keeps tabs on every little thing that happens in town, and he assures us that he sees Mike out and about here and there.

So we know that, at least for now, he's OK. But we don't know much more than that. Despite all the conflicts I've had with my brother over the years -- or perhaps because of them -- the fact that we don't know much more than that pretty much tears at my heart whenever I allow myself to think about it for very long.

I haven't given up, as tempting as that may be. I'm hoping, of course, that he might be reading these very words and will decide to reach out and let me know how he's doing. If he doesn't, I suppose I'll have little choice but to bang on his door again the next time I'm in that neck of the woods. And I suppose this time, I'll have to be carrying a Texas bowl o' red with me.

No beans, no tomatoes, no ground beef. Right, Mike?

Texas Bowl O'Red
Makes 2 servings

This recipe doubles easily, if you'd like more of a payoff for your time. You can also make this in a small slow cooker: Cook on Low for 6 to 8 hours, then uncover, turn to High, and cook for another hour to thicken the chili. Besides eating with chopped shallots (or onions), cheese, and saltines, you can spoon this on a hot dog, burger, or over cheese enchiladas. From "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One" (Ten Speed Press, 2011).

3 dried ancho chiles
2 cups dark beer, beef stock, or water, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 pound beef stew meat or chuck roast (trimmed of excess fat), cut into 1/2-inch pieces (not ground)
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 large shallot lobes, finely chopped
2 tablespoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika)
Ground cayenne pepper (optional)
1 to 2 ounces Cheddar cheese, grated
Saltine crackers

Cut or tear apart the ancho chiles, discarding the seeds and stems. Toss them into a dry skillet over medium heat and toast for 5 minutes, just until fragrant, without allowing them to char. Transfer them to a blender, pour in 1/2 cup of the beer, and blend until smooth.

Heat the oil in a small Dutch oven or other heavy saucepan fitted with a lid over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Season the beef generously with salt and pepper. When the oil shimmers, add just enough meat to the pot to avoid overcrowding. Cook in batches, stirring frequently, until the beef starts to brown, 3 to 4 minutes per batch.

Return all the meat to the pot, add the garlic and half the chopped shallots (reserving the rest for serving), and cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly, until the beef is browned all over and the garlic and shallots are soft. Stir in the oregano, cumin, pimenton, and ancho puree. Add enough of the remaining 1 1/2 cups beer to cover the meat by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, decrease the heat to low so that the mixture is at a bare simmer, and cover.

Cook for 6 hours, stirring occasionally if desired. Uncover and use a spatula to mash and break up the meat. Cook, uncovered, for another hour or two, until the chili has become quite thick and the meat has almost melted into the liquid. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and cayenne pepper.

Spoon half the chili into a bowl, sprinkle with the remaining chopped shallots and the cheese, and eat with saltines. Refrigerate the remaining half in an airtight container for up to 1 week, or freeze for several months.


This post is part of Let’s Lunch – a virtual lunchdate with food bloggers around the globe. Want to join us in the kitchen? Comment on this post or tweet using the hashtag #LetsLunch. 

Here are more posts on the theme from the Let's Lunch crew:

Cathy's Chunky-Style Cowboy Chili at Showfood Chef
Charissa's Clean Out Refrigerator Night Cassoulet, A “Frenchified” Chili at Zest Bakery
Ellise's Chicken Tinga Chili at Cowgirl Chef
Emma's Dave’s Chili at Dreaming of Pots and Pans
Felicia's Low-Concept Vegetarian Chili at Burnt-Out Baker
Grace's Chinese New Year Chili at HapaMama
Cheryl's Keema Chili at A Tiger in the Kitchen
Karen's Hawaiian Chili at GeoFooding
Linda's Smokin’ Hot Vegan Vaquero Chili at Spicebox Travels
Lucy's “Full of Beans” Chili at A Cook And Her Books
Pat's Miso Chili Con Carne y Wasabi Sour Cream at The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook


  1. as soon as I find 8 hours, I'm so giving this a try!

  2. Joe, I was not expecting this poignant backstory. I hope your brother is reading this and feeling the love. The authentic chili recipe sounds fantastic-- makes me realize I really have never had real chili. Come visit my post when you get chance-- you may recognize someone you know there.

  3. So much more than a bowl of chili... Thanks for sharing your story.

    I actually have some dried ancho chilies and beef stew meat at the ready. I think I'll be making some chili this weekend.

  4. Joe, about the chili - I agree on the beans but do feel the need for tomatoes, just enough for a bit of zing. On your brother, I have a stepson who exhibited the same behavior that went from bad to worse. we thought it was depression, then social anxiety, until he locked himself in his house & wouldn't leave at all. When he had a total break he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He is now receiving medical care and we see him often. He will never be whole & healthy as you & I define it but he is able to live beyond his own bubble at times. I hope your brother gets the medical attention that it sounds like he needs. I also know that while you may feel it is futile, he knows you are there and relies on it. Nothing else you can do at the moment but what you are doing so know that it makes a difference. Warmest regards & support for your family.

  5. Echoing what Linda said: The backstory was really well written and I could definitely feel the heartache you have at not being in contact with your brother. If there was ever a recipe to bring someone back into your life, I think this chili would do the trick. I can't wait to try this truly authentic chili recipe!

  6. Thanks, Olga. Linda, I do recognize Steve Sando -- if I were going to put ANY beans in chili, it would be his. (Or, of course, those we'll grow this year at the Maine homestead.) Charissa, Linda, Karen, Grace -- I appreciate your kind words and hope, indeed, that my brother opens himself back up to the family. Maybe 2012 is the year! Best, Joe

  7. This is so sad. I hope Mike heals enough to open to door to you and the rest of his family soon.

  8. Joe, the chili recipe sounds really great but this post is so much more than that. Thanks for sharing your story and I really do hope your brother is reading it in his small corner of the world, and that he'll open the door the next time you knock...

  9. A whole world of memory stirred into that pot of chili. Even when we're cooking just for one, we're never really cooking by ourselves, are we? I'm glad we got the chance to meet — welcome to Maine, I'm very much looking forward to reading about your adventures here in the year ahead. Come visit if you ever want to take a break from writing!

  10. Thanks, all -- and Debra, great to meet you, too! I'll absolutely have to sked a visit...