150 Years of Chili con Carne

In the latter half of the 1800’s, pieces of beef or bison were pounded together with suet, dried chile peppers and salt and formed into bricks which were dried and stored for later use.  On the trail, the bricks were simply boiled with water in heavy pots.

The confluence of the Rio Bravo del Norte and the Río Conchos

Chili con carne (literally “chili [peppers] with meat”) later found its way to San Antonio’s Military Plaza, where onions,garlic, cumin and oregano (and maybe tomatoes) were likely first added by a group of Hispanic women famously known as the “chili queens”.

Military Plaza, San Antonio, circa 1876.

Chili was broadly introduced at the “San Antonio Chili Stand” at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.  The first chili parlors outside of Texas began to appear in the early 1900’s, with accompaniments such as beans, shredded cheese and crackers showing up in the 20’s and 30’s.

World's Columbian Exposition of 1893

Using bone-in, grass-fed rib-eye steak, dried chiles, tomatoes and fresh pinto beans, this particular recipe recognizes some 150 years of chili evolution without straying too far from its humble roots..

Chili con Carne

For the Chili

1 1/2 lb grass-fed, bone-in ribeye steaks, either beef or bison
1 large Spanish onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 lb fresh pork belly (substitute uncured bacon), cut into 1/2 inch dice
1 lb fresh pinto beans (optional)
2 cups fire-roasted tomatoes, crushed
2 dried ancho chiles
2 dried New Mexico chiles
2-3 dried chilipiquenes (optional, very hot)
3 cups filtered water
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 3-inch piece Mexican cinnamon
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon smoked sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

Split, stem and seed the ancho and New Mexico chiles. Toast briefly on a comal or dry skillet, then transfer to the bowl of a food processor along with the chilipiquenes, if using.  Process into a coarse powder and set aside.

Cut the meat from the bone and cut into 1-inch pieces, trimming off and mincing any heavy fat.  Add the bone (leaving it in for the duration), minced fat and pork belly (or bacon) together in a Dutch oven set over medium-high heat and cook until all the fat has rendered.  Add onions and cumin and cook until fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Add meat and garlic and cook until browned.  Add ground chiles, tomatoes, water, cinnamon, oregano and beans, if using.  Reduce heat and simmer uncovered until beans are tender, about 1 1/2 hours, or about half that time if not using beans.  Ladle into bowls and serve hot with diced onions, cilantro and shredded cheese if desired.

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Deep Chili

Nobody knows for sure exactly when and where chili con carne was first made, but we can generally agree that the original recipes read something like this..

“Cut up as much meat as you think you will need (any kind will do, but beef is probably best) in pieces about the size of a pecan. Put it in a pot, along with some suet (enough so as the meat won’t stick to the sides of the pot), and cook it with about the same amount of wild onions, garlic, oregano, and chiles as you have got meat. Put in some salt. Stir it from time to time and cook it until the meat is as tender as you think it’s going to get.”  –Texas, early 1800s

With deep, dark beef and chile flavors, this is an intensely flavored dish.

Deep Chili

Deep Chili

Smoke onions, garlic, jalapeños and a plum tomato over mesquite for 30 minutes.  Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, roast a variety of chiles such as Guajillo, ancho, arbol and New Mexico in a slow oven for an hour.

Pull the stems from the peppers and shake out the seeds.  Transfer to a food processor and chop into a fine powder.  Add the roasted onion, garlic, jalapeños and a tablespoon of cider vinegar and blend into a paste.

Brown a couple of pieces of pork belly in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat.  Add small chunks of grass-fed beef chuck or bison and sear until seriously browned.

Add 1/2 cup of the chili paste and just enough water to cover the meat.

Add toasted cumin seed, Mexican oregano, a little sea salt, a few shards of true cinnamon and 3-4 whole cloves.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 1 1/2 hours, adding the chopped, smoked tomato during the last half hour.

Add 1 ounce of Mexican chocolate and stir until melted.  Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary.

Serve with beans, cornbread or tortillas on the side if you like.

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