My favorite resource for authentic Texas chili is our friend Melissa Guerra and her gem of a cookbook, Dishes from the Wild Horse Desert: Norteno Cooking of South Texas.
Chili in this part of the country is so simple a cowboy could carry the ingredients around in his saddle bag. A puree is made from dried chipotle and ancho chilies, then cooked with tomatoes, roughly ground beef, some ground pork and onion. The dried chilies impart great depth of flavor. Of course there is the usual controversy over whether beans have a place in this chili (Guerra thinks they do.) I love the dish for its pure honesty and lack of pretense.
My wife, however, wanted to do something a little different for the All-American cocktail reception we catered for the inaugural. As usual, she turned to her kitchen bible, The New Best Recipe book from Cook's Illustrated. Their chili con carne is very similar to Melissa Guerra's, but calls for using dried chili powder, whole beef chuck and bacon. It's thickened with masa harina, the nixtamalized corn flour used to make tortillas. A nice touch, I think.
This time of year as we approach Super Bowl Sunday, you'll see "chili ground" beef showing up in the market. It's a much large grind of beef specifically made for chili. Who knew? Using whole chuck roast, my wife decided to tear up the beef once it had been cut into pieces and cooked in the chili. That helped incorporate the meat more thoroughly into the stew. But she ditched the bacon and I thought that was a good choice: I don't want bacon bits floating around in my chili. She also decided to put beans in the chili to bulk it up. She used small red ones, not the big kidney beans which I find a little too commercial.
1/2 pound dried beans, such as small red beans or pinto beans, soaked then cooked
3 tablespoons ancho chili powder, or 3 medium pods (about 1/2 ounce), toasted and ground
3 tablespoons New Mexico chili powder, or 3 medium pods (about 3/4 ounce), toasted and ground
2 tablespoons cumin seeds, toasted in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 4 minutes, and ground
2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican
7 1/2 cups water
4 pounds beef chuck roast, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or bacon grease
1 medium onion, minced
5 medium garlic cloves, minced
4-5 small jalapeno chilies, stemmed, seeded and minced
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons juice from 1 lime
5 tablespoons masa harina (or 3 tablespoons corn starch)
To toast the chilies, remove the seeds then place the fleshy parts in a hot iron skillet, about 1 minute on each side, until the color changes slightly and they become very aromatic. Allow to cool, then grind in a food processor.
Mix the chili powders, cumin and oregano is a small bowl and stir in 1/2 cup of the water to form a thick paste. Set aside. Toss the beef cubes with 2 teaspoons of salt. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil (or bacon grease) to moderately high in a heavy pot or Dutch oven and brown the meat in 4 batches. Set the browned meat aside.
Reduce the heat and add 1 tablespoons olive oil or bacon grease to the now empty pot. Add the onion and saute until soft, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and jalapenos and saute until fragrant, another minute or so. Add the chili mixture and cook another 2 or 3 minutes. Add the browned beef, crushed tomatoes, lime juice, prepared beans and remaining 7 cups water. Bring to a simmer and continue cooking at a steady simmer until meat is tender and juices are dark, rich and starting to thicken, about 2 hours.
Mix masa harina with 2/3 cup water (or cornstarch with 3 tablespoons water) in a small bowl to form a smooth paste. Increase the heat to medium, stir in the paste and simmer until thickened, about 8 t0 10 minutes. Adjust seasonings with salt and ground black pepper to taste.
You can serve your chili immediately with some slices of iron skillet corn bread. Even better, make the chili a couple of days ahead and let the flavors meld.