Doctoral Chili

Chili con carne is one of those dishes on which just about everyone is an expert. You won't find the official recipe for it in La Repertoire de la Cuisine, and it's the kind of dish that is almost infinitely variable. In the '80's there was a lot of silliness written about the "true" chili--is it made with tomatoes, are the beans mixed in or served on the side, is the meat ground or cubed? Really, it doesn't matter. It's an enjoyable dish to have once in a while, and it's especially good for feeding a crowd, but it's not haute cuisine. So make it the way you like it, and set it out on a table or buffet with a variety of things people can add to tune it to their own tastes: mild and hot salsa, chopped onions, grated cheddar cheese, superhot chili peppers, sour cream, and chopped cilantro are among the things I've used on different occasions. Plain boiled rice and a salad are good accompaniments. I like my chili over rice, some prefer it straight, and still others (inexplicably) take it over pasta (you have to draw the line somewhere). Most people drink beer with it, but I prefer a young full-bodied red wine. Something along the lines of low-end Zinfandel is perfect; finesse would be wasted.

When one of my graduate students defends his or her Ph D thesis, I often throw a party at which Doctoral Chili is served. Although I've made it several dozen times, it's never been the same twice. For this dish especially, a recipe should be what a melody is to a jazz musician--a structure within which to improvise. The only really essential ingredients are meat, beans, onions, and chili powder. I always add chopped tomatoes, which some regard as a sacrilege. I always serve it with meat and beans combined; Southwest feinschmeckers consider this a violation of States' Rights. The recipe below will feed about 10 graduate students or 16 adults. It can be scaled down or up without problem. Proportions can be varied to suit your taste, and amounts in the recipe are very approximate--chili powder and ground pepper vary enormously in potency. About the only way to ruin this dish is to make it too hot. Add the cayenne pepper slowly and taste after each addition. You can always increase hotness, but there's no way I know of to reduce it. The chipotle chilies add an unusual smoky flavor; they are difficult to find, but worth looking around for. Try for a balance of flavors and hotness that pleases your palate. Remember that people vary greatly in their ability to tolerate hot food, so what may be pleasantly tangy to you may be inedible to someone else. Hot salsa or other condiments served on the side makes it possible for individuals to fine tune the hotness.


For beans:

  • 1 1/2 lbs. dried pinto (or other dried) beans
  • 1 or 2 ham hocks
  • 1 large yellow onion, peeled and left whole with a couple of clove stuck into it

  • For meat:

  • 3 Tbsp olive or vegetable oil
  • 1 lb. yellow onions, coarsely chopped
  • 3 Tbsp. chopped garlic
  • 5-6 green peppers cut into a 1/2 inch dice
  • 5-6 Jalapeño peppers, chopped
  • 5 lbs. lean ground beef (if you prefer, meat can be in 1/4" cubes)
  • 2 32oz. cans tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup prepared chili powder
  • 4 dried chipotle chilies, soaked in hot water until reconstituted and finely chopped or pureed (optional)
  • 2 Tbsp ground cumin
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 cup cider or wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp Cayenne pepper (more or less according to taste and potency)
  • 1 Tbsp celery salt
  • 2 Tbsp salt

  • To prepare beans:

    Cover beans with of water and soak overnight. Drain and rinse well in cold water. Put beans. onion and ham hock in large kettle covered by an inch or two of water, bring to boil, and simmer gently until beans are tender but not completely cooked; this will take from 3/4 to 1 1/4 hours depending on the beans. Drain beans and set aside. Discard onion. Remove meat from ham hocks and add to beans.

    To prepare chili:

    Heat oil or fat in large heavy casserole or stockpot, and cook onions and garlic over medium low heat until the onions are translucent. Add green and Jalapeño peppers and sauté for 5 minutes. Turn flame up to medium and add ground beef, breaking it up with a wooden spoon or spatula. Cook until meat looses its raw look. With a ladle, remove excess fat (depending on how lean your meat is, this could be as much as 3-4 cups). Add remaining ingredients, breaking tomatoes up with spoon. Mix well to blend and taste. Correct seasoning to your own preference. At this point the mixture should be quite highly seasoned, because it will later be diluted by the beans. Simmer for 45 minutes - 1 hour covered.

    Add beans, stir well and taste. Seasoning will probably require some readjustment at this point. Simmer for 45 minutes covered or until beans are well cooked. If chili is too liquid, mix 3 Tbsp cornstarch with 4 Tbsp cold water. Stir mixture in 1 Tbsp at a time and simmer for a few minutes until chili has tightened up sufficiently, but remember that it will be less liquid as it cools down.