With chili, as with a few other things, you tend to remember the first time. It was the late 1970s and I was an inspector for the Egon Ronay guides. I had been sent to Peppermint Park in London—a new, snazzy, extravagant barn of a place, all pink and green decor, with rock music blaring. I sat at the long cocktail bar, ordered an ice-cold Budweiser (then almost unheard of in Britain) and immediately felt at home in this homage to slick Manhattan dining. The word, in those days, was groovy.
The chili was offered as either a bowl or cup. I went for the cup, which came garnished with a big blob of soured cream and chopped spring onion. It was so delicious, this ruddy red cupful, that I instantly requested another. And it was properly hot: a fine sheen of sweat soon stood on my brow, cooled by regular drafts of Bud. This chili was a long way from the kind I made—further than I cared to admit.
In 1965 the late Robert Carrier published an infamous recipe for chili con carne asking the cook to use "four tablespoons of chilli powder". His publisher's office was soon flooded with letters: readers were using cayenne chilli pepper, which Indian cooks also call "chilli powder", and almost expiring from the heat. I've always thought Carrier was referring to a mild blend of cayenne, cumin, oregano and garlic, sold as Chilli Powder, by Schwartz spices.
It is interesting, too, to note the various spellings of the dish. Over the years, in various articles and books, I think I have exhausted all three possibles: chilli, chili and chile. There are those who will also cry, with tautology in mind, "Why say ‘con carne'?" For many aficionados, the very idea of beans is anathema; for them, a pot of chili is all about the meat. But I have always enjoyed red kidney beans in a chili, and use tinned ones rather than go through the palaver of soaking dried beans.
Recently I came across the best chili recipe I've found in a long time, courtesy of an old chef chum Alastair Little. Alastair chooses shin beef and asks that half is coarsely minced, with the remainder cut into 2cm pieces. I have successfully used all the beef minced, to no detriment—the quality of good, muscular and flavoursome shin really makes for a deeply tasty chili. And he ignores that Schwartz chilli powder blend, preferring to use spices individually. But the best thing of all about this chili is its absurdly simple preparation.
The following ingredients will make enough for a jolly party of about 10-12, eating it from bowls with a fork. To about two kilos of minced beef, add a half kilo of chopped onion and a small whole head of garlic, crushed to a paste. Put this into a roomy, solid-bottomed pan that also has a lid. Sprinkle over one rounded tablespoon each of cayenne pepper, ground coriander, salt and dried oregano, then one and a half tablespoons of ground cumin. (The oregano is my addition to Alastair's spicing; and because I love its warm breath throughout a good chili, I have upped the amount of cumin.)
Whisk together half a litre of hot water and 250g of tomato purée until smooth, then pour it onto the beef mixture. Stir everything together thoroughly—I use my hands—place over a moderate flame and slowly bring up to a simmer, stirring often. Once it is quietly bubbling, put on the lid and slide into an equally moderate oven. Cook for three to four hours, then stir in a kilo of red kidney beans (tinned or packet weight), partially drained of their liquid, and cook for a further 30-40 minutes. Alastair also suggests adding a little gravy browning, simply for the look. If you think it all looks a bit too rosy red, add two to three teaspoons.
For me, it is essential to finish each serving with a big spoonful of soured cream and a generous sprinkling of thinly sliced spring onions. The memory of Peppermint Park lingers on.
Beef Mince it yourself if you have the equipment, or see if your butcher will mince it on the largest hole setting. Don't trim off excess fat, as this will only add more flavour and succulence.
Kidney beans I have had some success with Tesco's Organic red kidney beans, packaged in long-life cartons. Although organic is not necessarily my bag, these particular beans taste very good indeed. tesco.com
Spices Always use the very freshest you can find—so if you're making a large pot of chili, I would advise buying all the spices in one fresh batch.