When the Super Bowl arrives, we eat chili. Even sports philistines, like me, know that. How exactly chili and football came to be so closely intertwined is unclear, but given that one is the official Lone Star State dish and the other is the unofficial Lone Star State sport, I’m guessing it has something to do with Texas.
Sadly, as the NFL’s finest gear up for the most important day of their year, too many home cooks will phone it in with insipid recipes that produce little more than beef and beans suspended in tomato juice. Is this not a good time to up your chili game?
Good chili is complexly flavored: spicy, smoky, savory, and rich. And, while subtler dishes require restraint, it’s hard to go overboard with chili ingredients. You can add as many strong ingredients as you like, and the result will probably taste intricately balanced, not muddled. In fact, you’re at greater risk of bad chili if you add too few bold ingredients to it than if you add too many.
For spice, after the mandatory chili powder, cumin, and coriander, I like chipotle chiles, which add some smokiness. (So unique and distinctive is the flavor of chipotles that some people don’t realize that they’re simply jalapeños that have been desiccated in smoke.) You can use fresh jalapeños if you like (or if you can’t find chipotles packed in adobo sauce), but you’ll be missing out on a whole layer of flavor.
For savoriness—or umami, as everyone began insisting we call it a few years ago—add mushrooms. Shiitakes are particularly meaty and complicated, and you don’t need lots of them to get their je ne sais quoi in your chili. And it really will be a je ne sais quoi: If you add just enough to enhance flavor but not enough to alter the texture, you’ll be able to feed this chili to fungus-phobes without their even realizing it contains mushrooms.
Another excellent source of umami for chili is—don’t laugh—tempeh. The fermented soybean cake is terrifically dense and earthy, making it ideal chili fodder. This revelation comes courtesy of Jack Bishop’s A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen, one of the best meatless cookbooks of the past decade, and the one that convinced me that vegetarian chili is unquestionably worthwhile. However, if you or one of your loved ones categorically insists on meat in chili, you can, of course, substitute ground beef for the tempeh. (Before adding it to the chili, sauté it in a large skillet over medium heat until it loses all traces of pink, then drain off all the fat.)
Tempeh will start leading you down the road to richness, but, to go all the way, you’ll need beer and dark chocolate. If you’ve never made chili with either of these ingredients, the notion may sound bizarre—but don’t let the weirdness stop you. The beer—stout, preferably; chocolate stout, if you can find it—is toasty and tangy, the chocolate bitter and velvety. Both smooth out the prickliness of the spices and chiles, and help create a chili as deep and dark as Joni Mitchell’s voice after a few decades of cigarette smoking.
Serve with an assortment of the usual garnishes, and, no matter which team you support, your friends and family will consider you a true patriot and a giant among men.
Black Bean and Stout Chili
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Time: About 1¼ hours, largely unattended
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium yellow or red onions, chopped
3½ ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced
Salt and black pepper
2 or 3 canned chipotle chiles, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 pound tempeh
4 cups drained cooked black beans, cooking liquid reserved
One 26-ounce box or 28-ounce can chopped or diced tomatoes
One 12-ounces bottle or can stout
1 ounce dark chocolate, roughly chopped
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus more for garnish
Tortilla chips, grated cheddar cheese, sour cream, and lime wedges for serving (optional)
1. Put the oil in a large, deep pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until all their liquid has evaporated, 5 to 7 minutes.
2. Add the chipotles, garlic, chili powder, cumin, coriander, and oregano, and cook, stirring, until they’re fragrant, about 2 minutes. Crumble the tempeh into the pot and stir to coat it with the spices, then add the beans, tomatoes, stout, and enough reserved bean cooking liquid or water to make the mixture stewlike but not watery.
3. Cover, raise the heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat so the mixture simmers steadily, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tempeh and tomatoes have broken down, about 45 minutes. Add the chocolate and stir until it melts, then stir in the cilantro. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with more cilantro—along with tortilla chips, cheddar, sour cream, and lime wedges, if you like—and serve. (Store leftover chili in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.)
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