When we were reworking our menu for the summer, it was decided to take off "Texas Red Chili," reasoning that no one would order it when it was 100 degrees outside.
But W. Park Kerr, three-time cookbook author and owner of the El Paso Chili Company insists that eating hot, spicy food helps you beat the heat. His reasoning? Spicy stuff make you sweat which then evaporates and makes you cool. Pure Texas logic.
Apparently, there are those who agree with him, because when Texas Red slipped through the editorial cracks an onto our summer menu, people kept ordering it. So until we put it back on for real, here is the recipe and a little chili history.
Our story begins in Terlingua, Texas, located in the extreme western part of the state, and can justifiably be called the middle of nowhere. H. Allen Smith (a non-Texan) had written an article for "Holiday Magazine" titled "No One Knows More About Chili Than Me." When Dallas Morning News columnist Frank Tolbert got wind of the claim,. It was decided to have a cook-off, and Terlingua was selected as the site.
The original contest held in October 1967 was to pit Texan Wick Fowler against David Chassen of Hollywood restaurant fame. Chassen came down with some unspecified illness just before the competition, and H. Allen Smith had to take his place.
Of the three judges, one found for Fowler and one found for Smith. The third and what would have been deciding judge claimed that his taste buds were so damaged from the hot chilis that he couldn't decide. The first Terlingua Chili Cook Off was a draw.
I first learned how to make chili from a guy who was on the opening team for the original Chili's in Dallas. He had acquired (ripped it off) from Chili's who had in turn acquired it from one of the winning chefs at Terlingua.
Our recipe has evolved over time and differs from the original in two essential ways. First, we used chunks of beef instead of the coarse chili grind beef found in the original. I think that amount of cooking time that it takes to get the chunks tender allows the flavors more time to develop.
The second difference is the chili powder. Most off-the-shelf spice labeled "chili powder" is a blend of things like garlic, cumin, oregano and in some cases the much-dreaded MSG. We prefer to use a combination of different pure-ground chilis, thus allowing you to control the heat, flavor and ultimate color of the chili. For example, ground California chili has a nice flavor but no heat. Chipotle chilis have a nice smoky flavor, but by the time you get enough chili flavor, it's too hot for most mortals. And ancho chilis give the finished product the brick-red color.
When buying chili powders, try to get them from some place that goes through a lot of inventory. Believe it or not, fresh chili powder is better than old. Little clumps in the powder are a good sign that the natural oils are still present. If you like the Internet, we use a place in New Mexico for all of our powders, called dagiftbasket.com
As far as the question of "to bean or not to bean," we don't put beans in our chili. Kind of like turkey's not just for Thanksgiving, and beer's not just for breakfast, chili's not just for the colder months that end in "r." But if you don't subscribe to the sweat-to-be-cool philosophy, hang on to the recipe. Chili days are just ahead.
Texas Red Chili
Makes about two quarts
3 to 3 1/2 pounds beef tri tip
2 big pinches each of Kosher salt and black pepper
2 medium onions, diced
2 tablespoons minced garlic
Vegetable oil for searing the meat and onions
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons whole Mexican oregano
1 tablespoon ground ancho chili powder
1 tablespoon ground chipotle chili powder
4 tablespoons California chili powder
4 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar
1 12-ounce bottle of Mexican beer
6 cups low-sodium beef stock
3 tablespoons Quaker instant masa
Remove most of the fat and silver skin from the tri-tip. Cut into 1-inch cubes and toss with the salt and pepper.
Place a large, heavy-bottom pot on high heat. When hot, add about an ounce or so of oil to cover the bottom of the pan. When this is just about smoking, add the cubed beef. Depending on the diameter of your pot, you might have to sear the meat in two batches. You want to make sure that the meat is not crowded or you'll end up steaming it. Stir the beef only occasionally until browned, then remove to a platter for later.
Pour off all but about 2 ounces of the remaining fat (or add oil if you need it), add the onions and the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes until the onions are translucent. Stir the onions frequently, and try to scrape up any of the caramelized meat that stuck to the pan.
Add the dry spices, stir and cook for another minute. Add the tomato paste, and stir and cook for another minute. Add the vinegar and stir to make a paste. Cook for another minute. Add the beer and the stock and stir to combine.
Take about one cup of the stock mixture and place it in a small bowl. Add the masa and stir with a fork to make a smooth slurry. Pour this back into your pot, add the browned beef and bring to a simmer. Cook for about two hours or until the meat is tender. While it's cooking, stir it occasionally. Use a small ladle or spoon to remove any fat or foam that comes to the surface. You will also need to add water to the pot periodically as the sauce reduces. The idea is to keep just enough liquid to cover the meat. When I was road-testing this recipe, I ultimately added five cups of water over the two hours.
Try to make the chili a day or three before you are going to serve it. The flavor improves with time and the gravy will thicken up nicely. Served with chopped onions and shredded cheese if you like.
• Brian Shaw is the chef and owner of Cafe del Rio in Virginia City.