Memories of Alien Centaurs & Smoky Chili Con Carne

Posted on: February 6th, 2018

There was a time in my life when I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. Books are pretty great; they’re where I learned about chili.

I had a long stretch in elementary school where I was obsessed with K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series; if you’re unfamiliar, a bunch of teenagers and blue alien centaurs shape-shift into various animals and fight hordes of evil slugs that hide in our ears and control our brains. Cool stuff for an 8-year-old. An early entry features one of those centaurs morphing into a human and experiencing chili for the first time:

It was hot in temperature. But it was also hot in a totally new way. The taste buds of my human tongue seemed to explode! They burned with an intensity of flavor like nothing I’ve tasted before or since. Every nerve in my body seemed to tingle. Water dribbled from the tiny ducts beside my eyes … This is what being a human was all about. Taste! The glory of it. The incredible wonder of it.

At its best, chili truly is magical — and adaptable. I’ve had amazing chili made with beef, with turkey, with freshly hunted elk and homemade wild boar sausage (Uncle Ernie’s dinner parties are no joke), with no meat at all. I’ve had chili that turned my nose into a faucet and threatened to set my hair on fire. I’ve had chili on hot dogs, on baked potatoes, on macaroni and cheese. I’ve even had chili that wasn’t chili at all. Get it together, Cincinnati.

And while the Internet is awash with wonderful recipes and I suspect that you may already have one of your own, I’d like to add mine to the mix. It’s a riff on a classic Texas-style con carne recipe, which skips the beans you find in many chilis in favor of extra meat; it’s therefore perfect for people who need to watch their fiber intake. I do strongly recommend taking the time to grind your own chili powder from dried guajillo chilis and to seek out Mexican oregano; both should be readily available in large grocery stores or online. They lend a fruity complexity to the stew, and the guajillos are spicy without being unapproachable.

I like to think that blue alien centaur would be impressed.

Smoky Chili Con Carne

Ingredients:

For chili powder:

  • – 3 dried guajillo chilis, stems and seeds removed and spread open
  • – 1/2 tsp cumin seed
  • – 1/2 tsp dried Mexican oregano
  • – 1/4 tsp garlic powder

For chili:

  • – Harvest Olive Wood-Smoked Olive Oil
  • – 2 Tbs cumin seed
  • Guajillo chili powder, see above
  • – 3 lbs boneless beef chuck, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • – 2 white onions, diced
  • – 2 tsp paprika
  • – 1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
  • – 1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
  • – 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • – 1 cup beef broth or bone broth (recipe here)
  • – 1 cup dark beer (or water)
  • – 1 28-oz can tomatoes; whole, diced, or pureed are all fine
  • – 2 dried guajillo chilis, stems and seeds removed
  • – 2 oz unsweetened dark chocolate, chopped if necessary
  • – Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Make the chili powder; place the chilis in a cast-iron skillet and toast over medium heat, turning periodically, until very fragrant, about 3 minutes. Remove to a plate and cut into small strips with scissors once cool. Meanwhile, toast cumin seeds in the hot pan, stirring, until fragrant, about a minute. Transfer to a small bowl and let cool. Using a clean spice grinder or coffee grinder, or mortar and pestle, grind chilis into powder; you will likely need to work in batches. Do the same to the cooled cumin seed, as well as the Mexican oregano if necessary. Stir in garlic powder and reserve. The mix will likely not be as fine as store-bought chili powder, nor does it need to be.

Set a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Once hot, stir remaining cumin seed until fragrant, about a minute. Crush as above, and set aside. Increase heat to high and add 2Tbs of Harvest Olive Wood-Smoked Olive Oil. Working in small batches, cook beef until nicely browned on all sides. Transfer batches to a bowl with a slotted spoon, adding more oil if necessary between batches.

Reduce heat to medium, and cook onions in reserved oil and beef drippings for about 10 minutes or until they are soft and lightly browned. Add crushed cumin, reserved guajillo chili powder, paprika, Mexican oregano, thyme, garlic, a good pinch of Kosher salt, and a few grinds of fresh black pepper; cook, stirring, for about a minute or until fragrant. Add broth and beer and scrape up any brown bits with a wooden spoon before adding tomatoes (breaking up with the back of a wooden spoon if necessary), guajillos, and beef. Increase heat to high and allow to come to boil, then reduce heat to low and add chocolate once a gentle and consistent simmer has been reached.

Cover pot partway and continue to simmer at least 2 hours, or until beef is very tender; like most stews, the longer the better, although you may need to add splashes of water to keep it from drying out. Remove stewed guajillos before serving; they impart a lovely flavor, but are texturally similar to shoe leather.

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