The Chili Cookbook showcases the deep-rooted past and endless adaptations of the time-tested, one-pot comfort.
By Elizabeth Bonner
With school back in session, and football tailgates and fall cookouts just around the corner, time and again we’ll turn to chili as a make-ahead, make-a-lot crowd-pleaser. While this hearty stew has long been a classic go-to in our region, Texas food writer and historian Robb Walsh delves deeper as he explores chili through centuries, across borders, and spanning imaginative ingredients, challenging readers to rethink it and experience its limitless scope.
The journey begins with the earliest-known concoctions, taking readers back to the 1500s when the Spanish conquistadors found Aztecs cooking proteins in chili sauces in their marketplace. “The chile pepper entered the European culinary world as one of the new spices of the New World, and I think about it in terms of chile peppers conquering the universe—now, they’re everywhere,” Robb says. “Chili is a base of so many ethnic cuisines.”
He moves from this international family tree to the evolution of our country’s distinct regional chili customs, with recipes woven into a narrative of the stew’s eclectic, colorful past. Opening with a unique Lobster Chili inspired by a 15th-century description of Mesoamerican life, he then uncovers connections like Cincinnati Spaghetti Chili and its ancestors Greek Makaronia Me Kima and Indian/Pakistani Keema, as well as Hungarian cowboys’ goulash and its relation to quintessential American chili (the award-winning Tex-Mex author believes this to be the traditional meat-and-chili Texan take). “I started with familiar American forms of chili and traced them back to their roots and made associations,” Robb explains.
According to the historian, meat rationing during World Wars I and II brought about many of our country’s chili variations, as well as its discourse concerning who holds the true recipe. “Once people were freed from the idea of a classic Texas chili, if you were going to make chili out of something else, why not substitute chicken, pork, or lamb? So, chili evolved,” Robb explains.
And it continues to evolve today, as seen in its creative resurgence in the Americana movement, which takes old standbys and updates them with new spins. “This idea of cooking naturally finds its way to chili, which is an old American standard that is fun to riff on,” Robb says. “We’re going back to all sorts of nostalgic comfort foods—particularly in the South.”
Some of The Chili Cookbook’s contemporary recipes include Robert Redford’s Lamb Chili with Black Beans and a Tennessee Pork and Whiskey Chili featuring bourbon and bacon. Readers will also find chicken, shrimp, and meatless varieties, but traditional beef, turkey, and venison recipes all make appearances, too.
Robb incorporates cooking tips for equipment and ingredients throughout with helpful asides regarding historical traditions, garnishing plates, serving complementary condiments, and even slow-cooker alternatives. Additionally, readers will find guides to identifying chiles, chili cook-offs, and throwing chili parties.
The author believes that the versatility of chili is what has made it such a timeless favorite. “To have a subject matter and one-pot meal that’s so flexible—it can be simple, or it can be sophisticated and rewarding—I think that’s the base appeal of chili,” he says. “It is a complicated and fascinating playground for a cook.”
This passionate Tex-Mex aficionado hopes the book will challenge people to embrace the dish in new ways. “Americans love chili,” Robb says. “Sometimes, as Americans, we express ourselves by arguing. It seems to satisfy something in our regional identity. But I think all of us secretly sneak off to the other place to enjoy what they make too. I hope everybody develops as broad an appreciation for chili as I did.”
Enter for your chance to win the cookbook, and get the recipe for Robb’s Homemade Chili Powder, the perfect addition for your favorite chili concoctions. Or try it with his classic recipe, El Real’s Chili con Carne. Get more on The Chili Cookbook in our October issue on newsstands September 6.
- 2 tablespoons cumin seeds
- 8 ounces bacon, chopped
- 3 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1⁄4-inch cubes
- 2 onions, chopped
- 1⁄4 cup Homemade Chili Powder (see separate recipe)
- 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
- 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1⁄2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
- 4 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1 3⁄4 cups beef broth
- 1 cup water
- 1 (28-ounce) can pureed tomatoes
- 2 dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
- Toast the cumin seeds in a large skillet over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes. Using a smaller frying pan or a metal or wooden tool with a flat surface, crush the seeds coarsely. Set aside.
- Cook the bacon in the skillet over medium-high heat until crisp. Remove the bacon and reserve. Over high heat, brown the beef in batches in the bacon drippings left in the skillet and set the meat aside. Over medium heat, sauté the onions in the remaining drippings until lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes.
- Add the toasted cumin, chili powder, paprika, oregano, black pepper, thyme, salt, and garlic to the cooked onions and sauté for 1 minute. Crumble in the bacon, add the beef broth, 1 cup of water, the tomatoes, ancho chiles, and the beef.
- Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover partially, and simmer until the meat is very tender, about 2 hours, adding water as needed to maintain the desired consistency.
- Alternatively, transfer to a slow-cooker set on low and cook until the meat is very tender, at least 6 hours and up to 8 hours.
- Remove the anchos, puree in a blender, and return to the pot. Serve in a bowl with chopped onions and shredded cheese, with saltines, over tamales, rice or potatoes, in a Frito Pie or combined with beans.
- 5 whole dried ancho chiles (about 2 ounces)
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, or to taste
- 1 ⁄2 teaspoon garlic powder
- Remove the stems and seeds from the anchos and spread the peppers out flat. Reserve the seeds. Place the chiles flat on a comal or cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Being careful not to burn them, lightly toast until they are brittle, then remove and cool. Toast the cumin in the hot comal, stirring and shaking until fragrant. Toast some of the chile seeds, if desired. (The seeds will make the chili powder hotter.)
- Cut the chiles into small strips with scissors. In a clean coffee grinder, grind the strips in several batches until powdered. Grind the cumin and chile seeds in the coffee grinder. Combine the powdered chile, ground seeds, Mexican oregano, and garlic powder in a mixing bowl. Grind the coarse powder in batches in the coffee grinder until fine, about 2 minutes. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.
- Tip from our Test Kitchen: Wear gloves and use ventilation, as it can be difficult to breathe if pepper gets in the air while heating.