Go to a chili cook-off and ask about the origins of the featured dish, and you might hear about a seventeenth-century Spanish nun, an American Indian tribe, or a band of prison inmates. But historians know little about who first prepared chili, or when -- except that then, as now, it was an ideal way to feed many people eating at different times.
This spicy stew was an almost inevitable combination of two plentiful ingredients on the southern Plains: meat and wild chile peppers. By the early 1800s, Texas cowboys were cooking beef chili over campfires. A few decades later, Texan gold rushers provisioned their covered wagons with dried beef and peppers, a kind of instant chili for the long trek to California.
From these roots, chili spread across North America and beyond, though the ingredients have changed depending on the region. San Antonians, for example, would never think of putting beans in chili, but San Franciscans could not imagine going without them. Mexicans add chocolate, while Cincinnatians spike their chili with cinnamon and allspice, and serve it over spaghetti. And in Boston, chili con carne often contains chicken, not beef.
Chili's soul is flexible. But every pot shares the same heart: chiles, an assortment of hot New World peppers. Many recipes call for chili powder -- dried, ground chiles blended with other spices. This is easy to use, but processing and long-term storage can damage the peppers' delicate aromatic oils. As a result, chili powders tend to express more heat than flavor. Whole peppers offer not only deeper taste but also a chance to choose among myriad kinds, each with its own balance of sweetness, spice, and heat.
Our chili con carne recipe -- the centerpiece of a meal for 12 or more guests who trickle in and out of a New Year's Day party all afternoon -- uses two varieties of whole dried peppers with plenty of personality. The citrusy ancho and the sweet, dusky mulato stand safely on the cool side of medium-hot. Toasted in a skillet, softened in beef broth, and then pureed, they release a full-bodied flavor that permeates the ground beef and the skillet-charred tomatoes, onions, and garlic -- a traditional Mexican preparation.
From Mexico, this chili also borrows bittersweet chocolate as a finishing spice. But it is Californian, too, for its beans and Texan for the simplicity of its base: beef, chiles, tomatoes, onions, and garlic. Taste the chili before and after you put in chocolate to discover just how transformative this ingredient is: It rounds out the heat and the smoke.
Chili's bold flavors benefit from complementary tastes and textures: a chunky, tart guacamole; tangy Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese; sour cream; and fresh cilantro. In place of corn tortillas, bake a brown sugar cornbread, which has a mellow sweetness that softens the chili's spice, and which guests can crumble or dunk. A soothing, palate-cleansing salad of fresh greens with orange vinaigrette offers a refreshing accompaniment. Keep the serving bowls full, and this make-ahead menu will satisfy a crowd, giving them a hearty start to the year.