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Chili 101: Building a Bowl of Chili

Martha Stewart Living, October 2009

Although the origins of chili are murky, the two basic elements of the dish, beef and hot chile peppers, have long been prevalent in the plains of the American Southwest. The historical record has Texas cowboys cooking chili over campfires in the early 1800s, and even today the Lone Star State remains the spiritual home of chili culture.

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Chili is easy to make ahead, keeps and reheats well, and feeds a crowd with maximal flavor and minimal effort. Naturally, a dish this appealing has traveled and been adapted far from its native range, and so we find regional differences. Californians have embroidered the basic formula with beans, while Cincinnatians throw such spices as cinnamon and allspice into chili and serve it over spaghetti.

Our basic recipe, with beef, chiles, tomatoes, onions, and garlic, stays true to the Tex-Mex tradition. Two varieties of dried peppers -- the rich, crinkled ancho and the lively, crimson guajillo-produce a dish with plenty of personality but medium heat. Toasted in a skillet, softened in hot water, and then pureed, the chiles turn into a mahogany paste that releases a heady, appetizing aroma and provides a wonderfully earthy, almost chocolaty, backdrop.

The fresh jalapeno sings the green-peppery top notes. Ground cumin and dried oregano are the spices that perhaps best capture the Southwestern spirit of the cowboy original, and a finishing splash of vinegar adds dimension while roping all these delicious elements together.

Building a Bowl of Chili
1. Peeled Plum Tomatoes
Canned tomatoes and their juice contribute to the stew's hearty liquid.

2. Beef Chuck
A cut of beef with a great meaty flavor. The internal layers of marbling, or fat, keep the meat flavorful and tender while it cooks. 

3. Dried Oregano
Peppery and lemony notes make the herb a common component of chili powders. 

4. Jalapenos
These green peppers bring fresh-chile flavor to the dish, as well as heat. 

5. Ground Cumin
Earthy and pungent, cumin is a classic chili spice. 

6. Onions and Garlic
These give chili sweetness and depth and round out the dish's flavors. 

7. Ancho Chiles
Ancho is the name given to dried poblano chiles. The chiles are mild to moderately hot and have wrinkled, almost-black skins. 

8. Dried Guajillo Chiles
These long red chiles are hot and slightly sweet. They contribute to the chili's ruddy color. Toasting dried chiles before cooking with them enhances their flavor.

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