Chile Chili con Carne

Chili con Carne with Black Beans and Poblano Chiles

I returned from the cold north land hungry for a warm bowl of chili con carne. It’s not Mexican cuisine, but sometimes we expats need familiar comfort food from home.

Chile, the picante vegetable that has its origins in the Americas, only has one correct spelling in Mexico. Aberrations like chilli and chilie occur north of the border, causing confusion to many and consternation to those like me who are sticklers for correct spelling. Chili con carne, the pot of well-seasoned beans and meat spelled with an “i”, further adds to the confusion. If we go back to the source of the word for the vegetable, to Nahuatl, the language spoken by the people of the Mexican Highlands when the Spanish arrived, we find chili. Confused? Don’t be. Just stick to the contemporary Spanish spelling for the vegetable: chile. And if it’s a pot of beans and meat: chili.

Now that the issue of spelling is out of the way, there are two more matters to discuss: whether to soak beans or not, and how to cook them. Mexican cooks don’t pre-soak beans. They just add beans to water and get on with the cooking. No soaking or draining for them. I pre-soak beans, but I’m not always organized enough to think of doing this the day before, so I use the quick-soak method, which means to bring beans and plenty of water to a boil, turn off the heat, cover the pot and leave the beans to soak for one hour. Then drain and cook with fresh water.

Pre-soaked beans are thought to be less musical and more digestible. And take less time to cook. I’m all for anything that takes less time and fuel. North of the border, kidney beans are preferred for chili con carne, but any bean will make a tasty chili. Today, I’m using a combination of organic black and flor de mayo beans.

Mexican cocineras use their trusty aluminum pots or clay pots for cooking beans. Earthenware clay pots absorb the odors of the foods for which they are used, so savvy mexicanas dedicate one clay pot to beans, another for chicken, one pot just for chocolate, and so on.

Lately, my love affair with the clay pot has waned, and I’ve been using the pressure cooker to make tender beans in thirty minutes. The beans are pre-soaked in a small pot that is then placed on a metal trivet or rack in the larger pressure cooker. Beans can also be cooked directly in the pressure cooker, but care must be taken that the pot does not cook dry and that the beans do not burn, as some pressure cookers have thin bottoms.

My pot of chili con carne contains chiles poblanos, one of my favorite chile peppers found throughout Mexico. Thick-walled, rich green in color, and not too hot, they are often used for making chiles rellenos, but can be a stand-in for bell peppers when making chili con carne. This is one of the few times they are not blistered and peeled.

Thanks to a recipe I came across in an issue of Consumer Reports years ago, I learned to add vinegar to a pot of chili con carne. This one addition makes all the difference. Maybe it does nothing more than provide a balance to the sweetness of the tomatoes, but it is an essential taste adjustment.

Chili con Carne

  • 2 tablespoons (60 ml.) olive oil
  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) range-fed lean ground beef
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 large poblano peppers ( or 1 large bell pepper) chopped
  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) finely chopped tomatoes (or 1 16-oz. can)
  • 4 cups (1 liter) cooked beans
  • 1-2 tablespoon (30-60 ml.) chile powder, or to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoon comino (cumin)
  • 1 cup (8 oz/.25 liter) water
  • 1 tablespoon (60 ml.) cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • crushed tortilla chips and chopped cilantro for garnish
  1. Heat oil in a large skillet or pot over medium heat.
  2. Cook meat, onion, garlic and poblano until tender and meat is no longer pink.
  3. Add all remaining ingredients, except vinegar and salt. Simmer 30 minutes.
  4. Add vinegar and simmer 15 minutes.
  5. Salt to taste.
  6. Serve garnished with crushed tortilla chips and cilantro.

Vegetarian version: omit meat and add two more cups of cooked beans. This beany chili con frijoles was a favorite during my vegetarian years.

Bean Notes:

Large Mexican grocery stores are stocking more and more organic foods. A common organic label in our part of Mexico is Aires de Campo. They are certified by BioAgriCert America, an organization based in Bologna, Italy, which controls and monitors organic foods in the Americas, Japan and Europe. Aires de Campo sells organic beans and brown rice, as well as other foodstuffs like preserves, agave syrup and honey. My packages of black beans and flor de mayo beans (a pink bean also known as mayflower bean and nightfall bean) include the information that they are from the state of Zacatecas and certified free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and toxic residues. It is so great to have organic beans and rice available, that even if they cost a little more, I’m more than happy to support this market.

Flor de mayo is a tender bean with a delicate flavor that is not well known north of the border. South of the border, it is a common bean that is greatly preferred in the central areas of Mexico. It can be purchased on the internet from native seed companies.

It is so easy to reach for the can opener and have beans or refritos on the table in minutes, but like so many other familiar foods, canned does not compare to freshly cooked. Yes, it takes more time, but once you make a few pots, you will see how easy it is and how much better they taste.

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Hanging Tortillas on the Clothesline

Extra tortillas don’t go to waste in our house. Sometimes I set them out on the kitchen counter to dry so we can use them as a dog snack. Yesterday, Russ decided to hang some on the clothesline to dry more quickly. It didn’t take long for Chucha to find them and check out the new laundry. She was told not to help herself. For her obedience, she was given a tortilla dog treat. Maybe she can’t resist dry tortillas because of their crunchiness. Or maybe it’s because she’ll eat almost anything, short of a carrot.

If you have extra tortillas and your dog doesn’t mind sharing them, they are also great in chilaquiles, with either red or green chile sauce.

I have a  family matter to take care of and I don’t know when I’ll be back to the blog, nor do it know if I’ll have an opportunity to write for the blog during this period. Please bear with me. I will return and I hope to find all my faithful readers still here, waiting for me.

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Botanas Mexicanas for Super Bowl Sunday

We’ll be in front of the TV Sunday watching the Super Bowl, like many of our expat friends. And just like them, we’ll be munching on botanas, Mexican snacks. I don’t think I’ll get it together to make pizza, but I have a few things in mind fellow bloggers have made recently that I want to try.

Lesley Téllez made an interesting, creamy Mexican pumpkin seed dip, called Sikil Pak on her blog, The Mija Chronicles. With just six ingredients, counting the salt, it looks pretty easy to make in a food processor if you don’t have your metate handy. Sikil Pak, you say? Sikil is Mayan for tomato; pak means pumpkin seeds, also called pepitas in Spanish. The Mayans have been eating this for centuries, maybe while watching their ball game, pok-a-tok, which took a more serious turn than football ever does. The loser was sacrificed to the gods.

Muy Bueno Cookbook just wrote up an easy mix for Michalada. With only four ingredients, counting ice, beer, lime juice and salt (I just gave away the recipe, didn’t I),  I can’t think of anything more refreshing drink to wash down the tostadas.

Lyndsey at The Tiny Skillet is making Mexican Fried Cheese with queso de freier. This was to me. How have I lived in Mexico so long and never heard queso de freir? I’m off to find some, and try frying cheese. She suggests serving it with a salsa. My recipe for salsa de chile guajillo or chile ancho would go well with this.

The tostadas are for my favorite guacamole. It has ten ingredients, and that counts the tostadas –corn tortilla chips — on the side. You can make it in fifteen minutes, easy. It differs a little from most guacamoles. Some of the avocado is cubed to give a creamy bite to the mixture. If you want to see another version of guacamole, check out this hilarious guacamole song on YouTube, complete with a recipe, by two dubious looking mexicanos with strange mustaches.

I might come up with a few other dishes, but this is a start. We won’t be sending out for pizza.

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Tamales de Chocolate por Día de la Candelaria

Chocolate Tamal, photographed outside under fading evening light

Tamales are always a major undertaking, especially for someone who reads tamal recipes, rather than actually makes them. It had been about twenty years since I last made any by myself. Things had to change, and tomorrow being Día de la Candelaria was as good a reason as any to put my hands to the metate. I mean, KitchenAid mixer. I really don’t even own a metate, but greatly admire Lesley, blogger of The Mija Chronicles, for her metate work, when she probably has a food processor and KitchenAid sitting on her kitchen counter. I have been vicariously working on the metate with Lesley for months. And vicariously making tamales with other bloggers. That changed today, when I made Tamales de Chocolate.

Making  tamales took longer than I thought it would, but that is often the case when making a new recipe. First, the corn husks had to soak for two hours. The masa and chocolate mixture was chilled in the fridge for one hour for added tenderness. Then the filling and tying, then two hours to steam the tamales. By the time they were done, there was barely enough light outside for a few photos, but what a great way to start our evening with a steaming pot of chocolate tamales.

This recipe is adapted from one by Rick Bayless at Frontera Kitchens. Rick uses pulverized Mexican chocolate. I used cocoa powder, and coconut oil instead of butter. Russ just about flipped when he tasted one, saying it was better than the chocolate tamal I recently brought home from the market. He also thought a bit of Mexican crema spooned over a tamal would be nice and offered to buy a carton tomorrow. (Update: crema with tamales de chocolate is great!)

Tamales de Chocolate makes 12-15 tamales

  • 12-15 corn husks, plus extra for cutting into strips for tying
  • 2/3 cup (5 oz.) soft organic coconut oil or butter
  • 1 cup organic sugar (5.4 oz./150 grams)
  • 1/2 cup (1.8 oz./50 grams) cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) masa dough
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml.) organic milk or water
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml.) sesame seeds
  • 4 tablespoon (60 ml.) pumpkin seeds
  • 6 tablespoons (90 ml.) dried cranberries or raisins
  1. Using kitchen shears, cut off cupped end of corn husks, and cut other end to square it. Then cut into rectangles 6″ wide by 7″ long.
  2. Soak corn husks in hot water for 2 hours.
  3. In a standing mixer, blend coconut oil and sugar until light and fluffy.
  4. Add cocoa powder, baking powder and salt and mix about 3 minutes.
  5. While mixer is running, add masa dough in small pieces and beat until completely incorporated, about 1-2 minutes.
  6. Add milk and beat until smooth. Batter should be the consistency of a thick cake batter, but still keep its shape when spooned.
  7. Refrigerate batter for 1 hour to increase tenderness (optional).
  8. If refrigerated, beat again until soft, adding additional milk if needed to form a soft batter.
  9. Stir in sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries.
  10. Place a collapsible vegetable steamer or other rack in the bottom of a tall pot. Pour in water up to the bottom of the steamer and heat pot.
  11. Drain corn husks.
  12. One at a time, place a husk in front of you, tapered end closest to you. Spoon about 1/4 cup of chocolate masa mixture onto the center of each husk, leaving 2″ border on the lower edge.
  13. Spread masa mixture into a rectangle, forming a 2″ across and 4″ top to bottom, leaving a 2″ border on the lower edge closest to you.
  14. Bring the sides together and roll around the tamal in the same direction. Fold up the bottom edge and tie with a strip of corn husk. The top of the tamal stays open.
  15. Stack tamales in the pot, standing on end, open end up. Cover and steam over medium-low heat for 2 hours,  replacing water if necessary.
  16. Serve warm.


Diana Kennedy says to place a penny in the bottom of the tamal pot. When it stops rattling, the pot needs more water. As she has made her share of tamales in her time, I followed her directions, wondering if pesos would work just as well. Not wanting to take a chance that pesos might be too heavy to bounce around, I used two pennies and they rattled nicely.

Día de la Candelaria is a religious and family celebration throughout Mexico, when tamales and atole are served to friends by the person who bit into the little doll in their piece of rosca on January’s Three King’s Day.

Tamal is the singular word in Spanish; tamales designate plural. There is no such word as tamale in Spanish.

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