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
- Heat oil in a large skillet or pot over medium heat.
- Cook meat, onion, garlic and poblano until tender and meat is no longer pink.
- Add all remaining ingredients, except vinegar and salt. Simmer 30 minutes.
- Add vinegar and simmer 15 minutes.
- Salt to taste.
- 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.
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.