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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Enfrijoladas with avocado and tomatillo salsa

Enfrijoladas are on the menu at La Cascada restaurant in La Cruz. This elegant, yet simple dish is nothing more than tortillas covered with bean sauce . “Bean sauce?”, you might ask. Yes, bean sauce. Beans, thinned to a sauce-like consistency and coating the tortillas, with some avocado, queso fresco and crema on top. That’s all it is, and boy, is it good. You can top it with a salsa verde if you want, but it is also good without a salsa if you want something simple to prepare.

Like much of my cooking, this is a cobbled together recipe. An avocado and tomatillo salsa recipe from Epicurious. Part of an enfriolada recipe from my new cookbook by Diana Kennedy, Oaxaca al Gusto. And another part of an enfrijolada recipe from Bon Appetit that I made a number of years ago when we were replacing our roof.  Back then, we had a simple, traditional Mexican roof that was nothing more than tiles stacked across wooden beams. That day, the day I made enfrijoladas, all the tiles had been removed and the entire house was exposed to the shining sun, with the clouds and the birds overhead. I could look up and see the swaying bamboo outside the kitchen door. But I wasn’t seeing it out the door. I was looking at the rustling bamboo through the gaping hole where our tile roof used to be.

After such a unusual day of seeing the roof removed, the workers finally left, and I was faced with making dinner in my disordered, discombobulated kitchen. (See photo here of my exposed kitchen.) We could have gone out to eat. Or I could have made something easy like sandwiches or omelets. Instead, I found a favorite 2003 Bon Appetit magazine, one of their “Special Collector Editions” with Soul of Mexico on the cover. I had already read every recipe six or eight times and was especially intrigued by the one for enfrijoladas, because I, too, said, “Bean sauce?” Here is my version, inspired by Bon Appetit and Diana Kennedy.

Enfrijoladas with Avocado and Tomatillo Salsa serves 4

Salsa:

  • 2 cups (8 oz./250 g.)tomatillos (also known as tomate verde), husked, washed and coarsely chopped
  • 2 medium serrano chiles with seeds, minced
  • 1 medium white onion, finely diced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium avocados, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons (50 ml.) freshly squeezed lime juice
  • salt
  • Process tomatillos and serranos in food processor until coarse puree forms.
  • Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-low heat  and add onion, cooking until translucent.
  • Add garlic and cook 30 seconds more.
  • Add tomatillo puree to onion mixture, and cook 3 minutes, stirring.
  • Spoon salsa into a bowl and stir in avocado and cilantro.
  • Salt to taste.

Refritos:

  • 2  tablespoons olive oil (or lard if you really want to be authentic)
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 serrano chiles, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 cups (28 oz./800 g.) cooked beans
  • 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, crumbled
  • 1 teaspoon ground comino (cumin)
  • water as needed
  • 1 dozen heated corn tortillas
  • Sliced avocado and chopped cilantro for garnish
  • Crema (sour cream or crème fraiche)
  • Heat skillet over medium-low hat and add oil to pan.
  • Saute onion and serrano chile until onion is translucent.
  • Add garlic and cook 30 seconds longer, stirring.
  • Add cooked beans, oregano, comino, and enough water to make it soupy.
  • Simmer 10  minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Mash to a puree with a bean masher (potato masher) or in a food processor, adding more water to make it very soupy.
  • Salt to taste.
  • Dip hot tortillas in bean sauce, coating both sides generously with bean puree and roll up or fold into quarters or halves.
  • Spoon bean puree on each plate and place folded tortillas on puree, spooning more puree on top of tortillas.
  • Garnish with avocado slices, grated cheese and chopped cilantro.
  • Serve avocado and tomatillo salsa and crema on the side.


Notes:

I used flor de mayo beans for this recipe, because I can buy organic flor de mayo at Mega (gracias a dios!). In Oaxaca, black beans are used to make enfrijoladas. Pinto beans would make a fine substitute.

Remove seeds or not from the serrano chiles, depending on your own level of heat tolerance. I found that removing half the seeds was just right for our taste.

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