by John Ore and Ben Choi
John Ore and Ben Choi used to face each other across the line of scrimmage during high-school football practice. Now they face each other across the country, pitting recipes for America’s greatest dish — chili — against each other. Who wins? You do!
John Ore: Hey, guess what time it is.
Ben Choi: What time is it, John? Did I miss Indigenous People’s Day again?
John: Well, it’s Chili Season™. It’s that time of year when the air gets a little crisper, college football conferences start realigning — and tourists switch from Crocs to Uggs. Perfect for whipping up buckets upon buckets of chili. And hoo-boy, do I have a recipe for chili. You?
Ben: Oh yes, I have a chili recipe for you. As a fellow Angeleno, you must remember the chili con carne they used to put on chili fries and chili burgers and chili dogs at Carney’s or Tommy’s or Pink’s?
John: Remember it? I broke one of my two vegetarian streaks of high-school on a chili burger from Carney’s! But was it the chili, or the chili burger sitting on my shoulder like the Devil, trying to stain the white robe of the vegetarian Angel on my other shoulder? Carney’s chili seems like good chili for a Manwich, but can it stand on its own as a meal?
Ben: Well, my chili is based on that chili, but it’s a little more stand-alone, a little fancier in a poly-ethnic way. Texas cowboys cribbed off Mexican ingredients and tastes for their chuckwagon staple, which El Paso chollos (re-)reimagined and took with them to the City of Angels; and this Korean-American is going all David Chang on it. I use four kinds of pan-roasted dry chiles, Puerto Rican sofrito, a pickled habanero pepper, tequila, cocoa and oxtails. I live in the Bay Area now, so there’s a little more Chez Panisse in this this recipe. (And John, we call it a Personwich.)
John: Now hold the phone, I’m the multi–ethnic cook around these parts. Your recipe sounds awesome, but that ain’t chili! Where are the beans? Where are the Fritos? What sort of cheese goes on top of that? My chili is suitable for occupying Wall Street, or occupying your couch on New Year’s Day watching the Winter Classic. Does Alice Waters even follow hockey?
Ben: You know, authentic Texas chili is a no-bean proposition. And I honor that tradition (along with Caribbean, Mexican, European, and Korean) in this dish. Don’t get me wrong; I love my standard truck-stop bean chili with cheese and onions and sour cream. But if I wanted to keep it simple: Wendy’s has a drive-thru.
Texas red was originally made with just chiles, spices, beef and beef suet. Those vaqueros didn’t even use tomatoes. I’ve opted for oxtails, which fill in for both the stew meat and the suet, and satisfy the memory of my East Asian ancestors. I can’t expect you to understand, Senor Round-eye. That oxtail is so lovely and unctuous — even after defatting. Nice round, smooth, beef flavor. What can I say, I source locally but think globule-y.
John: Don’t tell me you favor Texas BBQ over Carolina BBQ as well. Them’s fightin’ words. Chili is as blue collar as it comes, my former nose tackle friend. I honor THAT tradition by keeping it familiar while sprucing up the basic ingredients, Brooklyn-style. Three ground meats, three kinds of Goya beans, and most importantly: a beer. Something you’d feel proud to throw cheese on top of, not find on a tasting menu. Chili for the people.
Defatting? That’s un-American.
Ben: Actually, I like Carolina pig pickin’s and I totally support your populist stand, but I’m standing up for the freedom of my people: Americans, not American’ts. [Pipe in patriotic music here]
My recipe fights for the purist’s aesthetic from the ramparts of pluralism. My chili is a melting pot — full of poor huddled masses of beef. And full of freedom… culinary freedom carried by immigrants in their decorative pottery. What you call “foreign,” my people call “mays.” We may choose to use oxtails, and we may choose to defat, and we may choose to omit the cheese and keep it kosher, my mensch.
John: We may have to agree to disagree to agree. As a member of Liberal Coastal Media Elite, I’m obligated to replicate Hormel while using Berkshire pork and Sriracha and Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket ingredients. I’m also obligated to watch sports while I make it, because watching sports is a delivery mechanism for beer, and beer goes in chili.
Did I mention the Fritos? What do you serve your chili with, apart from a binding UN resolution?
Ben: Yeah, my organic oxtails are replacing a quarter tub of REX manteca (lard). Also, instead of masa harina I used Bob’s Red Mill corn flour. What can I say? My chili con carne has been taking anglo-management courses.
As for the sports, I’m afraid they’ve been replaced by podcasts of “This American Life.” But I did use a little tequila to moisten the Mexican hot chocolate and cocoa I threw in towards the end.
As for the Fritos, I usually cut corn tortillas into little ribbons and deep fry them in my wok with a little peanut oil and sprinkle them on top, like in tortilla soup. Alternately, there’s always the chili-cheese burger configuration favored by Ban Ki-moon, or the chili-fries Boutros Boutros-Ghali can’t seem to quit. I think Kofi likes it layered on a thin pan of Jiffy cornbread.
John: Sounds like a shadow government conspiracy to me. If you can’t buy it at the bodega, it doesn’t belong in the bowl. Who will stand up for the Everyman?
It’s on, my friend. Show your cards, and we’ll compare recipes. The Internet — as with all things important — will decide.
JOHN’S TRIPLE-THREAT CHILI
• 1 lb. each of ground beef, pork, and lamb (Three Meats)
• ¼ cup olive oil
• 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
• 1 ½ tbsp. chili seasoning
• 1 tsp. each of Sweet Hungarian Paprika, Smoked Spanish Paprika, Bradley Farms Paprika (three paprikas)
• Red pepper flakes to taste
• Kosher salt and pepper to taste
• 1 large Spanish onion, chopped
• 1 large green pepper, chopped
• 1 large red pepper, chopped
• 1 medium jalapeno, de-seeded and chopped
• 16 oz. of each: black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans (three beans)
• 2 28oz. cans whole or crushed San Marzano tomatoes
• Bay leaf
• Frank’s Red Hot, Sriracha, Tabasco to taste
• 2 cups grated cheese
Any good chili needs to start with meat! It’s what’s for dinner, and you might as well splurge while you can afford it. I recommend ground beef, pork and lamb, about a pound of each. I’ve used veal as well, but the lamb really adds a rich flavor that the veal just can’t. Plus, eating veal is mean?
Haul out a big honking stock pot and heat about 1/4 cup of olive oil. Drop a few cloves of chopped garlic into the oil over medium heat until aromatic. Toss the meat on top of that, along with the seasonings. I’m sure you have Lawry’s from the Piggly Wiggly laying around, but if you feel like an upgrade, both Fairway and Penzey’s have great spice options. A well-stocked spice cabinet is like a well-stocked liquor cabinet: both exist in my house.
Brown the meat but DO NOT drain the fat! The pork and lamb are pretty lean anyway, and the fat adds an indispensable flavor and depth.
Next, add a chopped Spanish onion — cannonball! — and some diced red and green pepper. But not too much. This is chili, not a salad. Incorporate the chopped veggies with the seasoned meat, add the chopped jalapeno and cook until they soften. You could honestly stop here and have a pretty decent burrito filling, but let’s proceed, shall we?
Now you are ready to add tomatoes. Did you know Italians never had tomatoes until they were brought back from America? Fuck yeah! So that gives you license to use any manner of packaged tomato products, including San Marzano.
I do know that any chili worth beans needs beans. Three types of beans to be exact: black beans, pinto beans and kidney beans. Feel free to mix-and-match with your favorite beans, cannellinis would be cool, even black-eyed peas for New Year’s Day. Dried beans are cool if you have the time to soak them overnight, but Goya canned beans are groovy as well. I’m brainwashed by Bloomberg to rinse my canned beans to cut down on the sodium, so I need something to replace the liquid from the cans. Enter beer. Of which you’ve already got copious amounts on hand, because, well, it’s October and it’s the best sports month of the year and you live close to Eagle Provisions.
Add the tomatoes, beans, beer and bay leaves to the pot and stir the hell out of it. Feel free to add your favorite flavor enhancers like Tabasco, Frank’s Red Hot, Sriracha or extra seasonings like red pepper flakes. Chili is awesome in that way: it can be tailored to the tastes of the individual. Your guests can also tart it up after serving, like a good Bloody Mary.
Let it all simmer for an hour or two to merge the flavors. If there’s too much liquid for your liking, you can simmer uncovered to let it reduce to the consistency you prefer.
When it’s ready to serve, line a bowl with Fritos. Do you know how hard it is to find Fritos in Brooklyn sometimes? Top the Fritos with generous helpings of chili, and add cheese. Last time I used Dubliner, which isn’t a traditional chili cheese like cheddar, but it melts and tastes awesome on chili.
Eat two bowls before unbuttoning your pants and settling into an uncomfortable, yet satisfied, coma on your couch in front of the TV. Save or freeze any leftovers: chili, like Jeff Bridges, gets even better with age. It also likes to be called The Dude.
BEN’S CHILI CON CULPABILIDAD BLANCA
• 2 lbs. of oxtails
• 1 tsp. canola oil
• 1 large yellow onion, diced
• 1 medium green bell pepper, diced
• 3 tablespoons of homemade chili powder (recipe follows)
• ½ cup of homemade sofrito (recipe follows)
• bay leaf
• 1 shot of good tequila
• 1 ½ cups of water
• 1 ½ cups of chicken stock
• another shot of good tequila
• 1 wedge of Mexican hot Chocolate
• 1 tbs. of cocoa powder
• 1 pickled habanero pepper, slit lengthwise
• 2 tbs. of masa harina or other corn flour
• salt to taste
• the juice of 1 lime
This is kind of a long-haul, oxtails take some braising and defatting, but the lip-sticky goodness of all that gelatine more than makes up for the wait. I use a pressure cooker to shave some time off the process, but you can totally use a dutch oven if you don’t mind a 4-hour braise time.
Start with the fresh oxtails. Heat canola oil until shimmery on the bottom of a dutch oven or pressure cooker at medium/high. Add oxtails and spend about 9 minutes getting them good and browned on all sides. They should be pretty tame, now. Set aside.
Stir onions and peppers into pot, scraping up that oxtaily fond. When that’s getting transluscent, throw in the shot of tequila, then the sofrito and a bay leaf. After that’s given off some steam add the water and chicken stock, and put back the oxtails, with whatever liquid has transpired.
If you’re using a pressure cooker, batten it down and set it at high pressure (15 psi). When the little tab thingy pops up, reduce heat to low in steps. I usually go down to medium/low (about 4) when it reaches pressure, then down to low (say 2) 5 minutes later. That should keep the tab popped up; set the timer for 1 hour and 15 minutes and go watch the PBS NewsHour.
If you’re using the Le Creuset, bring it to a strong boil and then reduce to a mild simmer, think somewhere between Ray Suarez and Perry Como, mild but not medicated. You’ve got about four hours to kill. Go watch Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home.
Now you should have a nice pot of braised oxtails in an oily brown fluid. Fish out the oxtails and put them into a separate bowl to cool. Discard bay leaf. Pour braising liquid into another container to cool. When they are no longer piping hot, cover both with plastic wrap and store in refrigerator overnight. This is the only way to reliably defat; I’ve never had any luck skimming something with this much collagen in it. Poor Meg Ryan.
What you should have now is a cold brown liquid with a perfect disc of beef tallow on top. Remove the tallow and keep it in a jar in the freezer; it’s great for making hash browns or home fries. Pour the brown liquid into a saucepan, add habanero and bring to a boil.
Use fingers to tear meat from oxtail bones onto a small plate. Try to make sure cartilage caps don’t wind up with the shredded meat. I do this by being proactive and nibbling off the caps myself and spitting them into the compost container when I’m done with them. It’s a Korean thing. I’m pretty sure Daniel Dae Kim does this, too. That’s why his hair is so curly.
Now for some chocolate. Take a single-serving Trivial Pursuit wedge of Mexican hot chocolate and flake it with a sharp knife and cut into a gritty pile. Add this to the boiling saucepan along with the cocoa powder and second tequila shot. Now add the corn flour/masa harina. It should thicken in just a few minutes.
Salt to taste, reincorporate the shredded tail meat and let that Michael Buble for just a few minutes more. Squeeze in the lime juice, serve with crispy corn tortilla ribbons, on fries, or on a cheeseburger. Now remember all the great things immigrants have done for America. Imagine Danny Trejo passing a bowl of lime wedges to Yo-Yo Ma as Edward James Olmos and Linda Ronstadt gently tinkle their wineglass charms and Alice Waters pours. Voila, dinner for my people!
• 4 or 5 dried ancho chiles (that’s actually redundant, anchos are always dried)
• 3 or 4 dried New Mexico chiles
• 3 dried guajillo chiles
• 3 dried cascabel chiles
• 3 tbs. whole cumin seeds
• 3 tbs. granulated garlic
• 2 tbs. Mexican oregano
• 2 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika
Preheat a large cast iron skillet over high heat. Remove stems and seeds from all chiles, and slice them into manageable strips, say about ¼ inch. In a couple of batches, pan roast chiles until quite dry and fragrant, set aside to cool. Do the same for cumin until they are an even toasty brown; you’ll know you’re done when the first seeds begin to pop. Let cool.
Now, again in batches, put a third of each ingredient into a blender and process to the consistency of hourglass sand. You can also use a spice grinder, just up the number of batches accordingly. You should end up with enough for this recipe plus about a cup. It stores well in an airtight jar, and comes in handy for soups and rubs.
• a large onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
• 4 or 5 pepperoncini from a jar
• 6 cloves of garlic, peeled
• 2 pickled habaneros, stemmed and seeded
• 12 oz. grape tomatoes
• 1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into 1-inch
• 1 bunch cilantro
• 5 leaves of culantro (optional, you can replace with a little extra cilantro if you can’t find culantro)
Put onion, peperoncini, garlic and habaneros in the bowl of a food processor; pulse a few times. Scrape down bowl and lock it down. Now let it run, and use chute to add remaining ingredients. You’re aiming for a pesto-like consistency.
It keeps for the better part of a week in the fridge, but I recommend scraping it into ice cube trays for freezing. I almost always have a freezer baggie filled with sofrito cubes on hand. A few cubes should deepen up the flavor of any soup or rice dish.
John Ore and Ben Choi saw TSOL open for X in the 1980s. Just thought you’d like to know.