How to cook like a Mad Scientist: Chili

Taking a break from Meety Monday this week! Instead, enjoy a post from Jason about how to make chili..

I cook most of the meals around here. Usually it's something simple that I know by heart, but sometimes as desire or necessity dictates I make something up as I go.

Mad Science

It's science because I'm using what I know from recipes I've made before, keeping some things consistent and varying others. It's mad because I don't measure anything or collect any data on my results. But I do learn from experience and I'm here to share what I know to help you cook chili like a mad scientist.

Chili is a fantastic one-pot meal that can be almost infinitely varied depending on what spices you have on hand. Here's the method to the madness:

Step 1: The protein
  • Any kind of ground animal is the obvious choice, but there are so many more options. 
  • Tofu: go with the firmest you can find, chop into cubes or crush in your fist (more satisfying). If you want tofu to have a more crumbly texture you can freeze it: drain as much water out as you can, freeze through, thaw all day (or nuke it till it's soft again), then smash it to bits.
  • Tempeh: it frys up crisp and crumbly, just break it up.
  • Seitan: also called wheat meat, it's made entirely of gluten. Look it up, it's easy to make.
  • Nothing: you can skip this step entirely and put in a lot of beans for protein later. Maybe even start with some sturdy vegetable like carrots. Do some science to it.
Get your biggest pot because you are gonna wanna make a lot of chili. If you're not using a meat with some fat in it already you're gonna want to throw some kind of oil in there first. Crank up the heat and brown up the protein.

Step 2: The spices

Ground chili peppers are traditional, and i guess it's not technically chili if you don't use chili =)

However you can use whatever spices you want, you just gotta use a lot, several tablespoons at least. Be careful though; if you're main spice is very hot, you want to mix it with something milder so you don't create ultra-chili.

(I once used all ground chili instead of a mix. I called the result ultra-chili. It was inedible by itself but I used a small amount as a starer and added a whole pot of other ingredients to it to cool it down to regular chili temperature. Remember even your 'failed' experiments can be useful)

Put your chosen mix of spices in a bowl and add water till it's a sauce of sorts, then pour it into your pot.

Step 3: The body

Right now you've got incredibly over seasoned protein so let's add a liquid medium for your chili to be suspended in (science!).

  • Tomatoes: canned with the juice, or fresh chopped or crushed (you may need to add water)
  • Coconut milk: for a Thai curry sort of feel
  • Soup: I have used cartons of blended soup like pumpkin, or sweet potato.
  • Other: think of an interesting combination? go crazy =)
Once your liquids start boiling, be sure to turn the fire down low so it can simmer.
Step 4: The beans
I like my chili with beans but they're quite optional. Any variety of canned beans works, just drain and rinse them before you throw them in. Dry lentils cook through fast though you may need to add some water to make sure there's enough for them to absorb. I've never tried other dry beans, they may take far to long if added at the end. You'll probably want to cook dry beans separately ahead of time.
Step 5: finishing touches
Time to taste things and adjust. Here's some troubleshooting tips
  • Too hot: Add a base like coconut milk (or any other milk)
  • Way too hot: Divide your chili in 2 and add more of the other ingredients to spread the heat out
  • Not hot: Add cayenne pepper (carefully)
  • Not enough flavor: This is of course relative, but try a little salt and/or black pepper.
  • Too thin: Ladle some of your liquid into a bowl and add any kind of flour (wheat, masa, even corn starch) until it is pancake batter consistency. Then pour that back into the chili and keep simmering for a bit. Or you can just let it simmer uncovered until enough water evaporates
  • Too thick: More of your body, or just plan water can be added.
Chili is done! Maybe throw some cheese and corn chips on that, or chopped onion if you like. I hope you enjoy your creation, and I hope you have leftovers. It'll be even better tomorrow, perhaps on a biscuit =)