Over the past decade, a fierce chili battle has been waged between the Knoxes and the Smiths. Each October, a champion chili has been chosen, and each October, that chili has belonged to me. Rodney put forth his most valiant effort this past year, even upping the game by adding steak to his chili, but alas, nothing can thwart this queen (that’s right!) of spicy meat-and-bean stews. I’d like to note that I even won with a vegan chili during a period of time when we were vegetarians. Take that!

I’m going to divulge my secrets to you, but maybe not all of them. Who knows? Only me! Mwahahaaaa! I’ve made small adjustments to my chili over the years, but the basic recipe has remained the same. This recipe started with my Polish mother’s fascination with chili, which was very tomato-y and never spicy. I’ve adapted her recipe to fit my own tastes and fall more in line with a traditional American-style meat-and-beans chili.

Making chili is easy if you follow some simple guidelines:

1.    Do NOT, under any circumstances, use a crockpot.

No chili soup here!!

These days, I use my crockpot for making dog food. I have never had success with using that stupid thing for anything good. Whatever I make in a crockpot is overcooked, or mush, or just off. I’m better at stovetop cooking, and I believe a good chili needs to have the lid off to let the liquids evaporate, leaving you with a thick, delicious, saucy stew. I don’t want chili soup from a crock pot. Thin chili is one of my top cooking pet peeves.

2.    Season well and often.

Why are people afraid of seasoning? Everything needs salt and pepper. Lots of it. As well as paprika, smoked paprika, chili powder, onion powder, garlic powder, chipotle powder, ancho chili powder, cayenne pepper, and a little bit of sugar and so on! Yes, there’s more! Don’t be afraid to add flavor to your chili and to anything else you make. Depending on the spice, a little goes a long way. Add a little and see how it tastes. Do you think it needs more? Then add some more! I tend to “eyeball” everything, because I cook a lot and know my amounts by sight, but if you feel better about measuring, then go ahead. If you think that a certain amount is too much, then add less and taste it. That’s how cooking and learning goes. Just don’t be afraid of it! One thing to keep in mind: You can always add more seasoning, but you can’t take it away.

Cooked turkey & vegetables, before adding spices & tomato paste

After adding spices & tomato paste

3.    Use smoked seasonings and a variety of chili powders to add depth of flavor.

One of the best things that I’ve added over the years is smoked seasonings, such as smoked paprika. Cumin has a smoky flavor, so I use that too, as well as chipotle powder (or you can use the canned peppers and sauce—pretty spicy stuff, but really flavorful). Anything smoked should be used sparingly at first. Fresh smoked spices are potent, and a little goes a long away. Again, start with a small amount first and then taste. You don’t want the smoke overpowering all the other flavors you are carefully constructing into a Tex-Mex symphony.

4.    Don’t be afraid of a little char at the bottom of your pot.

If you happen to encounter a little bit of char at the bottom of your pot as your chili cooks and thickens, don’t panic! It’s not burned and ruined. Of course, don’t burn your pot of chili, but don’t worry too much. First of all, once you’ve brought the chili up to a boil, stir the pot pretty often and keep it on a low flame to simmer. That will help to avoid any serious burn. But if you happen to stir a bit less than you should and end up with some charred beans or veg at the bottom of the pot…eh, it’s ok. The flavor plays well with the smoked seasonings!

5.     The longer you cook it on a tiny flame, the better it will be.

I cook this chili forever, meaning at least two hours after I bring it to a boil and turn it down to simmer on low. The longer chili cooks, the better it will be. It gets thicker, more concentrated and more delicious as the flavors open up in the tomato sauce and the vegetables break down a little bit. Simmer the chili for two to four hours to achieve the right consistency. If you like it really thick, go for longer. Under no circumstances do I recommend less than two hours on low heat. Good chili cannot be rushed.

One last thing: I never, ever, ever use beef for my chili. I find it to be greasy and kind of dry, and I don’t enjoy the flavor of beef in this application. Instead, I use ground turkey. People are always surprised that it’s not beef because of the rich flavor you get from the meat and seasonings, but yup, it’s turkey. If you are vegan or vegetarian, here’s a delicious way to avoid using fake meat, soy or gluten-based products in your chili—use mushrooms. Get two to three packs of mixed mushrooms (baby Portobello and white button are just fine, but you can definitely add some shiitake mushrooms as well). Chop them very finely and sauté on medium-high heat in a separate pan in 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil until all of the moisture has evaporated and the mushrooms have browned nicely. Add to the chili and cook as you would with meat.

Well, I commend you for making it through this rather obsessive chili manifesto to the actual recipe! I hope you enjoy it and make it often, especially when the weather is cool and you need something warm and comforting in your belly.

Battle Winning Chili

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 lb. ground turkey (not turkey breast)
1 large white onion, chopped
2 sweet bell peppers, any color, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 jalapeno peppers, finely chopped
1 tablespoon sea salt or kosher salt
½ tablespoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons your favorite chili powder
1 tablespoon ancho chili powder
1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
1 tablespoon paprika
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon onion powder
½ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon coriander
1 small (6 oz) can tomato paste
1 dried bay leaf
2 cans dark red kidney beans (or 1 can light and 1 can dark), rinsed
1 can black beans, rinsed
1 can pinto beans, rinsed
1 large (28 oz) can petite diced tomatoes
1 large (28 oz) can crushed tomatoes
Water, chicken or vegetable broth, or your favorite brown ale or American porter.

Suggested for serving:
Shredded cheese such as cheddar, colby, Monterey jack, pepper jack, chipotle jack, or Cotija
Chopped green onions
Avocado or guacamole
Jalapenos, sliced, pickled or fresh
Sour cream
Saltines or oyster crackers
Tortilla chips

In a large pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add the turkey and brown thoroughly. Add chopped onion and cook for 3 minutes. Add peppers and cook for another 5 minutes. Add garlic and jalapeno peppers and cook until fragrant. Add salt and pepper. Some liquid will be released from the vegetables and meat once the salt is added. Let some of this liquid cook off for 3-5 minutes before adding additional spices.

Add chili powders, paprika, cayenne, garlic powder, onion powder, cumin and coriander. Cook for 3-5 minutes, until fragrant and the spices darken. Add tomato paste and cook for another 5-7 minutes. The tomato paste will also darken and caramelize, reducing the acidic tomato taste and deepening the flavor. Add the bay leaf.

Next, add all of the drained beans and mix gently. Add the petite diced tomatoes and crushed tomatoes and mix together again. At this point, add 1-2 tomato cans of water to thin the chili. You’ll need this water to carry the ingredients through the cooking process. It’ll evaporate over the next several hours.

Bring the chili to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium low and keep it at a slow simmer for the next several hours. Do not cover! Check it periodically and stir well from the bottom to keep the heavier ingredients from sticking and burning. Simmer for 2-4 hours, depending on desired chili thickness.

Taste for seasoning near the end of the cooking process. The flavors will intensify as the water evaporates, and you don’t want to over-season. You can always add more of a certain flavor, but you can’t take it out.

Serve with your favorite toppings. Got leftovers? Try chili mac (over macaroni and cheese or even just plain elbow pasta), chili nachos, frito pie and chili dogs. This chili also freezes fantastically well, so if you make too much to consume at once, just stick it in the freezer and come back to it in a few weeks.