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 Midwestern chili OK, it's not Tex-Mex. So? It's heartwarming, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food, and there's nothing the matter with that.
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Midwestern chili

If you think wine-snob dogma like "never drink white wine with red meat" or "never drink white Zinfandel with any meat" or "never drink a wine with a Parker rating under 90" is tough, you've obviously never set foot in a room filled with baying chili-heads. Tomatoes or no tomatoes? Beans or no beans? Chopped meat or ground meat? Chile powder or dried chiles or fresh? And by the way, is it "chile" or is it "chili"? It's like listening to medieval theologians arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin!

Much of the chili mystique comes from the argument that chili is a historic dish with a long tradition that goes back to the Texas-Mexico border country, was spread across the heartland by cowboys on the open range, and that it was - and should forever be - a pure, unsullied combination of beef and chile peppers, nothing more, without adulterants or fillers no matter how delicious those additives might be.

Much of this mythology is promulgated by two major nonprofit groups in the U.S. that organize chili snobs, er, hobbyists in formal chili competitions leading to championship events:

 The Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI),
sponsors contests leading to the famous Terlingua International Chili Championship on the first Saturday of November in the West Texas town that gave the championship its name. CASI donates all competition proceeds to local and national charities under the slogan, "Making a Difference Through Chili."

 The International Chili Society (ICS),
moves its championship around - this year's is coming up Oct. 7-9 in Omaha - and gives a lot of its proceeds to charity but also holds back a few bucks for serious cash prizes to the winners. The champion comes home with a cool $25,000.

For most chili-heads, according to the ICS Website, "The purest form of chili is traditional red, also called 'Texas red.' Competition cooks spend countless hours adjusting seasonings and ingredients in their quest for the perfect blend of meat, spices and sauce. Most red recipes include finely chopped meat, diced vegetables, tomato sauce or paste, garlic and chili powder."

According to official ICS rules, beans or "other fillers" may not be added. The CASI rule book goes on in more detail to enumerate "beans, macaroni, rice and other similar ingredients" among the forbidden items.

OK, fine. I'm down with that. But having grown up in the Ohio Valley, a long way from the old Chisholm Trail, I have my own strong comfort-food memories of a form of chili that satisfies my taste buds just fine, even if it would get me ridden out of Terlingua on a splintery rail.

I'm talking about Midwestern-style chili, a soupy concoction of beef and chili powder that adds such heretical no-nos as beans, tomatoes, and even sometimes a greengrocer's list of green peppers, carrots and all manner of other strange things. And, horror of horrors, it's invariably served dolloped over a mound of steaming spaghetti, usually topped with rations of chopped raw sweet onions and grated mild yellow cheese.

It's not Tex-Mex, and I love it all the same, and before anybody flames me, please note that at least it's not that cinnamon-scented upriver variation, Cincinnati chili, which is essentially Midwestern chili melded with Greek spaghetti sauce, reinvented by Greek immigrants after World War II. (Although truth be told, on the proper occasion, I won't say no to a bowl of Skyline's or Gold Star's "five-way.")

So what's the difference between competition chili and a good old-fashioned bowl of down-home comfort food? My friend Karen Ellis, a very serious chili-head who has earned a shelf full of chili competition trophies (many of them made of beer cans) and whose team, The Explosive Decompression, earned a seat at the Terlingua finals a few years ago (until an unavoidable call to jury duty intervened), offers an open-minded analysis:

"Meat and sauce without recognizable sauce ingredients is what competition chili is all about. But if you're going to make a pot of chili for family or friends ... adding a few no-no-for-competition ingredients (like green peppers) makes it both more visually interesting and healthier. And it's still chili!"

Here's a version I made recently to celebrate the first crisp autumn night after a long, hot summer. It's pretty close to the local standard, although I did fire it up a bit with some more exotic Mexican spices in favor of the usual mass-market American chili powder. Variations abound with chili, of course, as with all down-home food. To demonstrate, in the procedure notes I'll point out a couple of alternate tips from a recipe of Karen's (based on "Chandler chili," an old, yellowed newspaper clipping from the 1970s).

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two to four)

1 pound (about 1/2 kilo) stew beef
1 medium sweet onion
3-4 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons (45g) chili powder
1 teaspoon (5g) ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3-4 tablespoons vegetable oil
14.5 ounce (411g) can whole peeled tomatoes
1 cup water
14.5 ounce can pinto beans
4-8 ounces spaghetti


1. You want a good, flavorful cut of beef for chili, and it doesn't have to be fancy tenderloin. I often use stew beef chunks for convenience, but beef shanks, chuck or shoulder cuts are fine. (NOTES: Ground beef is OK - it's certainly traditional in the Midwestern style of chili - but I like to use freshly chopped meat. Karen blends a mix of ground beef and meat hand-cut into small cubes to get a varied texture. That's too much trouble for me for comfort food, but I approximate the effect by starting the Cuisinart and dropping in cubes of beef, one at a time, so the first cubes get a thorough chopping while the last few are only in the hopper long enough to be whacked into bite-size chunks.) However you do it, put the finished meat in a bowl and set aside.

2. Peel and quarter the onions and peel the garlic cloves. Throw them into the Cuisinart (no need to clean it first) and process until they're chopped fine. If you like green peppers, as Karen does, add a whole chopped bell pepper at this stage.

3. Gently stir the minced onions and garlic into the chopped meat. Stir in the cumin, chile powder, oregano, salt and black pepper. (NOTES: Midwestern chili is usually made with straighforward grocery-store chili powder. Karen likes Gebhardt's, a quality brand that will add a native Texas accent. I bowed in the direction of cowboy country by using a blend of 2 tablespoons ground New Mexico chiles, 1 tablespoon ground pasilla molido chiles, a finely minced fresh jalapeño and about a teaspoon from a can of Mexican chipotle peppers in adobo that I keep in the freezer.)

4. Put the vegetable oil in a large black-iron skillet over medium-high heat, and cook the meat and spice mix until the meat is well browned. (NOTES: If you're using grocery-store ground beef, you probably won't need any oil in the skillet. I wouldn't use grocery-store ground beef. Extra-virgin olive oil in wrong for this dish; standard vegetable oil, corn oil or canola oil is fine. Karen uses three tablespoons of butter instead of oil, a "secret ingredient" that adds richness and flavor.)

5. Stir in the canned tomatoes with all their juice - you can leave the tomatoes whole, chop the tomatoes coarsely or buzz them briefly in the Cuisinart - and the water. (Some recipes call for a little beer; Karen swears by 1/2 cup of red wine.) Bring just to a boil, then turn the heat down very low and simmer, without a cover, for an hour or so, stirring occasionally and adding a little more water if the mixture gets too thick.

6. For the last few minutes, stir in the canned beans just until they're warmed through. Check the seasoning and serve, with added hot sauce on the side for those who want it. For the full Midwestern experience, serve the chili over hot spaghetti. Or skip this stage and serve it with cornbread for a Southern experience or tortillas for a Mexican touch.

Ice-cold beer or iced tea (sweet or unsweet) may be more traditional partners than wine, but lots of wine enthusiasts swear by a big Zinfandel, and I was quite happy with the husky Rabbit Ridge 2002 Paso Robles Westside Zinfandel featured in Monday's 30 Second Wine Advisor. Off-dry Riesling also makes a surprising match with spicy fare, and for something a little more off the wall, try it with bubbly - a modest Prosecco or Spanish Cava, or Dom Perignon if that lights your fire.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of this recipe, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Midwestern chili,"

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

If you prefer to comment privately, feel free to send me E-mail at

Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives

Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: "Chinese" without a cookbook (Sept. 22, 2005)

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Thursday, Sept. 29, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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