Posted January 12, 2005 by Nick Lindauer in Recipes

Chili: How to add sizzle to an old family recipe

Cooking with a friend warms the soul
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

“You can’t leave town without giving me your chili recipe,” I wailed when my friend Marvin Rubenstein announced that he was moving to Portland, Ore.

Marvin, an expansive guy whose cooking always seems just a little larger than life, happens to make the best chili con carne I’ve ever tasted. It’s sublimely earthy stuff, dense with toasty red-chile flavors, all lifted up by a bright tang of tomato. Just smelling it on the stove is a rush.

Now, I don’t want to be drawn into one of those tribal Texas arguments about what does or does not belong in a pot of chili. Tomato works in this one, and besides, tomatoes are good for you. My sole criterion for chili greatness is whether the flavor grabs me and won’t let go. That’s what Marvin’s chili does.

“I don’t try to make it a mystery like those guys at the chili cook-offs,” he told me, “with secret ingredients and only the right bull testicle from the side of the cow pointed toward the moon.”

Indeed. This is cuisine verite chili, incorporating two politically incorrect packets of Williams chili mix and a packet of Wick Fowler’s, too. “I just buy the Wick Fowler’s for the little envelope of masa,” crowed Marvin as we shopped for ingredients on a November afternoon. “I always hated having a 5-pound bag of masa sitting around the house getting stale.”

Like many driven cooks, Marvin has been perfecting his chili recipe for years. Make that decades. Just out of college and a tour of duty in Vietnam, he began fooling around with the basic chili blueprint imparted to him by his uncle Robert Lewis back in 1950s Houston.

He’s been tweaking the formula ever since, bringing it closer and closer to the taste ideal he carries around in his head. This particular recipe is very much a living thing, with a rich familial history that just keeps evolving.

It also is absurdly easy. The rewards of Marvin’s chili, I discovered to my delight, are way out of proportion to the effort involved.

The only catch — the whole secret, really — lies in securing two or three powdered red chiles, which give the finished product its multidimensional character and its pleasant chile burn, which can be adjusted to taste.

(The pure ground chiles required are not to be confused with commercial chili powders, which have cumin and other seasonings added. And let’s dispense with the spelling question right now: In this context, “chili” refers to the dish, and the commercial chili powder that has come to define it in modern times; “chile” refers to the chile peppers themselves.)

Marvin uses a combination of mild, medium and hot Chimayo ground red chiles, all bought on a trip to New Mexico. “They even sell this stuff in the drugstores there!” he exclaimed in his West University kitchen, spreading out his prized powdered-chile packages on the counter. His tone left no doubt that he considered this practice highly civilized.

Here in Houston, the scavenger hunt is more complicated. But a scouring of grocery stores, the Airline farmers market and even the 99-cent stores can turn up ground cascabel chiles, wildly hot pequins, dark and dusky anchos, or ground California chiles with a distinctive mild, sunny taste. Part of the fun of making Marvin’s chili is coming up with your own custom red-chile blend. Smell. Taste. Ogle the gorgeous colors. See what you like. (My current combo of choice is Cyclone brand cascabel, farmers market bulk ancho and the Frontier medium-roasted red chile sold in bulk at Whole Foods Market.)

Inevitably, my chili tutorial in Marvin’s kitchen turned into a reminiscence about his Uncle Robert, and a Houston that is long gone. “Robert’s father opened up a butcher shop downtown in the 1920s,” Marvin told me while he pulsed two humongous onions in the food processor. “It had a barbecue pit in it as big as a boxcar, and that’s where Robert learned how to barbecue and work with meat.

“He had a beautiful voice — he could have been a cantor, and he knew the prayer book by heart, but his passion was cooking. I never saw him use a recipe or a cookbook. His kitchen didn’t have one fancy pot or tool. But he made these great smothered 7-steaks, his smoked lamb at Passover was a family legend, and when he’d come back from a fishing trip and call to say, `I got fish,’ you got over there in a hurry. That was the best fried fish I ever ate.

“They used to call me the human disposal because I was always over at Robert’s eating leftovers,” Marvin confessed, stirring a mess of roughly chopped onion to translucence in a vast enamel-over-cast-iron Le Creuset pot that, with its weight and ability to disperse heat, is a key to this recipe’s success.

Robert’s chili was one of the things Marvin could never get his fill of.

It was pretty basic: hamburger, onion, tomatoes and two packets of Williams chili mix. Over the years, as Marvin’s tastes changed, he refined and streamlined. As a man whose motto has long been, “You can never use too much garlic,” he would add as much as a whole bulb, mincing the cloves and sautéeing them with the onion. He gave up crushing two big cans of Hunt’s tomatoes by hand (“It’s a waste of time.”) and added pre-crushed tomatoes instead.

He dispensed with the fatty hamburger — and the skimming it entailed — substituting a lean chili grind of beef, the kind that emerges in loops as thick as a thumb, imparting a nicely irregular texture and heft. (Marvin buys his chili meat at Rice Epicurean, where the counter guy grinds it to order out of Black Angus cuts.)

But the most radical, and most recent, alteration of Robert’s ancient formula was the introduction of ground red chiles in varying degrees of hotness. “I grew to find his bland,” confessed Marvin as he sizzled the beef with the onions and started the ritual dumping in of the dry ingredients, measuring by eyeball alone. “I started reading about the differences in chili powders and realized that Gebhardt’s ain’t what you want.”

With that, Marvin threw in what must have been two heaping tablespoons of ground cumin, and its dusky-orange fragrance began to fill the room. “Cumin is the only thing I’ll ever add more of,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite ingredients. I just think it adds a funky, homemade taste.”

In went the tomatoes, a small can of tomato paste, and two big tomato-cans of water.

“That’s it,” pronounced Marvin with satisfaction. Raise it to a boil, then turn it down to simmer and put the lid on. It cooks as long as you can stand not to eat it.”

That part was torture. It was a pleasure just to be in the room with this simmering brew: breathing in the aromas that are more seductive than expensive department-store perfume. We sipped one of the dark, rich Negro Modelo beers Marvin favors with his chili. We speculated about the food world of Portland: the salmon he’ll smoke; the berries he’ll eat. We waited for the moment to stir in the masa-and-warm-water paste made from the little packet in the Wick Fowler’s kit.

Getting the chili into the pot had taken about 30 minutes. An hour later, tightened up by the masa paste, the chili began to taste like itself. At 90 minutes, the edges had softened; at this point, you could serve it to great acclaim.

Tomorrow — and the next day, and the day after that — it will be even better.

Kind of like the recipe itself.

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog