Apr 07

Viv’s Great American Food Adventure: Chilli Con Carne on Baked Potatoes







Greetings one and all. It’s time to spice things up in the kitchen today with another classic American dish … the chilli con carne. As per usual, before starting I did a bit of reading up on the subject and I can say with much certainty, chilli is NOT Mexican in any way. That’s about as far as my facts will take me. The rest of the info on the origins of the first American chilli is so full of myths, legends and outrageous claims that it’s hard for me to digest.



There were far-fetched references of chilli made as far back as the 17th century. One particular story involves a Spanish nun (in Spain) who experienced some supernatural out-of-body experience from time to time. During these episodes she claimed she was able to send her spirit across the Atlantic ocean, bringing the teachings of Christ to the native Indians. Upon one of her returns she was said to have learnt of a recipe which involved cooking onions, tomatoes, venison and hot chilli peppers together to make some sort of a stew.


In the 18th and 19th century there were further myths surrounding the dish … something to do with more Spanish settlers in Texas and the creation of a spicy stew made using tomatoes and hot chilli peppers, but that account was so sketchy I don’t know if I can consider it solid fact. Once account said that prisons in Texas used to feed the inmates on a diet of chilli because it was often the cheapest food to prepare. Over time the prison kitchens got really good at preparing this dish and perfected the recipe, so much so that when a prisoner finally left they would comment that they missed a good bowl of chilli. Chilli was indeed seen as food for the very poor back then. The toughest and cheapest cuts of meat would be hacked up and boiled for a long time until it reached an edible texture. Then, to bulk it up, tomatoes and chillies in equal quantities to the meat would be added and boiled together. Soon this humble dish was being eaten by a wider circle of people, being particularly popular with the ranchers and steerers of Texas and the Great Plains who sustained themselves on what was called ‘brick chilli’. Brick chilli is a block of dehydrated chilli that was easy to pack and transport, and it did not require refrigeration … perfect if you are going to be steering cattle over many months living out on the plains and deserts.




Image source: Wikipedia.org/Cowboy Dishing Up Chilli circa 1939, near Marfa, Texas.



Fast forward a century, and chilli parlours were popping up everywhere across the southwestern states. Recipes were adapted, updated and some recipes were even published. Soon everyone was familiar with the dish and several household names are still in the chilli business today, five generations later. Chilli is a versatile dish. It can be eaten on its own or placed in a flour tortilla wrap along with classic condiments like sour cream, avocado and grated cheese. In Cincinnati they serve chilli over speghetti! When I make chilli I typically go the tortilla wrap way but sometimes I also have it over rice (minus the avocado and cheese). Today tho, I am stuffing baked potatoes with this sauce. R. has been craving jacket potatoes for a while and I have never got round to it coz I am not a huge potato eater, never have been. I can never finish my portion of fries … I struggle even with the Burger King ones.



Chilli con carne + baked potato




Chilli Con Carne

  • 600 g minced beef
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 2 large red onions
  • ½ cup coriander stems, chopped
  • 1 small green pepper, chopped
  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes in sauce
  • 1 can chilli beans or kidney beans
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • 1 tsp smoked chilli powder
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp onion powder
  • 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 300 mls plain water or beef stock
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • salt & pepper





I first learnt to make chilli from buying those Old El Paso™ Burrito Dinner kits … you know, those boxes with everything you need in it except the beef? It was easy coz I’d just dump the seasonings in with the beef, crushed tomatoes and beans and I’d have dinner ready in minutes. If I am feeling lazy I still just use a packet of burrito mix, adjusting the level of heat by adding extra ground chilli powder later. It’s one of the easiest dinners to make on a weekday night … it just needs a long time to cook if you want the full flavour to develop. Although if you were to follow Alton Brown’s methods you’d roast your own spices and dried Mexican chillies, before grinding them down to a powder to use as your spice mix. NEVER, he would advise, should you use pre-ground bottled mixes from the supermarket.



Chilli con carne3



Chop up the onions, garlic and coriander stems. I like my chilli rather chunky so I never pass them through a blender. And that’s it, really. All the chopping work is done.


Sautee the onions in olive oil on a gentle heat. Try not to colour them too much. Once they are soft, add the garlic, peppers and coriander stems. Sautee for 5 mins.


Now add all the spices and gently fry them off with the onions to bring out the full flavour. Keep stirring so you don’t wind up burning them on the bottom of the pot.


Now add the ground beef and break it up into fine pieces. Sautee until all the liquid has eveporated then you can start browning off the meat. The more you sautée, the more you concentrate the flavour. Add the oregano.



Chilli con carne4



Now dump in the crushed tomatoes and the beans. Also add some water or beef stock. Stir to combine and bring it all up to the boil. Cover with a lid and simmer for an hour. In this instance I simply whacked it into the oven along with the whole potatoes and then I pulled them out at exactly the same time. Garnish with fresh coriander leaves and you’re done!



Chilli con carne5



As for the condiments, just gather some avocadoes, creme fraiche, cheddar cheese and perhaps some Fritos, if you’re into that sorta thing. The potatoes are cut lengthwise and flavoured with a pat of butter. Then top it up with chilli and the rest of your favourite topping.



Chilli con carne6



If I didn’t have this sauce on a baked potato then I’d definitely consider having it on a hotdog with extra fried onions on the top. I think I would definitely prefer that. Anyhoo, for all you people out there wondering how to make chilli at home, then try out my version … it’s not a difficult dish to put together from scratch at all. If you feel like you can’t fathom standing next to the stove cooking this for over an hour, then chuck it all into a slow-cooker and forget about it for the rest of the day. Keep it in the freezer for a week and then when you next host your poker night or BBQ lunch, you can defrost the sauce and pour it over some nachos for a quick nibble platter.


Well, we’ve come to the end now. Next week I am going to “visit” the West Coast and put together a Cobb Salad and a Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip. Would like to say I would also be making my own sour dough bread, but I’m not. I am not good with yeasted doughs and when I try they usually end in disaster. So tune in next week for more classic American delights.



~ Enjoy! ~



1. Chilli Con Carne, © Lynne Olver (2000)  Food Timeline FAQ: Mexican & Tex-Mex Foods http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmexican.html#chiliconcarne

2. History of Chilli, Chilli Con Carne © copyright Linda Stradley (2004) What’s Cooking America http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/Chili/ChiliHistory.htm

3. The Big Chilli, Good Eats Season 08 Episode 06 (Alton Brown) Like The Hat Productions.




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