I was bought up on my mum's chilli con carne; a beef mince and tinned tomato based stew that substituted the mixed dried herbs and bay leaves of her bolognese sauce with a sachet of Colman's chilli spice and a tin of kidney beans. I'm probably making it sound terrible, which it wasn't really, but neither would my heart jump for joy when I saw what was for dinner.
One of my biggest problems was the water-logged tasteless long grain rice that was usually served with the chilli. I was never a fan at the best of times, but when served with the spiced mince mixture the gloopy rice became even less appealing. Luckily I was allowed to eat mine unadorned, or with crusty bread or a baked potato (which, along with pasta, are still my favourite accompaniments). One thing I did really enjoy was the great dollops of tangy sour cream and chives on the side, the best way to cool your tongue from the dry heat of the chilli powder.
After jettisoning all mince based recipes from my repertoire after my student days, it was while living with a vegetarian ex boyfriend that (vegetable) chilli became a staple dinner again; I soon realised that it was as easy, and far, far nicer, to add you own herbs and spices, instead of tearing open a sachet of dusty, acrid chilli flavouring. Further more you don't need any special, fancy ingredients, just the basic cumin, coriander, oregano, cinnamon and chilli powder make a great foundation. Add in some bay leaves, star anise and chipotle and you're really talking.
With a new, omnivorous, partner and following further experimentation, the mince was abandoned altogether for larger chunks of meat. Although good mince can still make good chilli I prefer the bigger pieces that softly shred apart as the stew cooks. Chuck is my standard for chili, although shin is very good too, but after ordering a box of slow cooking cuts from the East London Steak Company I decided to use the magnificent Highland ox cheeks they had supplied. Tough cuts like this demand long and slow cooking, but in return you will be rewarded with a rich and gelatinous glossy sauce, and soft strands of meat that melt in the mouth.
Although the recipe may look a little long and daunting essentially it's a soffrito of vegetables, to which herbs and spices and browned meat are added, add liquid to cover and simmer until tender. Beans are a somewhat controversial addition; while anathema in any Texas-style chilli and banned from the Chili Appreciation Society, I like the sweet, nuttiness they add to a dish and find they can help cut through the rich, fattiness of the meat. I often use black-eyed or black beans instead of the more common kidney, but most beans seem to work well.
One further adaptation is an easy idea from Heston's new book, Heston at Home. The long cooking time, strong flavours and fattiness of the meat can produce a muted and over-rich sauce. Roasting peppers under the grill and adding them towards the end of cooking adds a smoky note, but also a freshness to the chilli. The further addition of beans, fresh chillis, chives and lime really wakes the dish up and makes the flavours 'pop'.
Along with a good spoonful of soured cream and chives a dish this rich needs only plain additions such as crusty bread, corn bread, tortillas or even the dreaded rice. A fresh tomato salsa or some slices of avocado and red onion are also good, and a cold Mexican lager almost esssential. Like most stews of this ilk it will only improve on keeping, and, cold, it also makes a surprisingly fine late night sandwich filling if you've overdone it on the tequila shots.
Ox Cheek Chipotle Chili
1.5 kg ox cheek or beef shin,
Sunflower or rapeseed oil
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 medium onions, peeled and diced
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 dried chipotle chili, soaked in hot water for 30 mins, and finely chopped (or 1 tbsp smoked paprika).
2 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
1 tin chopped tomatoes
300ml red wine
300ml beef stock
salt and pepper
2 red peppers, halved and deseeded (use a jar of roasted peppers, cut into strips, if you prefer)
2 tins black beans or kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 fresh red chili, finely chopped
Chives or coriander, finely chopped
Sour cream or creme fraiche
Freshly squeezed lime juice
Preheat the oven to 150c.
Heat a little oil in a large casserole, season the the ox cheeks and brown on all sides. Remove to a dish.
Add onions and carrots to the pan and gently soften for 5-10 minutes. Add garlic, chipotle chili, herbs and spices and cook for a further 5 minutes, being careful not to burn.
Turn the heat up to high, add the red wine and reduce down by half.
Add tomatoes and stock to the pan and return the ox cheeks, along with any juices.
Bring the chili up to a simmer, place a lid on the casserole and place into the oven for 3 hours, stirring occasionally and topping up with a little water if required.
Meanwhile prepare the peppers. Pre heat grill to high and grill pepper halves, skin side up, until skins are blackened and blistered.
Place pepper halves in a bowl and cover with cling film. Leave for 10 minutes.
Remove cling film and carefully peel as much of the pepper's skin off as possible. Cut peppers into strips.
After about 3 hours remove casserole from oven and check the meat. If it is tender then remove from the casserole and roughly shred with two forks, removing any fat or gristle (if it needs a little longer then return to oven for half an hour or so, or until meat is beginning to fall apart).
Once meat has been shredded, return to the casserole and add the beans, roasted pepper strips and fresh chili. Stir and return to the oven for another hour.
Serve the chili garnished with chopped chives or coriander, a good squeeze of lime and a dollop of sour cream.