Chili may be the most versatile food known to humans. Think about it: it can go on pasta, fries, chips, hot dogs, cornbread, pizza (yes, yes, such a thing exists even if only in my mind). Did I mention the toppings?! Oh my, the toppings ON TOP of what the chili goes on are endless; guac, cheese, sour cream, crushed tortilla chips, oyster crackers, etc… the possibilities are endless. I think at some point I’ve even had chili with over eggs. And everyone and I mean EVERYONE has a go to recipe they swear by. Lets face it, chili is the (un)official food of football, by which I mean American football. I am no exception to that rule.
Which brings me to the strong sell on why my chili is simply the best, knock-your-socks-off chili ever. You see, my chili looks unassuming but looks can be quite deceptive. My chili is packed with a ton of vegetables, lean protein, heat, and one very special ingredient: cocoa. Mmmmhhmmmm, I said cocoa. No, not the melt-in-your-mouth-milk-chocolate. I’m talking about the cocoa you use to make the chocolate candy. The rich cocoa powder works brilliantly with the heat from the spicy elements in the chili. It melts into the chili, gives it a nice, deep, dark, maroonish color and a depth of a flavor I have yet to find in anything that even comes close to that of cocoa.
Since I’ve been trying to eat better, ya know, like a grown-up should, I’m always looking for ways to add vegetables anywhere I can. And chili is the perfect way to deliver a ton of vegetables, without highlighting it for picky eaters. Some of my brood are picky eaters but they will eat chili with tons and cheese and chips, and vegetables! Shhhh, don’t tell them! All is fair when it comes to feeding the little humans. Lately, I’ve been geeking out over a homemade, outrageously low calorie and low fat salad dressing I’ve been working on. Plus I’ve renewed my love for my caramelized onion and pepper salad with chickpeas. Here’s the miraculous part: my kids are shocked now if I don’t give them salad with their meals. And truthfully, they eat most of it if not all of it. Hey, get creative and serve chili on top of your salad.
Anyway, so the chili starts off with a lot of hearty, bright, fun vegetables like peppers, onions and celery. You can’t help but smile when you look at all the pretty colors. C’mon try to not smile, I know you can’t resist the urge.
The long cooking time may be off-putting to a lot of people, but really, all you’re doing after the initial prep work is letting the chili simmer on very low heat, while the flavors deepen. It’s really doesn’t need much babysitting. If you would prefer to not even worry about stirring occasionally, just throw it into a slow cooker on the lowest setting. I’ve let it simmer up to 8 hours and it makes for the best chili. It’s a great thing to prep the night before and add to the slow cooker in the morning. And think about it, when you come home, dinner is ready to go! How lovely is that?!
Chili night is a lot of fun at my house. I have a smorgasbord of toppings. I don’t think I’ve introduced you to the cast of characters in the manna & spice household.
My oldest, who will be eight next month, The Bookworm and always carries a book with her, is a purist. She prefers her chili with cheese and a lot of tortilla chips. Little Diva, the spunky five year old girl, loves to use the chili as a dip with Fritos and oodles of melty cheese- or if we have hot dogs, she piles it on into the bun and eats the hot dog by itself- her love of carbs makes me so proud. Baby Bear, the three year old who randomly growls (since birth, true story), loves anything covered in cheese and sour cream, which he proceeds to lick off his finger. Amazing what qualifies as a utensil when you are three years old. Mr. Bean, the one and half year old underdog who’s ultrasound pictures reminded me of a kidney bean, loves rice more than he loves anything else in this world and has chili and rice, mixed with cheese. And of course, The Mister, who is the other half of our parental unit, loves variety and will eat chili in every form imaginable. Then you have me; like The Bookworm, I prefer just a touch of cheese and sliced green onions, sometimes a few chips. So there you have all six of us!
- when chopping the vegetables, keep them uniform in size. This way, they will all cook at the same rate and evenly. I start cooking with the onions, so they have a chance to soften and really flavor the pot itself. Then add the celery, cook for a few minutes, and then the peppers. Finally, add the garlic. Adding the garlic in as the last vegetable ensures that it will coat the rest of the vegetables and won’t burn as quickly as it would otherwise.
- add the cocoa powder in the last 20-25 minutes of cooking. If you add it too far in advance, it has a tendency to burn, and impart a bitter flavor. And remember, a little goes a long way.
- The longer you cook the chili, the more the flavors will develop. Just cover with a lid and simmer on the lowest setting and, as it cooks, the color and flavor of the chili will get deeper and stronger.
So what are you waiting for?! Get cooking!
- 2 1/2 lbs ground beef
- 2 15.5 oz cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
- 2 14.5 oz cans diced tomatoes
- 1 14.5 oz can crushed tomatoes
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 3 medium bell peppers (any color combination), chopped
- 2–3 celery ribs, chopped
- 3 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (or to taste)
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp chili powder (or to taste)
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 2–3 bay leaves
- 4 cups water
- 2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
- Heat oil in a heavy bottomed pot with lid on medium high heat. Add onions and cook until translucent but not brown. Add celery and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add bell peppers and garlic. Stir in salt and cook until vegetables begin to soften, about 5-7 minutes.
- Stir in tomato paste and coat vegetables. Add ground beef and cook until the beef is browned, 5 minutes.
- Add paprika, chili powder, crushed red pepper, oregano, cumin, and black pepper. Slowly add 1 cup of water and scrape the bottom of the pot to remove any stuck bits of meat or vegetables. Add diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, beans and bay leaves. Stir to combine. Reduce heat and cover and let simmer, stirring occasionally. Cook for at least 1 hour.
- In the last 20-25 minutes of simmering, stir in cocoa powder.
- Remove from heat, discard bay leaves and serve with toppings of choice