There are few things sadder than a ‘chilli con carne’ done badly. Soggy mince; a sour, acidic tomato sauce; bullet-hard kidney beans straight from a can; the overpowering musk of cumin powder…this is a dish that is surprisingly easy to massacre. Perhaps it has something to do with being a student staple, much like its mince-sharing partner, spaghetti bolognese. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it is often served, entirely unimaginatively, with a bland canvas of white rice. Or perhaps it’s because bad chilli con carne can be smothered in cheese and crammed into a burrito and thereby turned into something vaguely (I stress: vaguely) acceptable, so why bother perfecting the thing?
It may seem bold to pronounce something ‘ultimate’, but when you look at the sheer amount of flavour crammed into this incredible chilli recipe, you’ll understand my rationale. There is no mince in sight, and no floury kidney beans either. Instead, chunks of stewing beef are simmered in a luxuriant sauce that is so packed with tangy, sweet, rich, meaty flavour that you’ll never want to make another recipe ever again. It starts with a dried ancho chilli, which is an unusual variety of chilli pepper. They’re huge, and usually sold dried (you can get them in major supermarkets). They have a wonderfully complex, mild, fruity flavour that gives an aromatic base to the sauce. The chilli is soaked in hot coffee – it might sound crazy, but it gives a great earthy depth to the dish. Grinding the beans yourself makes for a much more flavoursome end product, if you have a coffee or spice grinder. If you’ve never tried cooking with coffee before, this is the perfect delicious introduction.
The soaked ancho chilli is the base of a wickedly dark, smoky puree that coats the beef in the pan and simmers into that incredible sauce. Spicy, smoky chipotle paste; butterscotch-rich molasses sugar; the tang of lime and the aroma of sweet paprika, earthy cumin, floral oregano and zesty orange peel powder (I get mine from JustIngredients, but use orange zest if you don't have any). I cook the beef here in cocoa butter, which gives a luscious chocolate hit to the final dish and again reflects its origins in central America, but you can use any kind of flavourless oil. The smoky chilli puree blends with tomatoes, cinnamon and bay leaves and simmers away for hours as the meat slowly collapses, before you add peppers and black beans for the final cook. The whole thing takes about five hours in the oven, but it’s completely worth it (and you can go away and leave it for most of that time). The meat becomes spoon tender, melting into the dark, thick sauce, slightly sweet but incredibly fragrant, tangy and rich.
I honestly can’t convey how delicious this is. I promise it will be better than any chilli you have ever eaten. The coffee really makes the dish, adding an earthy, slightly spicy note that complements the rich flavour of the beef perfectly. I serve it with homemade flatbreads to scoop up all that moreish sauce, lots of lime wedges to squeeze over, sliced avocado and pink pickled onions. You could, of course, serve it with white rice, but the garnishes add something special to the finished dish. Leftovers are even better the next day, but let’s be honest, it’s unlikely you’ll have any.
The ultimate beef chilli (serves 4 - easily doubled):
- 350ml strong, hot coffee
- 1 dried ancho chilli
- 1 red onion
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 tsp chipotle paste
- 1 tbsp molasses sugar or dark brown sugar
- 1 tbsp lime juice
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp ground cumin
- ½ tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- ½ tsp ground black pepper
- ½ tsp orange peel powder, or zest of half an orange
- 20g cocoa butter or 2 tbsp rapeseed/vegetable oil, for cooking
- 600g stewing beef
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 400g chopped tomatoes
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 red or yellow peppers
- 400g cooked black beans (canned are fine)
- Fresh oregano or coriander, to serve
First, soak the ancho chilli in the coffee for 20 minutes. Halve the red onion; thinly slice half and set aside. Put the remaining onion half, chopped, in a food processor with the garlic, chipotle, sugar, lime juice, salt, cumin, paprika, oregano, black pepper and orange peel powder. Drain the ancho chilli, reserving the soaking liquid, then remove the stalk. Roughly tear the chilli and add to the food processor. Blitz everything to make a dark puree.
Pre-heat the oven to 130C. Heat the cocoa butter or oil in a large ovenproof pan over a high heat. Brown the beef, in two batches, for a few minutes until caramelized on the outside. Return the beef to the pan, add the sliced onion and cook for a minute. Add the chilli puree to the beef and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, to coat everything in the spices and chilli. Add the cinnamon stick, tomatoes and bay leaves, then the coffee chilli soaking liquid. Bring to the boil, cover with a lid and put in the oven. Cook for 3 hours.
After 3 hours, roughly slice the peppers (discarding the core and stem) and add to the pan. Drain the black beans (especially if using canned) and add to the pan too. If the beef looks dry, top up with a little more water. Put the lid back on and return to the oven for two hours.
When the chilli is done, leave it to rest for 10 minutes. Scatter the chilli with chopped fresh oregano or coriander. Serve with flatbreads, sliced avocado, lime wedges and pink pickled onions.