I tasted my first Black Bean Chili at the venerable Green’s vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco many moons ago. It was singularly delicious—an intriguing amalgam of deep, yet clean flavors. Since then, I have created numerous variations on the black bean soup and chili theme. This is the latest and quite possibly the best so far.
But titling this dish is a conundrum due to the spelling of the word, chili or chile. It always surprises me how worked up some folks get about a misspelling or mispronunciation. Sometimes the rebuke resembles real indignation. I have also noticed that the indignant person is frequently incorrect. J
This said, I have been rebuked more than once on my spelling of the word, chile. To set the record straight (maybe), chile with an “e” at the end is the Spanish spelling, and thus the more authentic spelling. Chili with an “i” at the end is the Americanized spelling, and I see no reason for indignation if someone prefers to use this spelling. Do we chastise folks for using the Americanized pronunciations for crepe (a hard “a” rather than a soft “e” in U.S. English), or provolone or mascarpone (no “a” at the end in U.S. English)? Let’s hope not.
According to about.com, the “i” version began with the name for the American Southwest dish, Chili Con Carne, which was later shortened to chili. Blended chili powders typically feature the “i” spelling (such as Gebhardt chili powder), while single variety chile powders (ancho, chipotle, New Mexico, and so on) almost always feature the “e” spelling.
Of course, all chiles are members of the capsicum pepper family, so chile pepper is also correct. But I have also seen it spelled chilipepper. Are you confused yet?
This said, when I refer to an American Southwest dish of chopped meat and/or beans simmered in a sauce containing dried chiles, I use the spelling “chili.” When I specify the chiles to use for the dish, I use the spelling “chile.” This makes sense, to me at least.
But regardless of how you spell it, you will love this chili, with its layer upon layer of subtle, evocative, and deeply satisfying flavors. It is best made one or more days ahead, making it the perfect dish for a casual gathering of friends on a long, lazy, winter afternoon. Perhaps New Years Day watching football games around the fireplace?
Black Bean Ancho Chili
This chili is a gorgeous, deep mahogany color, which sets off nicely against a white or black wide-rimmed bowl. You can add a lot of drama to the presentation by presenting a platter of colorful chopped garnishes, from which guests can choose.
The balance of flavors is perfect, with pervasive deeper flavor notes of black beans, ancho chilies, tomato, and cumin; and higher, vibrant flavor notes of cinnamon, cloves, and lime.
Finally, this is a meal in a bowl. At most, you might serve with a light salad (possibly containing orange or grapefruit segments) tossed with a citrus vinaigrette. Also, cornbread or cornmeal muffins make a perfect accompaniment.
TIMING NOTE This chili benefits from a day or more of mellowing in the refrigerator, so do make it ahead if you can. In any case, you must either allow 8-12 hours to presoak the beans or use the alternate one-hour presoak method. Both methods produce good results. After presoaking the beans, allow an additional two hours to cook the beans until tender.
Ancho chiles are dried poblano chiles. They are mildly piquant and almost black in color. Although I have always made this dish using ancho chiles, I could not locate them in downtown Portland this past week. Whole Foods was out of them and Safeway had no dried chiles at all. So I scored New Mexico chiles at Whole Foods and used them instead. The flavor of the finished dish was quite different from usual but excellent nonetheless. The heat level was also amplified in a good way. The dish was not too piquant, even will a full ½ cup of New Mexico chile paste.
TECHNIQUE NOTEIf you are unfamiliar with the dos and don’ts of preparing chile peppers, see this helpful picture tutorial, Preparing Dried Chile Peppers (at the bottom of the web page).
5 cups dried black beans (two 1-pound packages) (makes 12 cups cooked beans)
4 dried ancho chiles
½ cup olive oil
3 cups minced yellow onion (one large or two medium-large onions)
two 14½-ounce cans crushed tomatoes (about 4 cups)
1½ cups diced green bell peppers
½ cup stemmed, seeded and deribbed, minced jalapeno chiles
4 cloves garlic, peeled, and minced or pressed
2 tablespoons dried cumin seed
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1½ tablespoons ancho chile powder (or sweet paprika)
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more if you want a hotter brew)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
¼ cup fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons salt (you will probably want to use more, as black beans require a lot of salt)
freshly ground black pepper
½ pound jack or cheddar cheese, grated
½ cup sour cream
1 lime, cut into 8 wedges
8 sprigs cilantro
½ cup chopped tomato
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
½ cup chopped red, yellow, or orange bell pepper
½ cup chopped jalapeno chile pepper
½ cup chopped green onion
½ cup chopped red onion
½ cup chopped cilantro
½ cup chopped dry roasted peanuts
Sort through the beans and remove any irregular looking ones. Rinse well. Place beans in a large non-reactive (stainless steel or enamel) soup pot or stovetop casserole and add cold water to cover by 3 inches. Then, cover and let hydrate for 8-12 hours; or bring to a boil, remove from the heat, cover, and let hydrate for 1 hour.
Drain the beans and rinse well, add to a clean soup pot, add cold water to cover by 3 inches, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 1¾ hours or just until tender. While simmering, add more water to keep the beans covered by 3 inches.
When the beans are tender, strain them in a large bowl, reserving all of the liquid. As the liquid settles, pour the lighter liquid on top off to a separate container.
Put the ancho chiles in a small bowl and cover with boiling water. Let hydrate for 15 minutes, then stain the water into a small saucepan and reduce to 1 cup of liquid. Core the chiles and remove the seeds. Chop finely. You will have about 1/3 cup of chile paste.
In a large soup pot or stovetop casserole, add the olive oil and slowly cook the onions until soft and translucent, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small, nonstick sauté pan, heat the oregano and cumin for several minutes over medium-high heat, until the fragrance is toasty but not burnt. Add the paprika, red pepper flakes, cinnamon, and cloves, and then add the mixture to the onions. Sauté for 2 minutes.
Add the ancho chiles, 1 cup of reduced chile liquid, tomatoes, green bell peppers, jalapeno chiles, and garlic to the soup pot. Simmer slowly for 10-15 minutes to meld the flavors.
Add the cooked black beans, 2 cups of the thicker black bean liquid, and the chicken stock.
Adjust the consistency of the chili by adding additional cup increments of the thicker black bean liquid, adding the remaining thinner liquid only if necessary. For this recent batch of chili, I used a total of seven cups of liquid (counting the stock, chile soaking liquid and black bean cooking liquid).
Add the lime juice, and season to taste with additional salt and freshly ground black pepper.
To serve, ladle 2 cups of hot chili in each heated soup bowl. Put a spoonful of sour cream on top of each bowl of chili and sprinkle with cheese. Nestle a sprig of cilantro in the sour cream. If desired, surround the chili with small bowls of each of the optional garnishes and let guests help themselves.