The Wine Lover's Guide to Chili
Photos by Penny de los Santos
Break out your favorite tasting spoon, because June is the height of chili cook-off season. And no one does chili—or cook-offs—quite like Texas.
Just ask Melissa Guerra, owner of Melissa Guerra Latin Kitchen Market at Pearl Brewery in San Antonio. She’s an eighth-generation Texan, James Beard Award-nominated author for her writing about Southern Texan cooking and a one-woman chili encyclopedia.
“Chili is the quintessential Southwest dish,” she says.
In many ways, it’s American history in a bowl.
The earliest stews included venison or rabbit alongside the all-important chili pepper—all ingredients indigenous to the Americas. After Christopher Columbus brought cattle to the New World, chili evolved into the beefy comfort-food dish present-day Americans know and love.
Even the cook-off has Texan roots. San Antonio, a key point along the cattle drives north and west, was home to camps that would set up each night, offering pots of chili by gaslight.
“It was served by legendary chili queens,” who were judged for their beauty as well as the deliciousness of their stew, Guerra says.
These chili queens—ultimately banned from San Antonio’s plazas in the 1940s over health department concerns—were the forerunners of Tex-Mex cuisine.
“Chili and competition has always been a natural,” Guerra says. “It’s a gathering dish. It’s made in large quantities. It’s a dish that brings people together.”
With its bold, spicy, long-simmered flavors, it’s also a natural companion to Longhorn libations including beer and whiskey—and wine from Texas Hill Country.
For pairing chili with wine, Guerra points to full-bodied reds produced in the Americas, particularly those with caramel, chocolate or plum notes. That broad range of possibilities includes Malbecs from Argentina or Chile—countries also known for beef—or sturdy Californian reds. And, of course, Texas-born bottles.
“This is our dish,” she says. “These are our wines.”
The Lone Star State may be the birthplace of chili and cook-off competitions, but it’s hardly the only place to enjoy a soulful bowlful. Regional takes on chili abound: Red or green? Beans or no beans? Meat in hunks or finely ground? Here’s a guide to regional chili variations.
Chili Con Carne
Also known as a “bowl of red,” Texas-style chili takes a no-frills approach. It includes hunks of meat and peppers, but never, ever beans.
New Mexico Green Chili
Usually made with pork, the must-have ingredient is New Mexico green chilies. Potatoes or tomatoes may be included, and New Mexico chili may or may not include beans. (Don’t tell Texas.) It’s not uncommon to find a dab of chocolate in the mix, for a mole-like note.
Developed in the 1920s, Cincinnati-style chili nods toward Mediterranean roots. Whether prepared two-way (chili over spaghetti), three-way (heaped with cheese), four-way (with raw onions), or five-way (with a finishing flourish of red beans), Cincy chili is an American classic.
Kansas City Chili
KC has a long-standing reputation as cattle country, so it’s no surprise that beef takes center stage. It’s usually seasoned ground beef rather than Texas-style hunks, often accompanied by beans. And KC chili is all about the options: choose dry or wet (with meat juices), plus other add-ons like onions, grated cheese or ketchup.
Recipe courtesy The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh (Random House, 2004)
That’s right: the carne comes first in this bowl of red. The recipe originated with Jorge Cortez of San Antonio’s La Margarita, who said the large chunks of meat called for the flip-flop in the name. Chili purists take note—no beans here.
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 pound sirloin, cut into 2-inch by ¼-inch strips
½ cup chopped onions
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon flour
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
2 ancho chilies
Tortilla chips, if desired
Heat the oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven, and brown the meat well, 5–10 minutes, until any water evaporates.
Add the onion and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, flour, cumin, bay leaves, black pepper and salt. Stir constantly for about 2 minutes, until flour is browned.
Add the anchos and 2 cups of water. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Continue cooking, stirring and adding more water, if needed, until the anchos dissolve completely and meat is tender.
Remove any large pieces of ancho skin. Serve in a bowl with tortilla chips—or as a sauce for enchiladas or tamales. Serves 4.
Scott Ota, manager at Arro in Austin and current holder of the “Best Sommelier in Texas” title, recommends the hearty 2011 Texas GSM from Pedernales Cellars.
“Fruity and savory wines work best with chilies that don’t have tomatoes or beans,” says Ota.
“I love the bold fruit tones of this Rhône blend to balance the weight of the beef, and the secondary flavors and savory tones of the wine further highlight the spices of the chili.”
Beer alternative: Austin Beerworks Black Thunder (courtesy of Matthew Gutierrez, general manager & beer savant at Liberty Tavern in Austin).
Recipe courtesy Melissa Guerra, Melissa Guerra Latin Kitchen Market, San Antonio
Technically, this is also a chili con carne, though it’s a more liberal interpretation, as Guerra allows tomatoes and beans. For best results, Guerra says, make it a day in advance to allow the flavors to marry. Add a few seeds from the peppers if you prefer more fire in your chili.
4 ounces dried chipotles
4 ounces dried anchos
1 pound Roma tomatoes, peeled and seeded
1 pound ground pork
4 pounds ground venison, or ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup canned pinto beans
Salt and pepper, to taste
Fill a 6-quart saucepan half full with water, add the dried peppers and bring to a boil. After about 10 minutes, check the chilies to see if they are soft.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the softened chilies from the water, and remove the stems and seeds. Discard the water.
Place the seeded chilies in a blender or food processor. Add the tomatoes and 1 cup of water. Purée well, and salt to taste.
In a large Dutch oven or stew pot, brown the ground pork, ground venison (or beef) and onion for about 20 minutes. When the meat mixture is fully browned, add the puréed chilies, tomatoes and beans. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer for about 20 minutes over medium heat. Serve hot, ladled into bowls. Serves 12.
Ota recommends Duchman Family Winery’s 2010 Aglianico. “I love Aglianico as a grape, because its structure and spice lend themselves to rich, gamy dishes,” he says.
“This particular bottling pairs well because the acid of the wine matches that of the tomatoes, the ripe fruit matches the earthiness of the beans, and the structure of the wine breaks down the savoriness of the meats and refreshes the palate.”
Beer alternative: Hops & Grain Alt-eration Ale (courtesy of Gutierrez).
Recipe courtesy Melissa Guerra, Melissa Guerra Latin Kitchen Market, San Antonio
Originally inspired by a white chili recipe attributed to Helen Corbitt, this recipe was adapted over the years by Guerra’s mother. Helen Corbitt—the Julia Child of Texas—helmed the Zodiac Room at Dallas-based department store Neiman Marcus from 1955–69, schooling Texas palates in the pleasures of fine dining. This recipe—which we’ve streamlined for modern-day cooks—is part of her legacy. As zesty as a bowl of red, some say it was developed so Dallas doyennes could avoid staining their fancy clothing.
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 pounds chicken breast, cubed
2 4-ounce cans mild green chilies
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1½ teaspoons dried oregano
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
6 cups chicken broth (or use beer instead)
4 15-ounce cans Great Northern beans, drained
Monterey Jack cheese, grated
Fresh cilantro, chopped
In a large, heavy saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat and sauté the onions and garlic until the onions become translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add the cubed chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s lightly browned on the outside. Mix in chilies, cumin, oregano and cayenne pepper, and cook for about a minute.
Add the chicken broth (or beer) and beans. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for about two hours, stirring occasionally.
At this point, the chili may be covered and refrigerated—bring to a simmer before serving. Ladle into bowls and top generously with grated cheese, sour cream and fresh cilantro. Serves 8.
“While I am tempted to keep recommending wine, chicken plus cheese equals beer,” says Ota, who recommends (512) Brewing Company’s Wit Belgian-Style Wheat Ale. Non-Texans should feel free to substitute another wheat beer, like Unibroue’s Blanche de Chambly or St. Bernardus’s Wit.
“This pairing works wonderfully because the fruity citrus and carbonation offer freshness to the palate after bites of rich chicken and cheese,” he says “The beer has just enough body to balance the weight of the chili, and the exotic spices of the beer add to the complexity of the dish.”
Wine alternative: Pedernales Albariño (courtesy of Jennifer Gomez, general manager/wine manager at Finn & Porter in Austin).
- 2American Regional Chili
- 3Carne Con Chili
- 4Classic Texas Chili
- 5Chili Bianco