Theme and Variations: Chile Colorado

Theme and Variations: Chile Colorado

Maybe you call it chili con carne, maybe you call it a bowl of red, maybe you call it chile colorado with a Spanish flip of the R. Regardless of how you spell it, every man ought to know how to make it. Most people think they know how to make it--but then they go and make it with hamburger meat, with sauce from a can, or with canned chili powder that's been sitting on the shelf for years. Even Alton Brown uses weird additions like tortilla chips and tomato paste, for crying out loud.

Below, then, is a recipe for the most basic chile colorado ("red chili"); it's a blender sauce that can be thinned for use as a salsa, or used as-is to cook cuts of beef--or even better, venison. It's based on dried chiles that can be found in any store, even non-Mexican ones, in Southern California. Look for them hanging in little cellophane bags, probably off in a hidden corner of the produce department.

Incidentally, like all stews and chiles, this one improves overnight. Consider making it for the next night's dinner; just warm it over slowly in the pot, adjusting seasoning and thickness as needed.

1 Tbsp. oil (grapeseed or non-extra virgin olive)
1 chuck roast, 3 lbs. before trimming
6 chiles guajillos
4 chiles anchos
3 cloves garlic, still in the skin
Boiling water, at least a quart
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 Tbsp. cumin
1 Tbsp. Mexican oregano
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. sherry (or red wine) vinegar
1 Tbsp. flour


Trim visible fat and inedible gristle from the chuck roast and cut it into small cubes, about the length of your pinky nail. This will be slightly easier if the roast is cold (but not frozen).

Rinse and dry the chiles to remove dust, then cut off the stems and remove the seeds and innards.

Heat a griddle or pan, preferably cast iron (but never, ever non-stick) over medium heat until a drop of water dances on it.

Lay the chiles and garlic on the hot griddle and toast until the chiles become soft and the skin of the garlic starts to turn brown. (It doesn't seem like chiles would become soft from dry heat, but they do.)

Put the chiles in a metal or heat-safe glass bowl and cover with boiling water. Let sit 5 minutes to reconstitute.

Peel the garlic when it's cool enough to handle.

Purée the chiles, onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, salt, vinegar and flour in a blender, adding some of the chile soaking water, little by little, to create a pourable, but thick, goop. It should be thicker than it seems like it should be, because the meat will give off juice that will thin it at cooking time.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy Dutch oven or similar pan until it shimmers, then add the meat and sauté until it browns. You will have to do this in batches.

Return the meat to the pan, cover with the sauce, and simmer for an hour (more time, if you have it--this works well in a slow cooker, too). If the sauce seems too thin, stir 1 Tbsp. of flour into 2 Tbsp. cold water and then stir the slurry into the simmering sauce. You'll need to cook this 5-10 more minutes to get rid of the floury taste.

That's the basic theme. The variations? Those are up to you. If you want it hotter, use hotter chiles; a step up from guajillo is chile puya, which you can find in any Mexican market. If you want smoky heat, add a roasted extra-hot green Hatch chile (heresy, I know), or a canned chipotle in adobo. Add a little unsweetened chocolate if you like, or different herbs. You can even add beans, though everyone in Nuevo Aztlan will laugh at you.

The sauce is vegan and you can easily change this to be vegetarian chili by adding TVP or, you know, vegetables. (Don't tell the Texans.) You can make this gluten-free by skipping the flour and making the blender sauce thicker, though it won't have quite the same cling on the spoon.

The future is yours; the sky's the limit.

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