This chilly weather can make us all just shiver! That’s when I love to make my own version of the University of Illinois’ Illini Union Chili. My mom worked at the UI in housing, so she frequented the residence halls and Illini Union quite often for lunch. That’s when we started trying to replicate the recipe. She did the job, too. Over the years, I have made my quick version- under 30 minutes and fabulous- and my simmer and make your mouth water version. I have changed it quite a bit from the original version, but I have to say my chili is so yummy and so savory that you will find yourself smiling when you taste it.
So, here’s my “simmer and make your mouth water” version of my chili fabuloso. First, brown your meat in a large skillet- I use a cast iron chicken fryer- with onion, along with the minced garlic, sea salt, pepper and Italian seasoning. For my basic recipe I use a pound of lean ground chuck. You can use any cuts of beef, sausage, pork or chicken. I have tried them all and they are all fantastic. And I have used combinations of two or three meats, as well. Just stay at a pound or so. And drain the fat. If you use lean meat, this will be minimal.
On the seasonings, I am one of those “just throw some in” kind of cooks, but let’s say use a ¼ cup of onion, a clove of garlic, a teaspoon of both salt and pepper and a tablespoon of Italian seasoning. I really like Aldi’s Italian Seasoning- when you open the lid, the aroma is so wonderful I almost want to wear it. IT’S THE BOMB!! Put in your chili powder now, too. I use two tablespoons per pound of meat. You can use one tablespoon per pound and it still will be wonderful. It depends on your taste. My colleague at the News-Gazette, marketing consultant, Angela Brown suggests to kick it up a bit with some cayenne pepper. Start with a small pinch and keep adding until you get the desired heat that you like. This is great on a chilly day. And please use sea salt. There are great minerals in that stuff!
Get out your soup pot, and transfer the ingredients over!! Next, add the tomato juice to the meat. Start out with a cup or so. Then, add the tomatos, celery, peppers and onion. Yes, more onion. Don’t freak out and run for the breathe mints, you only use a medium onion- I like yellow- for the entire thing. You just add portions of it at different stages.
Let those cook and soften a bit, then add the rest of your tomato juice. I use home made, but you can use store bought, and even use veggie juices, like V-8. It’s all good. I’d say you need about 32 ounces total, or four cups. Keep your heat low to medium.
Now, here’s my secret to my creamy chili- refried beans. Use a 16 ounce can of any brand you like. Or you can do what my mother does: she puts pinto beans in the food processor and makes her own. Add spoonfuls of the beans as it’s cooking. Stir it in. It will start to get creamy and oh so dreamy.
OK, now add your chili beans, black beans and regular kidney beans. Use a regular sized can of each kind. If you want to add some drama with the chili color, use great northern beans instead of the kidney beans. Drain the beans before adding them to the pot. Stir in, all the while keeping that heat set at low to medium. Simmer! Simmer!
Another revelation: ground cumin. This picture has unground cumin in it, so don't get confused. I just like this picture. Start with a teaspoon and stir. Then, taste. Add more if you like. I probably put in three or four teaspoons when all is said and done.
The next amazing addition: lime juice. Put in a fourth of a cup. Stir, simmer and taste. Add more if needed. My goal is to have the chili explode with sweet, sour, savory and spice. Sometimes, I add some orange juice or grape juice to get that sweet taste to come out a little bit more. It’s funny how the different ingredients amalgamate together and sometimes this or that is needed, but other times it isn’t needed at all. Cooking is always a chemistry experiment.
Next revelation: cinnamon. Add a half teaspoon. It just sets it off. The next BIG revelation is from my colleague, editor of The County Star, Christine Walsh. Add one tablespoon of good quality cocoa powder per one pound of meat. It really makes the chili very rich in texture and adds body to the flavor. YUM!! YUM!!
Let it simmer, simmer and simmer. I’d say an hour, at least. The longer you simmer it, the more delicioso it gets. If you want it to simmer longer, put the heat on very low. Add water if it gets too thick. We always serve it up with a dollop of sour cream or plain Greek yogurt, some extra sharp shredded cheddar cheese and chives. Add crackers if you like.
If you want my quick version, email me at: email@example.com and I’ll send it to you. It’s unbelievable, too. Chili on!