There are some dishes that people do endless riffs on.
Pizza is one of them. Nothing beats the elegant simplicity of a pie topped only with ripe tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and torn basil leaves, but toppings have gone, well, over the top.
Italians who sneer at pizza with pineapple and ham might be brought to breaking point with the teriyaki chicken, beef rendang and bak kwa that people throw on dough.
Another dish is chilli con carne, a spicy meat stew. There are so many versions of the dish, it is impossible to figure out an authentic recipe.
Some cooks do not use tomatoes, others see them as essential. Instead of minced beef, some people dice the meat into tiny cubes. Others add chocolate or cocoa powder. Some refuse to have beans anywhere near the chilli. And there are those who spike their chilli with beer or wine.
All of this makes chilli con carne a perfect dish to riff on, to get creative with.
Most of the versions I eat suffer from the same problem: They taste musty and are sometimes watery. Both can be fixed easily.
First the musty. Cumin is almost always used in chilli, but the problem is that ready-ground cumin loses its flavour quickly. So I buy whole cumin seeds, toast them in a dry pan before using and grind them up in a mortar and pestle. The difference it makes is startling.
The two teaspoons given in the recipe is a little restrained. I usually use one tablespoon of cumin seeds toasted and ground up.
Old chilli powder is no good for the dish either. Some recipes call for Mexican chiles such as chipotle. That is fine and dandy, but it will take some hunting down in Singapore.
MAKE IT YOURSELF: CHILLI CON CARNE
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 to 3 Tbs instant coffee granules
200ml boiling water
2 onions, about 300g
3 to 4 cloves garlic
4 to 5 bird's eye chillies, or to taste
200g streaky bacon
2 tsp cooking oil
500g minced beef
Two 400g tins of diced tomatoes, with no salt added
One 300g bottle of ketchup
2 dried bay leaves
One 400g tin kidney beans, drained
Salt to taste
Grated Cheddar cheese (optional)
Sour cream (optional)
1. In a dry pan, preferably non-stick, set over medium-low heat, toast the cumin seeds for about one minute, shaking the pan two to three times. The seeds should darken slightly and smell fragrant. Pour onto a small plate and let cool. Then grind the seeds into powder using a mortar and pestle, or a coffee grinder used only for spices.
2. Add the coffee granules to the boiling water, stir to dissolve and set aside.
3. Peel and dice the onions, peel and finely chop the garlic, and slice the chilli.
4. Cut the bacon crosswise into 0.5cm-wide pieces.
5. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the bacon and stir-fry until the oil renders. Add the onions, cook another two minutes or until they turn translucent. Add the garlic, stir-fry for 30 seconds.
6. Add the minced beef and break it up with a spatula. Continue to stir-fry until there is no trace of pink in the meat. Add the ground cumin and sliced chilli, mixing both well into the beef mixture.
7. Pour in the tomatoes, ketchup and coffee and stir to mix well. Add the bay leaves. Bring the chilli to a boil then turn the heat down to low. Cook for one hour, uncovered, stirring every 10 minutes.
8. Add the drained kidney beans and continue to cook at low heat for another 30 minutes. Have a taste and add salt if needed. Discard the bay leaves. Ladle into bowls, top with coriander leaves, and cheese and sour cream if using. Serve immediately, with baguette or cornbread.
What I want is to make chilli con carne with ingredients I can get in one trip to a supermarket. Nobody should angst over it unless one is taking part in a competition with big prize money at stake.
So into my pot go sliced-up bird's eye chilli, available everywhere.
Next, the watery. I have seen recipes which call for wine and beef stock. Both of them deepen the flavour of the finished dish, but the chilli will need a long simmering to get that thick consistency that I like. Patience is not one of my virtues.
The obvious solution is to use just enough liquid so the chilli does not burn and stick to the bottom of the pot.
Aside from the juice that comes with the canned tomatoes, I pour in a bottle of ketchup. Yes, ketchup.
I know there are eyes rolling everywhere, but this is a trick I learnt from a friend's mother many years ago and it has always been my secret weapon in chilli.
The balance of sweet and tart in the condiment brings a brightness to the dish that tomato paste and canned tomatoes do not and its thick consistency stops the chilli from being watery.
And now to another secret weapon: very strong coffee, a tip from British chef Jamie Oliver and a raft of other recipe writers. I am sceptical at first, but now, I cannot imagine making the dish without it.
It adds depth of flavour, the way a little coffee boosts the flavour of chocolate in cakes and desserts. Think of it as a stealth ingredient, such as Marmite, which adds umami to stews and sauces.
Now, two to three shots of espresso in the chilli would be perfect, but I do not have fancy coffee equipment (pourover coffee is too light for chilli), so I use instant coffee granules dissolved in a little water.
Like stews and soups, chilli tastes better the next day, so this is an easy, make-ahead dish that can be reheated and served in a jiffy.
I love eating it with a dollop of sour cream, some grated cheddar and lots of fresh coriander leaves, with cornbread or baguette to mop everything up. But it can be put to other uses too.
Alternate layers of tortilla chips in a baking dish with the chilli, top with lots of grated cheese and stick it in the oven until the cheese bubbles. Serve with dollops of cool sour cream and a sprinkling of chopped scallions.
Make the chilli without beans and spoon it over hotdogs to make chilli dogs. Or portion out the chilli into resealable freezer bags and store them for when you want a bit of spice and zing in a meal.
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