Chilli Con Carne

A: It seems to me that trying to write a recipe for this American dish defeats the whole purpose of existence of chilli con carne! By its very nature, it is meant to be a mix of whatever is available at hand boiled to a basic pot stew of meats, beans, pepper and spices in water or tomato sauce. It is definitely influenced heavily by at least two Mexican dishes – Picadillo and the Mole. But what we classify as chilli today is of course an American Southwest invention.

As is expected of such an inventive dish, there are various recipes available. The ethos of this dish is to experiment with spices and flavours that you gather on your journey, similar to a journey on a horseback through the Wild West with a brick of dry meat, and cook up a stew when you are hungry. The ingredients, other than the dry meat, could be any beans, herbs, dry spices or whatever you gather on your way. I have tried to stick to this fundamental ethos and picked up the spices on my journey through India, Spain and the UK. Like the original inspiration from Mexico, I have looked up closer to home – to Spain, to spice up my dish. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has really gone deep into this Spanish inspiration and used shoulder of pork and spicy chorizo sausages in his recipe. Although it tastes really good, I don’t think it matches with the idea of chilli I have in mind. So what I use in my cooking is smoked Spanish paprika which has a distinctive smoky chorizo flavour but is not overpowering.

The name of the dish is Spanish, it literally translates to chilli (as in chile pepper or chili pepper) with meat. The word is spelt with a double ‘l’ in UK and India while with a single ‘l’ in North America, but both refers to the members of the capsicum family of vegetables. Also from the name it would imply any meat, but in practice it is usually beef. Originally a fatty chunk of beef was preferred for the enhanced flavour, but now I prefer to use some lean Irish or Scottish steak mince. If you want to go leaner still, I would recommend venison. But whichever mince you decide on, make sure you don’t marinate the meat as that is a definite no-no for chilli cooking!

This recipe is for 4 and it takes about 20 minutes of preparation and 50 minutes of cooking followed by 10 minutes of resting.


500 gm lean minced beef

400 gm tin chopped tomato

300 gm red kidney beans (I use soaked and boiled dry kidney beans, 300 gm is the weight when boiled – not dry weight)

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 large onion, chopped to 5 mm squares

1 red pepper, cut into thick matchsticks, seeds discarded

2 garlic cloves, peeled and cut to small pieces

1 tbsp smoked Spanish paprika (hot)

1 tbsp paprika (normal/sweet)

1 tsp cayenne pepper (hot)

1 tbsp ground cumin

1 tbsp ground coriander (this is my spice from Indian cooking)

1 tsp dried marjoram (or oregano if you don’t have marjoram)

1 tsp sugar

2 tbsp tomato purée

1 beef stock cube

Season with salt and ground black peppercorn towards the end of cooking.


Preparing the vegetables:

Chop 1 large onion into small dice, about 5mm square. The easiest way to do this is to cut the onion in half from root to tip, peel it and slice each half into thick matchsticks lengthways, not quite cutting all the way to the root end so they are still held together. Slice across the matchsticks into neat dice. Cut 1 red pepper in half lengthways, remove stalk and wash the seeds away, then chop. Peel and finely chop 2 garlic cloves.

Start cooking:

Put your pan on the hob over a medium heat. Add the oil and leave it for 1-2 minutes until hot (a little longer for an electric hob). Add the onions and cook, stirring fairly frequently, for about 5 minutes, or until the onions are soft, squidgy and slightly translucent. Tip in the garlic, red pepper, 1 heaped tsp hot chilli powder or 1 level tbsp mild chilli powder, 1 tsp paprika and 1 tsp ground cumin. Give it a good stir, then leave it to cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Brown the 500g lean minced beef:

Turn the heat up a bit, add the meat to the pan and break it up with your spoon or spatula. The mix should sizzle a bit when you add the mince. Keep stirring and prodding for at least 5 minutes, until all the mince is in uniform, mince-sized lumps and there are no more pink bits. Make sure you keep the heat hot enough for the meat to fry and become brown, rather than just stew.

Making the sauce:

Crumble 1 beef stock cube into 300 ml hot water. Pour this into the pan with the mince mixture. Open 1 can of chopped tomatoes (400g can) and add these as well. Tip in 1 tsp dried marjoram and 1 tsp sugar, and add a good shake of salt and pepper. Squirt in about 2 tbsp tomato purée and stir the sauce well.


Simmer it gently. Bring the whole thing to the boil, give it a good stir and put a lid on the pan. Turn down the heat until it is gently bubbling and leave it for 20 minutes. You should check on the pan occasionally to stir it and make sure the sauce doesn’t catch on the bottom of the pan or isn’t drying out. If it is, add a couple of tablespoons of water and make sure that the heat really is low enough. After simmering gently, the saucy mince mixture should look thick, moist and juicy.

If like me you are starting with dry kidney beans, you need to soak the beans overnight. Then boil it in a pan with water for about 2 hours, till the beans are soft. Alternatively you can use a pressure cooker and that will reduce the cooking time to minutes.

Time to bring on the beans. Drain and rinse the boiled beans (or use cooked beans directly from a can) in a sieve and stir them into the chilli pot. Bring to the boil again, and gently bubble without the lid for another 10 minutes, adding a little more water if it looks too dry. Taste a bit of the chilli and season. It will probably take a lot more seasoning than you think. Now replace the lid, turn off the heat and leave your chilli to stand for 10 minutes before serving. Leaving your chilli to stand is really important as it allows the flavours to mingle and the meat.


Chilli is served in various ways. Here I have served it with some American long grain rice and sour cream. You can also serve it in a big bowl at the centre of the table with everyone dipping into it with tortilla chips from round the table. It is a great hot and spicy party food – high in flavour and low on salt.


One comment

  1. Pingback: Micheal

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