Monday, 27 August 2012

Chilli con Carne

This will surprise exactly no one who knows me, but I live my life by lists. At any one time, I have at least six different lists on the go - and I'm not talking entry level stuff like "milk, apples, washing powder". 

I mean serious listage. There's an overarching to-do list divided into three categories - things to do within the next day, week and year. That last category, incidentally, contains all the serious stuff like write a will, sort out pension - things which I'll never get round to doing, but which I write down to make myself feel better. I have a list of things I want to achieve in life (from "buy a house" to "fly something other than economy on a plane"), and things I want to make sure I don't forget to do right now. "Summer 2012" is almost complete, by the way - just a trip to the riverside terrace at the White Hart to go - and "Autumn 2012" is already taking shape. There's a whole google doc for our house, listing everything we want to do/make/buy/paint/fix/move/change/hang in every single room - further subdivided, of course, by timeframe and budget. A list of books I want to read, wardrobe essentials I want to buy, a rolling list of Christmas/birthday present ideas for my nearest and dearest (including things I want for myself) - and, finally, a list of things I want to cook for this blog. I say "finally", but I'm sure that's not all the lists, ridiculous as that sounds. I do feel deeply, deeply ashamed of myself right now for being such a list-loving freak.

The thing is, I don't think I'm particularly unusual. Lots of my friends seem to carry lists around with them, in their head, on their phones or on paper. Frankly, as soon as you start thinking about goals or ambitions, coming up with more than one means you've got a list on your hands, sucker. And while my particular degree of categorisation may be a bit more Cuckoo's Nest than most people would like to admit to, I'm sure one or two of you will be nodding your heads in recognition. God, I hope someone is. I really hope it's not just me.

Of course, like all these compulsions, it all comes down to control and fear. Fear of forgetting something (and waking up in a damp sweat, four or five years down the line, realizing I never sent a thank you card for that lovely dinner on Friday night). And fear of pissing time away without taking the time to make fun happen. The other evening, I met up with a couple of friends whom I worked with a few years ago - the only other survivors from a soul-crushing hellhole of the evil and the damned. It was absolutely brilliant, a perfect evening of gossip and prosecco, and as we said goodnight, we all said "let's do this again SOON!". But you know how long it had taken to organize? Over four months. Everyone's busy, everyone works hard, evenings are scarce and weekends are scarcer, so you end up batting dates backwards and forwards until someone doesn't get round to answering an email and the plan quietly drops. And that brilliant, sparkling evening just never happens.

So at least with my lists, I know things are getting done - both the boring things (take back library books) and the fun things (go out for afternoon tea). And even though I worry slightly about my dependency on my lists - like a mantra, I go around Boots chanting "shampoo, nail varnish remover, mouthwash" - I'm still sure that I'm a better, calmer person with them in my life. Not to mention more polite, more fun, better travelled, groomed and read, more thoughtful as a gift-giver, more ambitious as a person. So what if I'm a junkie? These lists are the secret to life.

Which prompts a hamfisted segue into today's recipe. This recipe ticks off two separate items - a longstanding entry on my "blog this" list (old standbys we love, but haven't got round to photographing yet), and an item on my immediate to-do list, "make food for this week". August is coming to an end and I know for a fact that this week is going to be busy. So busy that I'm anticipating late nights, early mornings, and more than one occasion when I'll walk through the door knackered and ravenous. In an effort to stave off the pasta/pesto cycle of doom, I took some time out of a Bank Holiday cliche of decorating and DIY (no joke - I'm wearing a paint-splattered man's shirt and a perky ponytail AS I TYPE) to prepare one of our favourite comfort foods. It's Nigella, it's easy, it's chock-full of vegetables and needs nothing more than a bland starch and a blanket of melted cheese. I know I've sung the praises of our beloved butternut chilli (not to mention a disappointing pinto bean and courgette one, and a frankly bizarre Christmas version) but this is the real meaty deal. Next time you're powering through your to-do list and you need proper sustenance, I can thoroughly recommend it. After all, I'm the biggest list weirdo in the world, so I should know.

Chilli con Carne
Adapted from Nigella's recipe in How to Eat. As with all these classic recipes, it's flexible - fiddle around with the quantities of vegetables depending on what you've got in the fridge.

- 2 onions (red if possible)
- 2 cloves of garlic
- a teaspoon of dried chilli flakes
- a teaspoon of ground cumin
- a teaspoon of ground coriander
- half a teaspoon of smoked paprika
- 2 red peppers, finely diced
- 2 carrots, also finely diced
- 500g of mince (beef, pork, veal, whatever you want - we normally use beef and no more than 10% fat)
- 2 tins of tomatoes
- 2 tins of kidney beans
- big squeeze of ketchup
- another big squeeze of tomato puree
- salt and pepper
- heaped tablespoon of cocoa powder

Finely chop the onions and garlic (so much quicker in the food processor, if you've got one) and get out a huge, deep frying pan. Something wok-y is your best bet. Add a little oil and the onion and garlic, stirring until they soften slightly.

Scatter in the spices, stir around then add the carrots and peppers. Give it a few minutes for the carrots and peppers to start to soften, then chuck in the meat. Break it up and stir it around with your spatula, trying to brown it all - it'll take a while to do this, but just be patient. 

Once it's all brown, add the tomatoes, kidney beans, ketchup, puree, half a tin's worth of water, and some salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, then scatter the cocoa over the top and stir it in. 

Turn the heat right down to a simmer, and partially cover the pan - if you don't have a lid that size, foil will do. Cook for an hour and half, stirring once or twice, or until it's all thick and saucy. This freezes really well.


  1. Hmmm, I see you have used cocoa powder in the recipe. Would you say it really enhances the flavour of the dish? Would it be as good without? The finished meal looks delicious however.
    Thanks for any reply.

  2. Hi Anonymous! I think the cocoa is essential here, actually. It does make a big difference to the finished dish - I'd worry that leaving it out would mean that the chilli just tasted like bolognese or shepherds pie or any other tomatoey meaty slop. But obviously you could try it without and see if you like it? Or swap the cocoa for a square or two of dark chocolate, if you prefer? Hope you like it, no matter what you try!

  3. Ketchup is chili blasphemy!


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