You should never go to a chili cook-off without Matt Martinez's Five Ingredient Mix.
Mr. Martinez, the owner-chef of Matt's Rancho Martinez outside of Dallas, says the mix is also a "super scratch recipe" that can flavor 30 or so other dishes, including tamales, blackened chicken and fish, pork and chicken fajitas, and a casserole of pork and cabbage with rice.
For chili, he says, the mix is "real forgiving. If you use too much, it won't hurt; if you under-measure a little, it will still taste good."
The five ingredients are chili powder, preferably from ancho chilies (of the store brands, Mr. Martinez likes McCormick's dark chili), garlic, salt, pepper and cumin.
Although he hasn't entered any chili cook-offs in the last three years, he says in the past he used the mix to win contests in Texas and Colorado. Of course, the mix alone won't guarantee victory over serious chili-heads. Mr. Martinez's other competition secrets include:
*Using venison in place of ground beef. He cuts it into a 1/4 -inch dice and browns it in bacon drippings. Round steak may be used in the same manner.
*Fresh spices. He starts with ancho chilies instead of ground chili powder. He steeps them, then grinds and strains the chili puree. Freshly crushed garlic cloves replace the granulated garlic in his mix recipe, and he grinds the cumin powder from seeds.
*In place of water, Mr. Martinez uses an enriched beef broth, simmering a pot of marrow bones for several hours.
Beans are verboten in most chili cook-offs, but he thinks they help smooth out the chili flavors, so he usually cooks a few in the beef broth. He may also add onion and cilantro. All of the solids are strained from the broth before it is used.
Mr. Martinez uses tomato sauce and peanut butter in his competition chili, too, which are optional ingredients in the following recipe.
"If you want really good chili that everybody is going to like, the tomato sauce will improve its flavor, and the peanut butter has an absolute smoothness that reacts nicely with chilies or red peppers." (He cautions against overdoing the peanut butter, however. "You shouldn't be able to taste it.")
He doesn't thicken his chili with masa, as some cooks do. "Sometimes it makes it a little gritty. I never like to thicken anything with flour, either. I use cornstarch in all my sauces and to give soups a little body."
As for cooking time, Mr. Martinez says that when the meat is first cooked, it will be tough. "When it gets tender, quit cooking it or it will flake apart."
Mr. Martinez says the meat, his special mix and water make "basic cowboy chili."
To see how each optional ingredient changes the dish, he suggests tasting it in stages: before and after adding the cornstarch, then after adding tomato sauce, and finally after adding the peanut butter.
You can throw in onions and green bell pepper to your taste, he says. For spicier chili, add whole chili peppers.
For toppings with the chili, offer shredded Cheddar, chopped onions, cilantro and sliced fresh chili peppers. Serve nacho chips or saltines with it.
Five ingredient mix
4 parts ground cumin
3 parts granulated garlic
1 1/2 parts salt
1 part coarse-ground black pepper
10 parts dark chili powder
Mix all ingredients well. Store tightly covered in a cool, dark place. Amount will vary according to the measure used for each part; using 1 teaspoon per part will make enough mix to prepare three batches of the following chili recipe.
Serves two as a main dish.
1 pound ground beef (preferably a coarse chili grind)
4 tablespoons five-ingredient mix water or beef broth
1 teaspoon cornstarch (optional)
4 to 6 tablespoons tomato sauce (optional)
1/2 teaspoon smooth peanut butter (optional)
In a heavy skillet, preferably cast-iron, brown meat until it renders most of its fat.
Add 3/4 cup water and let it cook down again, then place meat in colander and shake out as much fat as possible.
Return meat to skillet and add the mix. Cook for several minutes, stirring, to blend chili mix with meat. Don't worry if the ingredients stick to the skillet a little; Mr. Martinez says it will improve the flavor.
Add 2 cups of water or beef broth; bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer chili, uncovered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until meat is tender.
To add body to the sauce, dissolve cornstarch in 1/4 cup water and stir into chili just before it is done.
To cut the sharpness of the chili and cumin flavors, add tomato sauce at the end. Addition of the peanut butter will result in a still smoother taste.