Chili without spices

Chef Paul Prudhomme's Seasoned AmericaOne of the first cookbooks that really taught me there was more to cooking than combining a few off-the-self ingredients was Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Seasoned America. Published in 1991, he reinterpreted a broad range of American melting-pot cuisines and “kicked them up a notch” (a few years before Emeril entered the scene). Not only did he emphasize cooking with homemade stocks, something that many home cooks today still see as extravagant, but all of his recipes had two lists of ingredients, the spices and then everything else.

Suddenly visions of a Justin/Paul project dance in my head. Web developer by day, renegade cajun by night. 365 days. 160 recipes. Moving along…

In Seasoned America I learned that chili could be made with cubes of beef (instead of ground) and without beans (remember, I grew up in the Northeast). His “seasoning mix” for Texas Red calls for two types of ground chili peppers (guajillo and arbol), dried sweet basil, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, black pepper, cayenne paper, ground cumin, dry mustard, thyme, nutmeg, and cinnamon. As a budding teenage cook, I thought this was awesome. The more complex, the better.

Which brings me to this post. I’ve heard rumors that it’s possible to create a chili without any spices at all. Or tomatoes. Just chilies and meat. “That’s how they did it in the old days.” Except 99% of the chili recipes out there call for half a dozen dry spices. I want to make a chili with as many fresh, local, natural ingredients as I can. A chili without spices. Chile con carne sin especias? Let’s call it California Red.

So I did some research, specifically on the chilis, and then compared the ingredients across recipes, settling on a typical San Antonio style. Then I Justin-ified it. I’m not quite sure how the final dish will turn out, as I’ve not yet made it, but it looks good on paper. And I cheated a little. The recipe calls for cumin seeds, which is technically a spice. But one which requires toasting and grinding, which by my logic, elevates it.

California Red: a chili without spices

Combine all ingredients and simmer for 3 hours. Thicken before serving using a mixture of a 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 water.

Chili without spices, aka California Red
The finished product, garnished with sharp white cheddar


I think that’s just about how I make chile, cumin’s the only spice I really need. I prefer New Mexico red chile to anchos. You can get a nice depth of flavour mixing a couple of kinds of chiles.

Do you count chocolate as a spice? Because if not, a little bit of unsweetened chocolate really rounds out a chile.

Nelson, glad to hear I’m not alone in my spiceless pursuit. I’m a big fan of mole, so I would not be opposed to adding chocolate (at least in one incarnation).

How much do you usually add?

Not a lot, maybe 1-2 ounces for 3-4 pounds of meat. You don’t want to taste it or make a chocolately mole sauce, just add some earthy depth.

My only other chile tip is I like 50/50 cubed beef and ground beef. Cubed beef for texture, ground beef gives fat. Mmmm, chile. Now I’m hungry.


I have made chili in this Texan sort of way, and I have to say that if you do add anything (besides salt) then it kind of seems to require a little brown sugar to calm down the chile. Seems to be the theme with all the super-spicy sauce type things I’ve been making lately–Thai red curry, mole negro, spicy tomatillo salsa–they all require a little sweet to make them taste “right”

I made it (or a version of it) last weekend for some friends, and it turned out amazingly. I added a picture I just took of the leftovers reheated. Who knew chili could be this good. Next time, I’ll have to try it with chocolate and/or brown sugar.

David Leibovitz confirms that I must try this recipe with chocolate: Chili with Chocolate


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