Recipe: Laura Moon’s chili

“Laura made a great chili. She used lean-cut meat, dark kidney beans, carrots cut small, a bottle or so of dark beer, and freshly sliced hot peppers. She would let the chili cook for a while, then add red wine, lemon juice, and a pinch of fresh dill, and, finally, measure out and add her chili powders. On more than one occasion Shadow had tried to get her to show him how she made it: he would watch everything she did, from slicing the onions and dropping them into the olive oil at the bottom of the pot on. He had even written down the sequence of events, ingredient by ingredient, and he had once made Laura’s chili for himself on a weekend when she had been out of town. It had tasted okay–it was certainly edible, and he ate it, but it had not been Laura’s chili.”

-American Gods, by Neil Gaiman


Oh boy.

I have been looking forward to making this since before I even read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods two summers ago. By then, I had already progressed from hating all beans that hadn’t been made into bean dip or hummus (that lasted for most of my childhood), to tentatively choking down a few beans just to make my parents happy, to deciding beans weren’t all bad due to a warm First-Year Trips burrito on a cold night (being hungry helped too), to enthusiastically gulping down hot bowls of chili after a long race or day of skiing (I think the turkey chili we made at my first Dartmouth training camp was the first chili I really, genuinely liked). I got the odd bowl of chili at Collis when the entree and the rest of the soups didn’t appeal. Still, I can’t say I was a real fan of chili except as a post-workout food.

Step one: browning the ground beef.
Step one: browning the ground beef.
The first few ingredients (after the meat). That's a lot of chopping to do...
The first few ingredients (after the meat). That’s a lot of chopping to do…
Several minutes and one nearly-sever fingernail later...
Several minutes and one nearly-sever fingernail later…

With my eating options significantly reduced last year after my wheat allergy diagnosis, I found myself becoming more of a chili connoisseur. I sampled at various dining halls and figured out what ingredients cropped up over and over in my favorite versions. And sometimes, when I’d had a mediocre cup, I thought to myself, “If I had a crockpot, I’d try making Laura Moon’s chili.”

Pretty spices (too much cocoa powder, but whatever).
Pretty spices (too much cocoa powder, but whatever).

I’ve rambled on quite enough here, so let’s just say that after making another chili recipe without the aid of a crockpot, I decided to just go for it.

Just added the browned beef and some more beer and gave the pot a quick stir to coat everything in spices. Hence all the brown.
Just added the browned beef and some more beer and gave the pot a quick stir to coat everything in spices. Hence all the brown.

My alterations: after reading The Kitchn’s posts on how to make chili and how not to do it, I thought there were a few issues with Gaiman’s description of Laura’s cooking process. First of all, I thought it was a bit weird that the first step is cooking the onions in olive oil, when most people with start by browning the meat. I was also concerned that adding the red wine later would give a really wine-y chili. I compromised by deglazing with beer and adding the wine afterward, but before the long simmer, with the idea that the alcohol would cook off. I added a few cups of broth to the recipe, since (a) needed to use some up to clear freezer space and (b) thought that it might not be soupy enough otherwise, based on my previous experience. I decided to double the amount of cocoa to 2 teaspoons, because I wanted it to be a little more present than as just a “secret ingredient.” Finally, I added in a can of corn, because I love corn in chili and thought the sweetness would go well with the chocolate.

Just added the broth and wine.
Just added the broth and wine.
Adding tomatoes and beans. Now it's really chili!
Adding tomatoes and beans. Now it’s really chili!

Everything went well except for one little detail: instead of adding 2 teaspoons of cocoa powder, I accidentally added 2 tablespoons! Oops. I compensated by adding more of everything else, basically…so the spice quantities I actually used are different. I based the ones I wrote down on The Kitchn’s guide. Of course, preferred spiciness and spice ratios are quite a personal thing, so maybe just think of it as intentionally free-form.

Last few ingredients: lemon juice and chopped dill.
Last few ingredients: lemon juice and chopped dill.

In the end? Well, there was no one, special thing that made it transcendent, but maybe that’s not the point. I hate to be cliche, but I think the real secret ingredient that Shadow was missing in American Gods was the fact that it was Laura who made it for him. It’s got a bit more meat than my personal preference; I might add a can of black beans next time, since I like them more than kidney beans, and that would reduce the meat-to-everything else ratio a bit. It was also kind of soupy, but then, I did add quite a bit of broth, so I might reduce that to 1-1.5 cups. I was skeptical about adding wine, but I actually think it’s even better than the beer in this context. Since there’s meat in this chili, (in contrast to the last one I made), you don’t need the savory oomph of the beer so much, and the wine adds a nice fruity note that’s complemented by the freshness of the lemon and dill.

Yummy with a dash of hot sauce!
Yummy with a dash of hot sauce!

All analysis aside, this makes a mighty fine pot of chili.

Laura Moon’s Chili

Adapted from Food Through the Pages and TheKitchn.

Yield: 8-10 servings

1 tsp-3 Tbsp olive oil
1 lb ground lean beef (I used 5%) or lean diced beef
1-2 onions, diced
6 medium carrots, diced
2 bell peppers, diced
2 freshly sliced hot peppers
Chili powders, to taste (start with ~1 Tbsp)*
1 tsp cumin
Pinch of turmeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp unsweetened cocoa
Salt, to taste
1 12-oz bottle of dark beer
1/2 c red wine
2.5 c broth
28 oz. can crushed tomatoes (fire roasted are best)
2 15-oz cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 can corn, drained and rinsed
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp fresh dill, finely chopped

Optional garnishes: chopped green onions, chopped cilantro, shredded cheese, hot sauce, sour cream, chopped avocado.

Warm 1 tsp-1 Tbsp olive oil (less if using ground beef, more if using diced beef) in the bottom of a large, heavy soup pot over medium heat. Add the beef and brown it, breaking up into chunks as it browns if using ground beef. Once done, transfer the meat to a clean dish or plate using a slotted spoon. If there is a lot of excess fat from ground beef, remove some of it. You can also blot the meat using paper towels, and even rinse it to remove some of the fat, if desired. If you used lean diced beef, add 1-2 Tbsp olive oil to the pan if you think the vegetables are really going to stick (some sticking is okay).

Add the onions to the pan and cook until softened and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the carrots and peppers (bell and hot) and continue to cook until softened, another 5-8 minutes. It’s normal for a dark sticky crust to start forming on the bottom of the pan.

Add the chili powder(s), cumin, turmeric, cayenne pepper, cocoa, and some salt to the vegetables. Stir until the vegetables are coated and the spices are fragrant, about 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Pour 1 c of the beer into the hot pan. Scrape up the dark sticky crust as the liquid bubbles. Continue scraping and stirring until the liquid has almost evaporated.

Add the browned meat back into the pan along with the rest of the beer. Pour in the broth and red wine. Bring the chili to a simmer and cook for 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the meat is very tender. The chili will still look soupy.

Add the tomatoes, beans, and corn to the pot. Simmer for another 10-20 minutes, covered if you think it’s thick enough, uncovered if it needs to thicken a bit. Add the lemon juice and dill in the last 5 minutes of cooking. Taste and add more seasonings or salt if you like, and top with any of the garnishes you prefer (for me, it’s hot sauce always, and sometimes shredded Cheddar).

Serving suggestion: Good on its own, with a side salad, or with honey-mustard roasted Brussels sprouts (bonus recipe below)!

For my first time ever cooking Brussels sprouts, I'm pretty happy with the result.
For my first time ever cooking Brussels sprouts, I’m pretty happy with the result.

Honey-Mustard Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Adapted from

Yield: ~ 4 side servings.

1 lb Brussels sprouts, washed, trimmed, and halved
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp mustard (stoneground/wholgrain, not English)
1 Tbsp liquid honey
~1 Tbsp warm water

Preheat oven to 350 F/175 C.

Put the halved (from stem end to top) sprouts in a bowl. In a mug, combine oil, mustard, and honey and whisk with a fork to combine. Thin with warm water until easily pourable. Drizzle over sprouts and stir to coat.

Transfer sprouts to a baking sheet and roast for 30-35 minutes, stirring once or twice. Sprouts should be tender and some of the leaves should be browning and crispy.


2 thoughts on “Recipe: Laura Moon’s chili

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