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26 Sep 2010

A tradition out of traditions: Chilli con carne

I was visiting my family till few days ago but unfortunately I had rare occasions to cook for them. My mother though always wanted to try one specific dish: chili con carne! She kept referring to it every now and then without a real decision being made, then she bought kidney beans and all was set.
Being from Sicily, spicy dishes are not uncommon; dishes featuring meat and beans together are quite uncommon instead. In the Lazio region they are used to cook their beans with cotiche (pig' skin) or sausages but here the meaty element doesn't realy play the leading role in the dish.
So there we stand wanting to cook a proper chilli con carne in the hot Sicilian weather.

Chilli con carne

As the name says by itself, the centrepieces of this dish are the chillies. This though doesn't necessarily mean that you will need a transplant of your gustatory papillae at the end of your meal. Mexican cuisines features a huge variety of chillis, often dried, that deliver great flavours to their traditional dishes.
This is what we miss in Sicily, the variety of chillies with their sweet, citrusy and floral aromas. Dried red chilli flakes are used just for they spiciness, not for their flavour; we would rather use dried peppers if we want more earthy and aromatic notes. Unfortunately, the wild variety of peppers that made them actual chillies, has fallen into disuse. I can still remember my mother telling me stories about how grandma would have to pick the sweet dry peppers from the spicy ones by hand, when cooking them for the daughters. Now they are all sweet and sugary. The common bell peppers, a commercially-epidemic variety of imported pepper, are literally killing all the local varieties; often they are all that we can find over the supermarket shelves. The tiny horn-shaped peppers usually served fried and in a sweet-sour sauce with slivers of garlic, are a mirage and their bigger cousins that got usually stuffed with an egg and cheese farce, fried and then cooked with in an onion-tomato gravy, quite hard to get.
Sometimes you see old men standing by street corner in the city, beside their old van with a wooden crate showcasing the minimal production of their patch of land. Products that were bread are now as rare as truffles. But we can still get them, if we catch up with seasonality and know the right people.
Unfortunately this time I wasn't able to find local spicy peppers, but I found some nice red cherry-chillies and some bigger than usual horn peppers. They complement each other pretty well, the first spicy and sweet with a thick flesh, perfect for pickling; the second with a thinner wall of flesh and a heady fresh and green aroma. I love green peppers.
Another main ingredient for the chilli con carne is naturally cumin. Thankfully over the years I have come to realize to never travel without my spices (and knives) whenever I visit my parents. I am addicted to spices and in my home town they are almost impossible to find (you will end up going to the local herbalist to get some at gold prices). I had cumin with me!
Now I needed a way to impart that earthy dimension to the dish that I find quite characteristic. What I usually use in my sauces to get such a backdrop of flavours is cocoa powder; happily enough this fits pretty well with the Mexican tradition of cooking as well as the Sicilian one (let's not forget the rabbit in chocolate sauce or the traditional chocolate-anchovy sauce).
I had all my ingredients set, the dinner table reserved so I was ready to start chopping and simmering.
The surprise are not yet finished, continue reading to find how to give a Sicilian twist to your Chili.

Earthy Chili con carne

Chilli con carne


  • 3 1/2 tsp cumin, lightly crushed;
  • 300g onions, diced;
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda;
  • 200g celery, minced;
  • fresh chillies, chopped (to taste);
  • red chilli flakes (to taste);
  • 500g tomatoes (fresh or canned);
  • 1kg ground meat;
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced;
  • 2tbsp cocoa;
  • 3 green peppers, diced (divided);
  • 2 tins of kidney beans;
  • 1-2 tbsp vinegar;
  • 1 red onion;
  • sour cream.
  • sharp cheese, shredded.

Put some nice olive oil in a pot with the lightly crushed cumin seeds. Let the seeds fry till they infuse the oil and you kitchen with the wonderful aroma. Add now the chopped onions and let soften stirring occasionally. When they will look translucent add the baking soda. A wonder will happen; they will start looking more yellowish and develop the sweet aroma typical of caramelised onions. Let them cook a little bit further for a couple of minutes without letting them burn; add then the minced celery and the chillies. Using a spatula, stir the aromatics cooking them till they start to caramelise; add then the diced tomatoes. Let the tomato break down and cook further till you will have a pretty dark and thick paste. You can now add the garlic and sweat it in the pan mixing it with the paste, don't worry if it colours a little bit, its flavours will add nicely to the earthy dish we are looking for.
Little at a time, add the minced meat to the pan breaking it down and letting each batch take some colour; when all the meat will be added and browned, sprinkle in the cocoa powder and one third of the diced peppers mixing very well. Cover with water and let cook for 1 hour or so on low heat checking that it doesn't catch on the bottom of the pot. If the meat mixture should look dry to you, add some more water to it. At the end of this time, add the kidney beans with all the packing water and let cook until it will get the right consistency for your purposes. Stir occasionally to avoid breaking the beans. Toward the end of the cooking, add another third of the diced peppers and season with salt and vinegar.
To serve the chilli dice the red onion passing it quickly under running water (so it won't discolour) and serve it aside with the remaining diced green pepper, some sour cream and the sharp cheese as part of the traditional garnishes.
Eat this chili con carne with some fresh salad, rice, tortilla or bread.

For a Sicilian touch to your Mexican chilli con carne, fry the left over chilli in some oil adding some already cooked sour-sweet fried eggplants, green olives and fried capers. A perfect wedding of the two traditions.


  1. me like chilli con carne.. and a nice Sicilian addition too :) the caponata has made me a fan of the region! :)

  2. I love that you bring your spices with you - talk about being prepared! It's also interesting to get that perspective on bell peppers vs. the other varieties - I guess the same is true of a lot of other vegetables as well. It's a good case for growing your own :)

  3. Chili is usually one of the less aesthetically pleasing meals, but the color mix in this dish is beautiful. The addition of eggplant sounds awesome. You've got our vote, good luck moving on!

    Lick My Spoon

  4. Delicious chili! I like your idea of reinventing the leftovers by adding eggplant. Good luck!