My favorite way to eat chili is with saltine crackers. And not just any saltine cracker – Premium Saltines. I usually like to have a sleeve of them next to my bowl of chili.
When it comes to chili I aspire to be simple. For as long as I can remember I have followed the same recipe with some minor adjustments that I have incorporated over the years. I use Lady Bird Johnson’s recipe for Pedernales River Chili which was purported to be the same dish that was served at the White House during LBJ’s administration.
The recipe that is circulated was published in The New York Times and I’ve always had a problem with it. No self respecting Texan is going to use 1/2 tablespoon of chili powder per pound of beef. It just won’t be hot or red enough. It wasn’t until I found the official recipe in the LBJ Library collection that I could tell that Lady Bird had penned the right ingredients – 6 tablespoons of chili powder for 4 pounds of meat. That is more like it. No doubt The Times didn’t think the original recipe would be palatable for it’s New York City reader’s.
Over the years I’ve made a few additions to the published recipe (in addition to the 6 tbs of chili powder) including substituting powdered cayenne pepper for the hot sauce. I do think a little vinegar can expand the flavor of chili but I would rather add that at the table either as pickled jalapeños or hot sauce. I also add a tablespoon of beef base. Today we get extremely programmed beef at the market that can be a bit thin in overall taste. The beef base enriches the background of the chili and rounds out the flavor.
One other note about Lady Bird’s recipe concerns the oregano. In several sources it is just simply listed which in most modern recipes would indicate that this is Mediterranean oregano. But I really doubt that was the case here. Most likely the oregano in the Pedernales River Chili is Mexican oregano which is an entirely different plant. The typical plain oregano you find in the grocery store has minty notes whereas the Mexican variety has lemon, citrus, and even hints of licorice – all of which are better suited for Texas chili.
This recipe is the official two time award winning recipe of the Medical Arts Clinic Annual Halloween Chili Cook-Off. This annual event was held in Corsicana, Texas and was attended by all of the staff. Which is what chili is all about – no one cooks this recipe for just one. It is meant to be shared with others and makes the perfect meal for a group.
A word about beans: they don’t belong in Texas chili. It isn’t that you can’t put them there (in the future I’ll highlight a recipe of my childhood from Iredell High School – T.M. Davis’s Chili Beans) – you can, but it just isn’t traditional Texas chili.
4 lbs ground beef (I usually use 2 lbs ground chili mix plus 2 lbs ground chuck)
1 large onion, chopped
2 to 3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
1 tsp dried cumin
6 tbs chili powder, or to taste
1 tbs beef base
1 28-oz can diced San Marzano tomatoes plus liquid
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, or to taste
kosher salt to taste*
Brown the ground meat in two batches and place in a strainer to drain the excess grease. Sauté the onion until translucent and then add the garlic and continue to cook for about one minute more. Return the drained ground beef and the remaining ingredients except for the salt. Add two cups of water and bring to a boil, then reduce and simmer for at least an hour to allow the flavors to blend.
Taste for spices and add the salt. Serve with Premium saltine crackers.
*A note about salt and chili: This is probably one of the most important ingredients. The single biggest problem I have when I taste other chili recipes is the tendency for people to be cautious with the addition of salt. Keep in mind there are 4 pounds of meat and a large amount of tomatoes – you have to have adequate salt to balance the flavors or your chili will taste flat. A good starting point is 1 tsp of salt per pound of meat – so here add a generous tablespoon and then taste.
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