This Week I’m Mostly: Upgrading Your Chilli Con Carne

I used to be pretty inflexible when it came to food. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not fussy at all, but I have some rules. I am a firm believer in a hot meal for dinner. Now and again – and only at the height of summer – we’ll have bread, cheese, cured meat and plenty of good red wine. On the whole, though, I just don’t feel satisfied by a cold meal. I also used to struggle to eat the same meal two days in a row – leading me to some pretty wasteful meal planning. Many a lonely carrot has softened and rotted in the veg drawer because it wasn’t in any of the recipes I had rigidly scheduled for the week.

Since The Boy arrived, much like everything else, all that has changed. Eating is still a thing of great pleasure to me, but I’m more pragmatic about how, when, and what I cook. A few weeks ago, I had the unlikely combination of sliced Gouda melted over a balsamic-dressed packet of micro-rice for lunch (I am not proud of this nonsense). Just last week, in a shocking turn of events, Cat and I had (mainly children’s) cereal for dinner – much to the pleasure of a colleague I’ve been slagging off for doing this regularly. There’s a first time for everything.

I still cook most meals, but luxuriating over the recipes in the weekend supplement, and conjuring up new meals every week is a thing of the past. Instead we rely on a midweek repertoire – and we’re far from the only ones. I overheard a conversation between two mums in our local playpark the other day:

Mum 1: (shouting) Kids, we’d better get home to make the dinner – daddy’s cycled to work again!

Mum 2: What are you making?

Mum 1: Bolognese, again.

Mum 2: Oh yeah, we had that last night.

Mum 1: Yeah, easy isn’t it? Boring, though.

Bolognese, carbonara, chilli – these are the kinds of meals that you have to make when you’re at work all day, caring for a child all evening, and then up all night listening to the strained yowls of a teething tot. There’s nothing wrong with these timeless one-pot multi-meal staples – far from it – but they don’t have to be boring.

I’ve been tinkering with my chilli recipe for a few years now, and I think I’ve finally nailed it. The secret, to my mind, is simple – and only really requires a few store cupboard additions (which are good to have on hand, anyway).

(Chilli con) Carne (con Chilli) – Top Tips


(Here, I have followed the naming convention used for contested teritories (e.g. Derry/Londonderry – Israel/Palestine – Chilli con carne con chilli). This is in acknowledgement that – as Rick Stein points out in his latest series on Mexico – no Mexican would ever order chilli con carne (it would, of course, be carne con chilli).

The tips below are the culmination of a lot of messing about, and they may not produce the kind of chilli you like. I have been through lots of iterations, and tried lots of methods – including using beef mince softened with milk, and adding dark chocolate. This recipe is the best I have tasted, but I’m still playing with it – and this was the first time I had chopped braising steak and pork shoulder for a chunky texture (boy was it worth the effort)! Any one of these little additions alone will perk up a simple chilli, but the chord struck by all of these ingredients together is beautiful!


  • Smoked paprika and chipotle for smoke

The key to a good chilli is the smokey backbone. Smoked paprika brings a subtle rounded smokiness, whilst chipotle – a smoked dried jalapeño found in many big supermarkets these days – delivers brash heat and sweet smokey layered flavour.

  • Cider vinegar and Worcester sauce for brightness

Having learned of the transformative effects of even a small amount of acid in a dish from Samin Nosrat’s excellent book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, I have been brightening everything up with a dash of vinegar. Cider works nicely here, though red wine, or sherry vinegar would give something a little different. I love Worcester sauce, and it finds its way into a lot of my one-pot meals. It’s a peculiar flavour, but I find that it adds complexity, and balances the sweetness of tomato nicely.


  • Cumin, fennel, and star anise for complexity

These spices are my favourite in a chilli, but I have messed around with this combination a fair bit. Bay is a nice addition here, too, as are peppercorns. Toasting brings out the flavour and keeps on layering that smoke! Star anise is potentially counter-intuitive outside of Asian food, but it plays a strong supporting role in any beef dish, when used in moderation.

  • Kecap manis for sweet sweet umami

Kecap manis is an incredible ingredient, but it is probably the least likely on this list. Better known in South East Asian cuisine, it is a thick and sticky Indonesian sweet soy sauce. I used to use a tablespoon of treacle for depth and sweetness, but kecap manis blows it out of the water. You can still use treacle, but the combination of sweet and umami in kecap manis is irresistible, and you won’t go back. Check out this recipe from a while back on the blog for a totally different kecap manis recipe.

  • Lard for.. lard

Just do it. Take my word for it. Do it.

(beef dripping is also good, butter a close third)




  • tsp cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
  • 2 star anise
  • 400g braising steak finely chopped
  • 400g pork leg steak finely chopped
  • Tbsp lard (or beef dripping, or butter)
  • medium red onion roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 cloves of garlic crushed
  • 2 red chillis thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • glass of red wine
  • 1 chipotle chilli
  • 2 tins chopped tomato
  • 2 tbsp of tomato puree
  • 2 tins of mixed beans (or kidney beans)
  • 2 tsp of kecap manis (or treacle)
  • 2 tsp of cider vinegar
  • 3 glugs of worcester sauce
  • bunch of fresh coriander


  1. Toast the seeds and star anise in a dry pan until they are coloured and fragrant. Set aside.
  2. In a big pot, brown the meat in half the lard over a high heat in batches, then set aside.
  3. In the same pot, heat the rest of the lard and fry the onion with the salt over a medium heat until soft and caramelised (about 10 minutes). Add the garlic and chilli, and fry for another 3 minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic.
  4. Tip in the paprika and fry for one more minute.
  5. Pour in the wine and stir to mix through. Scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pot – there’s a load of flavour in there!
  6. Add everything else into the pot, including the toasted spices, and simmer over a low heat for 2-3 hours, or transfer to a slow cooker on low for 6-8 hours.
  7. Once the meat is tender, and the sauce is thick and unctuous, serve – obviously.

5 thoughts on “This Week I’m Mostly: Upgrading Your Chilli Con Carne

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