Monday, June 27, 2022
June 27, 2022

Linkedin Pinterest

Play it Cool: Chili doesn’t have to be spicy to be satisfying, delicious

By , Columbian staff writer
4 Photos
This mellow chili is spiced only with cumin and salt. It's the chili for people who don't like chili.
This mellow chili is spiced only with cumin and salt. It's the chili for people who don't like chili. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Almost everyone has a recipe for chili. It’s the easy comfort food that many people turn to on gray, drizzly days (and Vancouver has a few of those). A slow cooker full of chili bubbling away on the kitchen counter makes the whole house smell good and makes you feel warm just thinking about it.

For most folks, chili means spicy or seriously spicy, and they guard secret recipes like a dragon guards its lair. But chili doesn’t need to be as hot as dragon’s breath to be deeply satisfying.

It took me a few years to acclimate my British husband to the joys of chili. The first batches I made were rejected out of hand because the few particles of cayenne that I added tickled the back of his tongue. Even relatively mild taco seasoning was ruled out. I finally realized that if I was going to incorporate chili into my regular rotation of family meals, it must contain exactly zero Scoville heat units. (The Scoville Scale measures pepper spiciness. A bell pepper has zero Scoville units, a jalapeno ranges from 2,600 to 8,000 and a Carolina Reaper pepper can top out at 2.2 million.) Salt is OK, of course, but anything with even a minute amount of capsaicin is, as they say across the pond, right out.

Now, you chili aficionados will say that what I’ve got is not chili at all but actually a recipe for bean soup. Fine. I understand your derision. But there is an upside to creating a nonspicy chili, because in my quest to make it less mouth-searing, I had to make it more flavorful. Not that spicy chili isn’t tasty. I love chili that takes my nose hairs right off. But sometimes subtler flavors get blasted away by all that heat. So here’s my standard recipe for “cool chili,” which might come in handy if you’re serving British people or fussy toddlers.

First, get out your slow cooker. A medium one is fine; this recipe won’t feed a village. It makes about six to eight servings, enough for dinner with leftovers for lunch the next day, depending on how much you eat. Cover the bottom of the pot in a thin layer of olive oil then add half a large or a whole small chopped onion. Put half a pound of thawed ground beef over that; you can brown it first if you like but the effect on the flavor is negligible. The important thing is, don’t start with frozen beef unless you like flirting with intestinal distress.


½ pound ground beef

1 small chopped onion

1 can diced fire-roasted tomatoes

1 cup frozen tricolor peppers

½ can roasted red peppers

1 can pinto beans

1 can Heinz baked beans

Salt, cumin, butter, brown sugar and molasses to taste

Put everything in a slow cooker on low for 6-8 hours or high for 4-6 hours, stirring occasionally. Add salt and cumin to taste. If acidity is too high, add butter, brown sugar and/or molasses. Serve with fixings like sour cream, olives and shredded cheese.

Next, and in no particular order, add a can of diced and fire-roasted tomatoes plus the liquid, a can of pinto beans plus the liquid and 1 cup of frozen tricolor peppers. Add half a jar of roasted red peppers, sliced, plus any liquid in the jar. (If you want to add a whole jar of peppers, go ahead. No such thing as too many peppers.)

Here’s my special ingredient in honor of my husband: a can of Heinz baked beans. This brand of baked beans is very popular in England, enjoyed for breakfast, lunch or dinner. They’re not like our baked beans. They’re less sweet and more tomatoey, so they work beautifully in chili. The little beans are small and pale and fit right in, as if they’ve always belonged in chili. They’re polite and happy to help, a reflection of traditional English values.

Add a few dashes of salt and 1 teaspoon cumin. (Well, I added 1 teaspoon of cumin because it’s a spice that I love, but you can adjust if you think it’s just too much or too little. No judgment.) Set the slow cooker on low and leave it for eight hours or set it on high and let it go for five hours. Once everything is all cozy in your slow cooker and it’s been simmering long enough to reach the 160 degrees required to safely cook ground beef, you can give it a little taste. (To test the temperature, just stick a meat thermometer right into the middle of the chili.)

Add more salt if you need to. If the chili is on the acid side and you can feel the threat of heartburn below your sternum, there are a couple tricks you can use to mitigate acidity in both chili and spaghetti sauce. First, add butter, maybe 2 or 3 tablespoons. Next, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of brown sugar (or for a richer, more caramelly flavor, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of molasses). I’ve also tried adding a little barbecue sauce or teriyaki sauce. Some sweet with the tomato tang of the chili is a good thing. When you’re done amending your chili, put the lid back on, set it to low or warm and wait until dinner.

Serve it with all the good stuff: sour cream or Mexican crema, grated cheddar cheese, diced raw onions, olives, corn and tortilla chips. I like chili with cornbread muffins. I’ll put a muffin right in the middle of my bowl and pour the chili over it. It’s a chili-muffin — a chuffin.

I will not dispute that your spicy chili is better than my tame version. I’m all about equality and inclusion. I’ll happily eat super-spicy all-meat chili, vegetarian chili, tomato-free chili, Cajun chili or Tex-Mex chili. I will definitely eat chili with Fritos on top. But as for my house, we’ll embrace our zero-heat chili and come back for seconds. Just don’t mess with my chuffin.


Support local journalism

Your tax-deductible donation to The Columbian’s Community Funded Journalism program will contribute to better local reporting on key issues, including homelessness, housing, transportation and the environment. Reporters will focus on narrative, investigative and data-driven storytelling.

Local journalism needs your help. It’s an essential part of a healthy community and a healthy democracy.

Community Funded Journalism logo