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A bowl of my sweet 'n savory chili made with maple syrup and topped with cheese and cilantro.

Sweet and Spicy Chili

Generally, if you were to ask a group of people how they like their chili, you're liable to get a different answer from each one. Some like it mild, some go for the smoky flavors, then there are those who want each bite to be a journey of pain and suffering. I've made each type over the years, however I find that this chili is my go-to the majority of the time. This recipe emphasizes the sweet and savory side of chili with the option of adding heat to your palate preference. That's the best part of chili in my opinion, you can tweak just about any recipe and keep it fresh time after time.

Secret Ingredient

It’s not going to be surprising then, that my secret chili ingredient is maple syrup. My family produces maple syrup and you're on our maple website after all! Maple syrup is a natural sweetener and also helps to balance out the acidity of the tomatoes. This is especially important if those tomatoes are canned or were harvested before becoming fully ripened. Canned tomatoes are generally higher in acidity on purpose so that they keep longer. Acidity decreases as the tomatoes sit longer on the vine. Adjust your syrup addition based upon this knowledge, you can always add more after you taste the final product, but you can't take it away.

I used Dark Robust Taste maple syrup, in my opinion a perfect amount of maple flavor for a tomato based recipe.

Chili Spices

My favorite trio of spices for a chili are the staples: chili powder, cumin powder, and paprika. I purchase my spices from Spices, Inc., a family owned business in Elysburg, PA. As a family business ourselves, I like supporting other small family businesses. Especially ones who do a great job providing a variety of products that add flavor and fun to our meals.

For me, their New Mexico Red Chili Powder is my favorite, possessing a balance of peppery flavor without the excessive burn. They source chilis grown on a family farm from the Hatch region of New Mexico, where they have rightly declared themselves the Chili Pepper Capital of the World.

Cumin is an essential chili spice and I always add a heaping spoon. It imparts a nutty flavor that you can recognize in any dish. This spice was introduced to New Mexico in the 1600’s and is now a basic New Mexican spice for most of their cultural dishes. Originally from northern Africa, this spice is featured in cuisine worldwide.

Filling out the power trio of spices I use is Hungarian Sweet Paprika. Paprika is the fourth most consumed spice in the world. My family certainly contributes their fair share in maintaining this prominent position in the spice world. One tip I'll add (echoed by our friends at Spices Inc.), after you add the paprika be careful cooking at high heat and maintain a steady simmer to prevent the spice from scorching and imparting a bitter flavor.

Take note that there are two times that ingredients are added.  I think it is important to season the meat and then the sauce. To this day, I remember when I was a kid my dad always made the best spaghetti sauce, and he still tells me it's because he seasons his meat, and then his sauce. I can't say this advice will hold up under scrutiny by any food scientists out there, but that's the way I've always done it and it has served me well!

Preparing Garlic

Preparing garlic the right way, low and slow.

I hesitate to label this "Important!", but that's what it is. I like to cook my garlic in a small cast iron pan with a pad of butter on low heat. I want to have every little bit of garlic cooked to perfection and fragrant, that’s hard to do when you just toss it in with the big ingredients. You really are running the risk of not cooking the garlic to its full potential, or overcooking it. Let the butter and garlic heat up together, and remove before it starts to crisp and brown. This extra step doesn’t take long but requires a bit of patience. Soon, you’ll be doing this for all your recipes that require chopped or minced garlic. Drop a comment below if you had success with this tip!

Do beans belong in chili?

To bean or not to bean? This was a question that I didn't realize was as hotly contested. I had to do a lot of research and I guess I would sum it up by saying that the debate continues. Regional disputes on the proper ingredients fuel this debate, without a doubt Texans are a no-go regarding beans in chili with this saying, “If you know beans about chili, you know there are no beans in chili”. The folks at Southern Living provide a ton of examples and list how regions have created their own chili styles with and without beans. My preference is yes to the beans. I like to add different kinds of beans to my chili and because I typically make a double batch, I added three different varieties to this pot. Black, red kidney, and cannellini beans were what I used today.

black beans, kidney beans, and cannellini beans for chili.

How to add heat to chili?

This is the big question when putting together a chili, as I mentioned already, there is so much room for adjustment to suit your own personal taste. Add a jalapeño or two (with the seeds for more heat) with the onions and peppers for a bit more heat. Like it smoky? Smoked Red Serrano Chile Powder can be swapped out with the powder I used. Chili powder is kind of like maple syrup, you need the right one for the job at hand.

As with any dish I put together, I have to scale it down to a "regular" size. That’s because I have a large family of big eaters. When you raised four boys on a dairy farm in Northern Vermont you learn to double down on your meal prep. For this recipe, I’ll give you a normal family’s ingredient list.

Simmering chili about ready.

Sweet and Spicy Chili Recipe

Ingredients:

1 bulb garlic minced
1 pad butter
 
2 tablespoons Olive Oil
1 lb. ground beef (or your favorite ground meat)
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped sweet pepper
1 ½ teaspoon chili powder
1 ½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
2/3 cup maple syrup
 
1 – 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 – 15 oz. can tomato sauce
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
 
3 oz. tomato paste
2 – 15 oz. cans drained beans

Directions:

  1. Heat a cast iron pan or small saucepan with a pad of butter. Slowly cook the garlic until it is fragrant and just starts to brown. Remove from heat.
  2. Heat the oil in the bottom of a large pot and add the ground beef, onion, and pepper, mix to combine. As this is cooking sprinkle in the spices and toss around with a spoon. Add the maple syrup and continue cooking until the meat is cooked through.
  3. Toss in the garlic and two cans of tomatoes and the second round of spices. Simmer ½ hour on low.
  4. Depending on how thick or thin you like your sauce add tomato paste with beans and heat thoroughly. Adjust the spices, salt, and pepper. Heat through.
  5. Serve in a bowl with your favorite chili topper. Some choices are shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, Greek yogurt, avocado slices, chopped cilantro, lime wedges, chopped scallions, or crumbled queso fresco.

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