Slow Cooker Chili con Carne

What to eat after 28 days in a row of subfreezing temperatures?  What do we crave after endlessly enduring one of the coldest winters on record?  What food could possibly cheer our Midwestern hearts in the wake of an artic polar vortex collapse that shows no sign of recovering?  Chili, of course!

A one-pot meal cooked in the slow cooker, nothing beats chili for cold-weather comfort food and convenience.   Because upwards of 6 hours has passed since I completed all the chopping, cooking and cleaning, by the end of the day it almost feels like someone else cooked a meal for me.  Seeing that simmering pot of hearty, savory, goodness after a day of work and an evening of schlepping kids to practices brings on feelings of relief, satisfaction and pride all at once. “Hell, yes.  I am Supermom.  I can do it all and still serve delicious and nutritious meals.  “Yeah!”  Fist pump.

Besides whipping up a delicious and nutrition meal, the other part of that “pride” comes from the fact that this recipe makes use of the locally grown foods I spent the summer preserving.  Even if you didn’t preserve them yourself, most likely you have them stocked in your pantry already.  This plant-based recipe includes meat but less than 2 oz. per serving. With less saturated fat and more omega-3 fatty acids, grass-fed beef provides a  healthier option to corn-finished meat.  Black beans and TVP (texturized vegetable protein) easily trade places with the meat for a vegetarian alternative.  Serve it with cornbread or whole wheat pasta (both whole grains) and top it with a bit of grated cheese, minced onion, or sour cream  The kids and the man cheer when they see chili on the table and so do I (along with a fist pump.)

Awesome Chili Con Carnepuree the beansI spent 2 years on this recipe changing ingredients and tweaking measurements in an attempt to find just the right flavor and texture to please everyone in the family. (The entire staff of the Food Network might have been an easier crowd to please.)  I have discovered a few secrets in my quest to invent the perfect chili recipe which I shall now share with you. Use grass-fed beef; it gives the dish a fuller, meatier flavor even though each serving contains less that 2 ounces of actual meat. Hard apple cider provides umami and a subtle sweetness while cutting the acid in the tomatoes.  Pureeing the beans adds a creamy, substantial texture. Smoked paprika imparts a deep, rich layer of flavor.  If you don’t can your own tomatoes, try using fire-roasted canned tomatoes; they add to the smoky flavor.

5.0 from 1 reviews
Slow Cooker Chili con Carne
Recipe type: Main Dish--Meat
Cuisine: American
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Yield: 10 cups
  • 1 pound of grass-fed ground beef
  • I ½ T canola oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped (1 ½ cup)
  • 1 cup chopped bell pepper, any color, fresh or frozen
  • 1 jalapeno, seeded and minced (optional)
  • 2 t salt
  • ¼ t black pepper
  • 2 T of good chili powder
  • 1 t oregano
  • 1 t smoked paprika
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 15 oz. can or 1 ½ cups cooked pinto beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 pint jar crushed tomatoes or 1 15 oz. can fire-roasted tomatoes
  • 1 15 oz. can or 1 ½ cup cooked light kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 15 oz. can or 1 ½ cup cooked black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 12 oz. bottle hard apple cider
  • Grated cheddar or Monterrey Jack cheese
  • Sour cream
  • Minced red or white onion
  • Chopped cilantro
  1. Brown the meat in a skillet. Remove cooked meat to a colander lined with paper towels and allow to drain of grease.
  2. Meanwhile, clean the skillet of beef fat and add canola oil to the pan, heat over a medium flame and cook onions and peppers until the onion becomes transparent—about 5 minutes. Add spices and garlic and sauté another minute. Remove from heat.
  3. To the slow cooker add the cleaned and drained pinto beans and 1 cup of water. Use an immersion blender or hand held masher to completely purée the pintos.
  4. Next add the remaining ingredients to the slow cooker—meat, veggies, tomato and cider. Cover and cook on low for 6 – 8 hours or high for 3 -4 hours. Skim off any oil that rises before serving.
  5. Serve on top of whole wheat pasta or with corn bread on the side. Garnish.
If you don't have the time or a slow cooker, this can be made in a pot on the stove top simmering for 1 - 2 hours.


Chili con Carne--Ingredients

Ingredients Deconstructed: Peppers freeze so easily and cook so nicely that I can’t remember the last time I bought a pepper from anyone besides a farmer—that explains why they’re covered in frost.  I spent most of September canning tomatoes—no small task—but they cook down better than commercially canned tomatoes which contain a firming agent, and of course, they taste better. I buy my chili powder from Penzey’s or the Spice House.  The grass-fed meat comes from Whole Foods.  I used to buy it directly from a farmer but we eat so little meat it didn’t make sense.  If I have my act together, I cook big batches of dry beans and freeze them in 1-cup portions.  They cost less and taste better but canned beans are just fine in a pinch.

Chili con Carne-- sauté onions

Like most home cooks, I cook while I prep.  Start sauteing the onions on medium heat with a bit of salt while you chop the peppers.  Chili con Carne--sauteing aromatics

Indian dishes frequently require the cook to saute the spices.  It is a technique called tempering.  I tried it in this recipe, and I think the Indians might be on to something. It really does release more flavor. Chili con Carne

Eight hours later.

Cooking with Kids:  Have the kids measure all of the spices for this and any recipe.   Children, big and little, love smelling, discovering and eventually identifying spices. Measuring is also a good way to apply math skills.  After years of coaching and training, my own kids have finally learned to read and distinguish between a tablespoon and the various teaspoons.  In the process the second grader at least has gained a pretty good understanding of fractions—two ¼ teaspoons equals one ½ teaspoon—that sort of thing.

My children also like to “chop” the garlic.  Get a cutting board, a sturdy flat-bottomed dish (I use Corelle) and a garlic press, and have the children follow these steps:

  1. Remove the appropriate number of cloves from the garlic bulb
  2. Place cloves on the cutting board, cover with the plate, and press slowly crushing slightly
  3. Set the plate aside and remove the garlic skins.
  4. Crush cloves one at a time in the press and use a butter knife to cut away the crushed garlic from the bottom

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Fresh Shelled Beans

Fresh shelling beans or “shellies” are hard to come by.  Oh now and then, I come across a bin of chickpeas at the Persian or Indian grocery store, but only at the farmers market do I find such tender delicacies as fresh cranberry beans (Phaseolus Vulgaris); Limas (Phaseolus Lunatas); or purple-hull peas (Vigna Unguiculata).

Even though I live in the North, the farmers at my market cater to a clientele with strong ties to the South.  Southerners know and love their shelled beans. Line up a variety of shellies and challenge anyone who grew-up in rural Mississippi to name them.  Not only will they rattle off the names of each variety with ease, but they will also give you a tutorial on how to best cook them—Southern-style of course!

Their passion has become my passion. I always loved beans, but have come to cherish that rare specimen, the fresh shelled bean.  When they arrive at the market, I buy them, lots of them.  Some I cook immediately, but most I squirrel away in my freezer to be enjoyed all winter and spring long until the next harvest season brings more.  Even frozen, their flavor and texture is superior to dried or canned.   I’m not poo-pooing canned and dried beans.  They have other advantages, and I use them too, but nothing can compare to the fresh shellie.

Season & Selection: Fresh cranberry beans begin appearing in Southeast Wisconsin in early August, followed by Lima beans in mid-August.  Purple-hull peas appear last in late August.  Shelled beans will remain at the market through November, though starting in October, they will gradually begin appearing as dried shelled beans as opposed to fresh.  When at the market, choose plump, filled-out pods. Immature seeds are too difficult to shell.  Slightly yellowing or drying pods are perfectly acceptable but avoid completely dry, brown pods.

Storage:  Short term—keep pods for only a few days in the warmest part of the refrigerator in a paper not plastic bag.  Long term—shell beans and blanche in 5 quarts of boiling water a pound at a time: 2 minutes for small, 3 minutes for medium, and 4 minutes for large beans.  Cool in an ice bath, dry and place in a single layer on a cookie sheet.  Freeze beans completely then transfer to freezer bags, label and date. Fully cooked beans can be refrigerated for about a week and frozen for 6 months. Cooked beans freeze very well.

Yield: 50%—2 pounds of pods yield about 1 pound of beans (3 cups)—more for cranberries and less for Limas.

3.3 from 3 reviews
Basic Fresh Shelled Beans
Recipe type: Side Dish
Yield: 6-8 servings
Make Tuscan beans by adding a few cloves of crushed garlic, 2 T olive oil, and a bay leaf to a pot of cranberry or Lima beans. Using the slow cooker makes this dish even easier.
  • 3 cups fresh shelled beans = 1 pound shelled = 2 pounds in pods
  • 1 t oil (optional)
  • Salt
  1. Shell and wash the beans.
  2. In a large heavy sauce pan, add beans and enough water to cover by 2 inches.
  3. Add oil to prevent foaming.
  4. Cover and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat and simmer covered on low heat until tender—15 minutes for small beans, 25 minutes for medium sized, and 35 minutes for large beans like cranberries. Test for tenderness often.
  5. Alternatively, place all of the ingredients in a slow cooker and cook on low for 4 - 6 hours or high for about 2 hours.
  6. When beans are tender, remove lid, drain excess liquid if desired, stir in salt to taste and serve.

Optional Additions While Cooking

  • 2 T olive oil, butter, or bacon fat
  • Stock instead of water
  • Any smoked meat
  • Aromatic herb—bay leaf, or sprig of fresh oregano, sage, thyme, celery leaf or rosemary
  • Crushed garlic cloves or small onions
  • Spices like curry, cumin, paprika etc.

Optional Additions After Cooking

  • Fresh chopped herbs—parsley, cilantro, dill, mint or basil
  • Sauces like salsa, BBQ; vinaigrette or cream sauce to cooled beans

Preparations:   Shelled beans are not necessarily the star of the meal, more like a strong backbone.  Their forte is providing a creamy satisfying texture. Their mild  flavor makes them versatile.  Follow the recipe for basic shell beans and serve them plain or purée into a dip, sauté them with garlic, herbs or vegetables, add them to a soups, salads or stews.  Shellies pair nicely with garlic, shallots, onions, herbs, cream, butter, olive oil, tomatoes, vinegars, lemon, and smoked meats.

Cooking with Kids:  Put the kids in charge of shelling the beans. I usually participate and play word games to keep them amused while we work.  I also let them help me with freezing them.  They prepare the ice water bath, dry the beans, place them on cookie sheets and my big girl does all of the labeling.  


WARNING:  All shelled beans must be cooked and never eaten raw as the mature beans contain a poison that is neutralized in heat.