Although the origins of chili are muddy, the two basic elements of the dish, beef and hot chile peppers, have long been prevalent in the plains of the American Southwest. The historical record has Texas cowboys cooking chili over campfires in the early 1800s, and even today the Lone Star State remains the spiritual home of chili culture.
Chili is simple to make, holds and reheats well and feeds a crowd with maximal flavor and minimal effort. Regional differences make it distinct; Californians have embellished the basic method with beans and Cincinnatians add cinnamon and allspice and serve it over spaghetti.
But no matter how you like it, the basic recipe, made with ground beef, some sort of chile, tomatoes, onions and garlic, stays true to the Tex-Mex tradition. Two varieties of dried peppers, the smoky, wrinkled ancho and the crimson, rich guajillo, are my best suggestions to generate a dish with plenty of personality but medium heat. Toasted in a skillet, softened in hot water, and then pureed, the chiles turn into a mahogany paste that releases an intoxicating aroma and a deliciously earthy depth-of-flavor.
For chili heads, fresh jalapenos will make your chili sing with peppery top notes. Southwest-style lovers, go with ground cumin and dried oregano. And for those of you like me with a sweet palate, a shard of chocolate either bittersweet or Mexican, enlivens a bowl of comforting goodness like nothing else.