Not Mincing my Words about Chilli

To write this now in the 21st century feels like the start of a Victorian novel; to say that I was given an allowance by my first husband, for housekeeping and my own personal expenditure. But it was so. I managed to work in Ghana, our first posting abroad, but by the time we reached Zambia, two years later, their government had brought in a moratorium on accompanying expatriate wives working. Like many before me, bored with few other options, I got pregnant, learnt to cook and got to grips with how to stretch a small budget. My financial acumen was virtually nonexistent, despite having been the first female management trainee with an international bank, so was my knowledge about choosing cheap cuts of meat and what to do with them. On our first postings abroad, I relied heavily on our cook boys to do all the shopping, cooking and budgeting, but on our long leaves in between postings it was up to me to feed us and, eventually, our small son. Mince was something I was familiar with. As a child, it had been my job to feed the heavy metal mincer attached to the kitchen table with Sunday’s leftover roast. This then became shepherd’s pie, but we also made mince from cheaper cuts of beef, chuck steak and flank, with a high proportion of fat and tendons being ground in. I’m not even sure if you could buy the beef already minced? But it was used for such 50s delights as mince and gravy, cottage pie and last, but never least, rissoles – a much dreaded dish as I was never quite sure what part of a cow they contained

When I moved to London in the late 60s, I was familiar with spaghetti served with meatballs and tomato sauce courtesy of a school friend’s American mother. But it wasn’t until I was taken to a Wimpy bar near where I was living on Gloucester Road that I tried a hamburger for the first time. Their flaccid meat patties and soft tasteless buns didn’t impress. It was food for fuel and not food you enjoyed eating.

My preference was the  Indian and Chinese restaurants that abounded in the Earls Court area, along with a small bistro that was part of a chain of ‘Hot Pots’. They must have found it economic to cook with mince as ‘European’ classics such as Spaghetti Bolognese, Lasagna, and Moussaka, were on the menu,  washed down with raffia-covered bottles of Chianti from Italy or Mateus Rosé from Portugal. Mince however became the mainstay of our limited budget and cooking skills, because of a Women’s Own article that I kept entitled ‘Twenty or so ways to cook mince’. Wherever we were posted in the world, mince was not only available but in most countries recognisable – a plus when your Cantonese or Bahasa Indonesian was limited.

Decades later I have developed an aversion for all things ground meat, although I’ll exclude chicken because Turkish minced chicken koftas are a personal favourite. It’s not the taste necessarily, as many dishes using mince are heavily flavoured – it’s the soft lumpy texture reminiscent of school lunch tapioca that I object too. No amount of beefing up a mince brand with 100% Aberdeen Angus can ever persuade me that a burger is worth eating, or even draping it with a mountain of melted orange cheese – I like my meat to have a bite. Hence when it comes to making chilli I will never use mince.

Unadulterated Chilli

In the early 80s, I was the personal assistant to an American, a Texan with a heart as big as his western boots. As it was his first posting outside of the US, he was naively reliant on me to translate “all things English’ and yes, I did have fun with that. At the time, Momma, as he called his wife, did most of the cooking. When he travelled back to the US on business, Momma would give him lists of ingredients to bring back which apparently you couldn’t buy in London – Cheerios and Oreos were always on that list, along with packages of ready-mix macaroni cheese.

My boss didn’t have much time for cooking, but he was very proud of the fact that in 1987 his ‘Heartburn chilli’ had won second place against heavy competition in the North Texas Telephone Pioneers of America convention in Wichita Falls. Beat that! I was lucky that he shared this precious recipe with me. I am happy to report that he is now retired and living in a beautiful house in northern Virginia, where he loves to cook for guests.

Heartburn chilli is for grownups only, a vindaloo of chillis, with complex flavours.  As I often make chilli for a mixed age group, I tend to tone it down a bit, but use my boss’s mix of spices and only organic chilli powder which contains no added salt. I use Nigella’s tip of adding barbecue sauce and sugar to counteract the acidity of the tomatoes and serve it with cherry tomato salsa on the side as well as crème fraiche and bowls of crunched up classic Doritos and grated cheese to sprinkle on the top – both of which are crowd pleasers with the younger generations.

Chilli for Children

Chilli for all, but not for Mince Lovers, serves 8-12, Preparation time 2hrs

900 grams brisket – cut small
450 grams black beans – buy ready cooked in tetra packs, drain and save some of the juice
30 grams fresh coriander – cut off stalks from leaves and chop
4 tbs olive oil
4 medium onions chopped – doesn’t have to be too fine
3 garlic cloves
2 red chillies- deseeded and chopped small
4 grams organic, non-salt chilli powder
1 1/2 tsp whole cumin seed
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tbs ground oregano
1 heaped tbs cornflour
800 grams chopped tomatoes
2 tbs bottled barbecue sauce
2 tbs muscavado sugar
2 large red peppers – deseeded and chopped small
Juice of 1 lime

The Salsa

20 cherry tomatoes – I recommend piccolo or piccolini variety in winter months
2 ripe avocados – skin removed and chopped into small pieces
1 large red onion – chopped finely
Chopped coriander leaves from chilli recipe
Juice of 2 limes
Tabasco – 8 + drops is my taste, but may not be yours
Freshly ground salt and black pepper


Heat half the oil in a large deep pan, and cook the onions, garlic, coriander stalks, chillies and spices gently over medium heat for about five minutes. Transfer all of this to a dish, mop out the pan with kitchen towel, pour in the rest of the oil, turn up the heat and brown the beef in small batches (6 – 8), stirring all the time.

Return everything to the pan and sprinkle in the cornflour, stir it so that it soaks into the juices. Add the drained beans and the tomatoes. Keep the bean juice to one side. Lastly, add the sugar and the barbecue sauce, mix well and bring it to a simmer. Cook with the lid on at a low heat, stirring every now and again for 1.5 hrs. Then add the chopped red pepper, stir in well and cook for another 30 mins.

While in the final cooking stage, make the salsa, by chopping the cherry tomatoes in quarters, and combine in a bowl with the avocado and the onion. Mix thoroughly, add the seasoning and half the chopped coriander leaves, the lime juice and Tabasco.

Just before serving add salt to the chilli, tasting all the time. Then stir in the rest of the coriander leaves and the lime juice.  Serve with bowls of sour cream, salsa, crunched Doritos and basmati and wild rice mix. The chilli freezes well and it is also great to stuff baked potatoes for a quick weekday supper.

Cooling Salsa





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