These days, I guess people learn to cook from TV or blogs -- jumping in head first, scouring the internet for recipes, planning a complete meal. A generation before me, people -- okay, girls -- learned to cook from their mothers. But in between those two, my generation learned to cook through that great adolescent tradition of trial and error, the same basic "add this, tweak that" process which leads to Midwestern hot dish or Jello salad in one direction, and the Taco Bell chain in another, the modification of prepared food that is basically already a meal rather than the from-scratch manipulation of ingredients. That is to say, "doctoring."
You know, you start with boxed macaroni and cheese, and add a can of deviled ham and some chopped olives, because fuck, you're fifteen and that sounds like a good plan. Or you grab the tuna fish, the raisins, the Miracle Whip, and come up with your "secret formula tuna salad sandwich" with a secret ingredient no one will ever guess (a Ramen seasoning packet). You take a frozen pizza and add canned mushrooms and extra pepperoni, and then invert ANOTHER frozen pizza on top of it to make a "calzone." It's not that this isn't cooking, exactly. It's just cooking with a lot of the ordinary kitchen activity disabled -- cooking in safe mode. This is to cooking what high school/college dating is to real relationships, or your Barnes & Noble cashier job is to the job you get later in life. Some of the risks and rewards are there, yes, but it's just a hint at the real thing, a sketch approaching its shape.
There is a whole cohort that never leaves that zone when it comes to cocktails, of course -- they never stop thinking of drinks as concoctions of corn syruped liqueurs diluted with vodka, hidden with mixers, and given names like Mind Eraser or Panty Dropper. But most people who are genuinely interested in cooking eventually leave the safety zone -- if nothing else, they figure out that it's cheaper to buy food and turn it into a meal than it is to buy prepared meals and alter them, a factor that doesn't have a whole lot of impact on us in our adolescence.
But the zone does teach you. And there are transitional dishes which basically employ the same mindset as doctoring, without relying on prepared foods. Chili is perhaps chief among them -- it certainly was for me. There is a clear core chili concept -- which, conceptually, acts as the frozen pizza you're altering, the fundament on which everything rests -- but despite its clarity, it will allow you to do all sorts of things to it without suddenly failing to be chili.
Nevermind regulation chili -- the barebones, stripped-down version of chili served in cookoffs, which for instance cannot have visible vegetables in it. Nevermind the Texan insistence that chili doesn't have beans, it is simply served with them, the way bolognese doesn't have pasta, it's served atop pasta. Those are sentiments which, though valid, are extremely boring and have no place at this table.
There are so many personal touches you can add to chili, and so many common variants. In New England, it seems to usually be soup-like, with chunks of tomato and kidney beans, and sometimes no perceptible spice at all. I never particularly liked this, and the chili I grew up with at home was considerably thicker, like an Italian sugo di carne (a thick ragu in which the tomato is reduced to the point that it is clinging to the meat, rather than the meat floating in a tomato sauce). Stew-like chili would be somewhere in between.
You can serve it as a bowl of soup with oyster crackers; with cornbread; with tortilla chips and salsa; over Fritos with cheese and onions; on spaghetti. Sometimes I have it with garlic bread.
You can add chopped mango, cinnamon, pulled pork, venison, cigar ashes, coffee, red wine, beer, melted cheese, and it's still chili. An ingredient like roasted garlic, chicken, or cilantro can totally change the character of the dish, but it's still chili. You can use canned tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, tomato paste, no tomatoes. Kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, lima beans, no beans at all. Onion or no onion, pepper or no pepper, fresh chile or dried chile or powdered chile or Tabasco sauce. You can stew oxtail with sriracha and beans, and boom, you have three-ingredient chili.
I don't have a tried and true chili recipe, because chili isn't that kind of food for me. I do, on the other hand, after twentysome years of making chili various ways, rely on premixed chili seasoning instead of mixing my own. The main reason for this is simply that Penzey's and the Spice House -- whichever one I happen to be ordering from when I run out of chili seasoning -- make very very good seasoning blends, and if I have one in the house, I don't have to stop and ask myself "wait, do I have the ingredients I need for chili?", whereas I might if I were mixing it myself, since there are only a handful of spices that I will reliably repurchase as soon as I run out. I nearly always add additional Mexican oregano, but even then there's an exception -- this summer I grew Cuban oregano, and used that instead whenever I was making chili. Sadly, it neither dried nor froze well; I'll have to get more plants in the spring.
Mexican and Cuban oregano deserve a paragraph here. Neither is the same as Mediterranean oregano. I mean they're three completely different plants, and were simply called "oregano" by European settlers who found the New World herbs vaguely reminiscent of the one they were already familiar with. Mexican and Cuban oregano are both more pungent than real oregano, and they go very very nicely with spicy food, but if you were to substitute them in your grandmother's spaghetti sauce recipe, I think you would find the results a bit off. (I don't know how to compare Mexican oregano to Cuban oregano. They're noticeably different from one another, but have more in common than either has with Mediterranean oregano.)
Chili is basically comfort food for me. And you know, after two weeks of H1N1 -- about which, let me say only that I do not recommend it -- I had some comfort food coming to me. I went basic. I browned ground beef and coarsely chopped steak (really browned them, mind you, not greyed them) and held them aside. Shredded onion and red bell pepper in the Cuisinart and then cooked them down and added the beef back to the pan. Added pinto beans, the Spice House's chili con carne seasoning, additional Mexican oregano, New Mexico dried red chile, salt, a splash of Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron beer, and a can of Ro-Tel tomatoes that I pureed with a head of garlic and about a quarter cup of demiglace. Added some water and let it cook back out, and -- this is the most important thing with chili -- let it rest in the fridge overnight. Chili is always better the second day. I always make it a day in advance.
Now, I'll tell you a weird Taco Bell-ish guilty pleasure that I actually originally came up with for some fictional teenagers to eat in a story I was writing, and then tried for real out of curiosity: you wrap chili, cheese, and salsa or sriracha in a tortilla, along with ... onion dip. Or ranch, ranch would work fine. It's not that bizarre, because you're just seasoning the sour cream element of a conventional "soft taco supreme" -- it's not like you're adding any more fat than that, and you don't even necessarily have to add that much more salt -- but somehow it makes all your junk food sensors go into overload. If you wanted to really knock yourself out, you could use a burrito-sized tortilla and add fried potatoes or Tater Tots while you're at it, and a handful of green onions.