Grandma's Chili Beans

October is the reason we Midwesterners stick around through July and August.  It’s all worth it to get to the end of September when we begin to feel that transition from the heat and humidity of summer to the beauty that is the month of October.  We have just recently felt the air rid itself of that moisture, and the days have turned crisp and cool and abso- ever-lutely gorgeous. 

Here at the Circle B Kitchen we have a tradition dating back as long as we can remember that the first day we feel that shift from summer to fall, we pull out the big pot and we make chili beans. 

That day occurred this week; we felt it the minute it arrived, and by that afternoon the aromas of these fabulous beans were wafting through the entire house.  We make chili beans all fall and winter, but there really is nothing like that very first bowl which signals the arrival of fall.

To understand and fully appreciate the significance of these beans, we have to go back about 42 years to when I was just a lass in my junior year of high school in Southern California and dating the cutest boy ever.  I still think he’s the cutest boy ever.  The summer of 1968 he invited me to a family party at his Grandparents’ rustic mountain home in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  I was just blown away by the beauty of the place, the beautiful pines and cedars, the creek which ran through the property, the wildlife, but most of all, his Grandmother’s cooking.  No party, no gathering, was ever complete in those days without Grandma B’s beans bubbling away on her wood stove.  They were everyone’s favorite (except for maybe her ollalieberry cobbler), and they made every visit worth the trip up that mountain.

Once I secured my position in the family, she graciously shared the recipe with me, and I’ve been making those beans ever since.  Over the years I’ve tweaked the recipe a tad, but these are still Grandma’s beans, and they will always be a happy reminder of those wonderful times with her in her kitchen. 

So now it’s fall and we’re thinking about bringing out the sweaters and tucking our shorts back into storage.  We’re thinking about the cool weather to come, fires in the fireplace and down comforters on the bed.  But we’re very excited to also be thinking about chili beans.  Here’s the recipe….

Grandma's Chili Beans

Printable Recipe

1 lb. dry small red beans or pintos (see below for alternate)

1 ½ lbs ground meat (I use turkey)

1 large onion chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

3 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp dried oregano

½ tsp cayenne pepper (or more or less spicy depending on how much heat you want)

2 T chili powder (Grandma always used Gebhardt's)

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 large can whole or crushed tomatoes

Place beans in a large stockpot and cover with water by about 3 inches.Soak overnight.Dump out the soak water and then pour in clean water, add a tablespoon of salt and cook the beans until soft, about 1-2 hours.Or, alternately, you can start the beans in the morning and boil for about 3 hours to soften.Do not drain.

In a dutch oven or other heavy pot, saute onion and garlic over medium low heat until softened, about 6 minutes.Add the spices and cook until fragrant.  Raise the heat to medium high, and add the meat, breaking it up with a wooden spatula or spoon.  Cook until browned and cooked through.  Stir in the salt.

If using whole tomatoes, run the tomatoes through a blender, leaving a few chunks (I use a hand blender for this). Add the tomatoes to the pot and stir to combine.Using a spider strainer or other handled strainer, add the beans to the pot along with enough of the bean cooking liquid to just cover the beans.Stir to combine and cook, partially covered for 4- 6 hours.  Taste for salt about halfway through the cooking.  The longer these cook, the better they get.


If you'd rather not use dried beans, you can easily substitute 4 cans of pinto beans, drained, but not rinsed.  Add them to the pot after you have browned the meat and continue with the recipe.