Why this recipe works:
In a slow-cooker black bean chili recipe, black beans go into the slow cooker with an army of flavorful ingredients. So why is the result so often a dull, muddied mess? To build assertive flavor, we started our chili recipe by sautéing chopped onion, bell pepper, garlic, and jalapeños in a Dutch oven; beginning the sauté with bacon fat, rather than the usual oil, also helped amplify the meaty richness of the chili. When the vegetables were tender, we added chili powder, plus cumin and oregano, and let the spices bloom in the hot pan. We opted for the salty richness a small smoked ham lent to the chili as it cooked; removing the ham at the end of cooking and chopping it provided plenty of meat. Dried beans added to the slow cooker at the outset were still too hard by the time the chili was done. To speed the cooking, we simmered the beans in the Dutch oven for 15 minutes before transferring the contents to the slow cooker. For the right combination of creamy whole beans and a thick, rich chili, we mashed a can of black beans into the base of slow-cooked dried black beans.
We prefer the sweetness of red bell peppers here, but any bell pepper will work. Small boneless hams are available in the meat case at most supermarkets. The aluminum foil in step 2 helps keep all the beans under the surface of the liquid, where they cook evenly. We like to serve this chili with sour cream, shredded Monterey Jack cheese, and fresh cilantro.
8 slices bacon, chopped
2 onions, chopped fine
2 red bell peppers, seeded and chopped (see note)
2 jalapeño chiles, seeded and chopped fine
1/4 cup chili powder
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons dried oregano
5 garlic cloves, minced
6 cups water
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 pounds dried black beans, rinsed and picked over
1 boneless ham (1 to 1 1/2 pounds) (see note) (1 lb is plenty)
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (15.5-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed (Bush’s brand)
2 tbls fresh lime juice (I reduced from 3 tbls in original recipe)
1. Cook bacon in Dutch oven over medium heat until crisp, about 8 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towel-lined plate. Cook onions, peppers, and jalapeños in bacon fat until softened, about 8 minutes. Transfer half of sautéed vegetables to medium bowl, wrap with plastic, and reserve in refrigerator. Add chili powder, cumin, and oregano to pot with remaining vegetables and cook until deeply fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in water, broth, 2 teaspoons salt, dried beans, ham, and crisp bacon. Bring to boil and let simmer 15 minutes.
2. Transfer bean mixture to slow cooker and arrange piece of aluminum foil on surface of liquid. Cover and cook on low until beans are tender, 7 to 9 hours (or cook on high 4 to 6 hours).
3. Remove lid, discard foil, and transfer ham to cutting board. Stir tomatoes into slow cooker, cover, and cook on high until tomatoes soften, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, transfer canned beans to bowl and mash with potato masher until rough paste forms. Chop (or shred) ham into bite-sized pieces. Stir mashed beans, ham, lime juice, and refrigerated vegetables into slow cooker. Cook, covered, until heated through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt. Serve.
Notes: I've tried this, it was really very good. The original recipe called for 3 tablespoons lime juice; I like citrus flavor but this was overkill so I dropped it to 2. Also, the ham is delicious but 1-1/2lbs is too much, it ends up being essentially almost entirely shredded pork.