WHEN the wind begins to whistle and the chill is in the air - it's time for bowls of piping hot chili. Known in Mexico as carne con chile, in the United States it's usually known by its nickname, ``chili,'' ending with an i. The spelling is minor. It's what goes into an ``authentic'' chili that promotes the most heated discussions, and that depends upon whose stove the pot of meat and spices is bubbling on.
Over the years, chili has migrated into every part of the country and has been transformed to almost every taste or region. Regional loyalty is very, very strong. You could start another civil war debating which state makes the best chili.
How hot is hot? Tomatoes, or no tomatoes? With beans, or without? What kind of garnish? All these fine points are debated from Santa Fe to Austin, from Cincinnati to New York City.
Purists say there should be no beans and no tomatoes in the pot, and they also object to using hamburger or ground beef for chili. Real chili snobs say the original authentic Mexican chili was made with small cubes of hand-diced meat and hot chili peppers and nothing else.
But most everybody agrees that chili con carne began in Mexico, even though some say it's as American as apple pie or baked beans or Wonder bread.
Texans have argued loud and long enough to have most of the country convinced that their kind of chili is definitive.
``Texans have been making chili for well over a hundred years and that makes it pretty American, I guess,'' says Dan Jardine, head of Jardine's Texas Foods in Austin.
According to Mr. Jardine, chili has two basic components: the seasonings and the meat. ``The seasonings are the chilies in some form, garlic, salt, and cumin. The meat can be beef, venison, or pork.'' That, he says, is the foundation, but adds, ``For me, I like tomatoes in it - whole or paste, or sauce.''
How about beans? ``Yes, we've been eating beans and chili for years and years. Sometimes they're mixed in with the meat and peppers - sometimes they're served on the side. Now we in Texas like our chili more spicy hot than most people. That's probably because we're more accustomed to other hot foods.
``But don't let people tell you chili has to be made a certain way,'' Jardine says. ``Chili-making allows for a lot of leeway, and it should be fun. Have your beans the way you like 'em. Other Texans may disagree, but I say, even with beans mixed in, we're still in the ball game of real chili.''
But in their latest book, ``Real American Food'' (Knopf, $19.95), Jane and Michael Stern write: ``Try to find a decent bowl of red next time you're in Texas. Only a handful of modern Texas restaurants specialize in chili - and most are for tourists.''
The Sterns traveled from coast to coast to write about American food that's eaten by real folks every day. They say the Midwest, Cincinnati in particular, is the chili capital of America.
``More than 100 chili parlors, some connected with great chili chains such as Skyline, Empress, Gold Star, some independent, specialize in variations of a style of chili unique to Cincinnati,'' the Stern book says. ``The famous 5-way Cincinnati chili is made up of layers of spaghetti, chili meat, beans, onions, and cheese. Often oyster crackers are sprinkled on top.''
Michael McLaughlin, owner of a New York chili restaurant (the Manhattan Chili Company), describes Cincinnati chili as sweet and thin, spicy but not very hot.
``Many a Texan would call it an outrage, whereas a bowl of `Texas red' might be intolerable to someone from the state of Maine,'' he explained in a Boston interview.
Besides the regional spices and basic ingredients, most chili eaters add such toppings as Cheddar cheese, sliced black olives, sour cream, chopped coriander (cilantro), red pepper flakes, chopped scallions, and red onions.
Mr. McLaughlin says people will pay $7.50 for a bowl of really good chili in his restaurant. McLaughlin, a native of Wray, Colo., is a food writer who also teaches a chili workshop.
``When it comes to making chili from scratch, the most common problem is timidity,'' he says. ``This is no time for little pinches of this and bits of that. This kind of food needs big, big flavors.
This first recipe, called Numero Uno, is the best seller out of eight or nine chili dishes on McLaughlin's menu, and is from his cookbook, ``The Manhattan Chili Co. Southwest American Cookbook'' (Crown, $9.95). Numero Uno 1/4 cup olive oil 2 large yellow onions, peeled, coarsely chopped (about 4 cups) 11/2 pounds coarsely ground beef 11/2 pounds coarsely ground pork 2 teaspoons salt 1/3 cup mild, unseasoned chili powder 3 tablespoons toasted, ground cumin seeds 3 tablespoons oregano, preferably Mexican 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon 11/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper, or to taste 4 cups tomato juice 3 cups beef stock or canned beef broth 8 medium garlic cloves, peeled, minced 2 to 3 tablespoons cornmeal (optional) 2 cans (16 oz. each) red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
Warm oil in large skillet over medium heat and cook onions about 20 minutes, stirring, until soft. Meanwhile in 4- to 5-quart heavy kettle, over medium heat, cook meats and salt. Stir often until meats lose pink color and are evenly crumbled, about 20 minutes.
To the meats, add onion, chili powder, cumin, oregano, cocoa, cinnamon, and pepper and cook, stirring, 5 minutes. Stir in tomato juice and stock and bring to boil. Lower heat and simmer, uncovered, 1 hour. Taste, adjust seasoning, simmer 30 minutes or until chili is thickened to your taste. Stir in garlic. To thicken more, or to bind surface fats, stir in cornmeal. Add beans and simmer 5 minutes.
Note: Mr. McLaughlin says not to use Dutch process cocoa - the regular sort is more flavorful. Proceed with caution with cinnamon, he says, as ``some people can't abide cinnamon in a savory dish. While the hot pepper is a personal matter, the balance of spices is thrown out of whack it the chili is too mild,'' he explains. Betty Crocker's Cookbook Chili Con Carne 1 pound ground beef 1 large onion, chopped (about 1 cup) 2 cloves garlic, crushed 1 tablespoon chili powder 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon ground cumin 1 teaspoon dried oregano 1 teaspoon cocoa 1/2 teaspoon red pepper sauce 1 can (16 ounces) whole tomatoes, undrained 1 can 151/2 oz.- red kidney beans, undrained
Cook and stir ground beef, onion, and garlic in 3-quart saucepan until beef is brown; drain. Stir in remaining ingredients except beans; break up tomatoes. Heat to boiling, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, 1 hour. Stir in beans. Heat to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer uncovered, stirring mixture occasionally, until of desired consistency, about 20 minutes. Serves 4.
Warm corn bread is an appropriate accompaniment.
Cincinnati-style Chili: Prepare chili as directed above. For each serving, spoon about 3/4 cup beef mixture over 1 cup hot cooked spaghetti. Sprinkle each serving with 1/4 cup shredded Cheddar sheese and 2 tablespoons chopped onion. Top with sour cream if desired.