CMH Gourmand

Eat, Drink, Repeat: Culinary Discovery & Misadventure in Central Ohio

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Chili: A Rant, A Recipe and Some Science

Posted by cmh gourmand on March 2, 2013

Well, here I go again. I judged two chili contests in the last month. The entries for both ranged from horrible, to meh with the best being slightly above average. One contest involved some of the best chefs in town, the other was a mix of people in the neighborhood helping to raise money for the school PTO. So if it was just the past month, I would say, it was just a bad run of luck. But as I thought about the last two years of chili consumption, most of my other memories from contests and meals on the run was the same….mostly abyssmal. I judged a Texas style child contest at Cajohn’s in the fall. I tried Texas Chili, Green Chili both professional and amateur and again, most of what I tried was not that good.

I don’t think I am a chili snob. I am an eater of the people, neither high or low brow, aiming for the palate in the middle and the man on the street. However, there must be a reason for the bad chili plague.

For the professional competitions, I get it. They feel the heat of competition against their peers so they are trying to do something different: more heat, less traditional ingredients, secret spices…..alligator. For each of the last two North Market Fiery Food Competitions, my fellow judges and I have walked out of the sequestered room saying “if anyone had just made chili, regular, basic chili, they would have won.” I would like to think that my fellow judges and I are nice, good people however the horrible, mean things we had to say about the chili we sampled seemed inspired by the devil.

For the “pro” competitions, there is a contributing reason that their chili concoctions are less than stellar. Most competitions require the chili to be cooked and prepared on site. This is an automatic guarantee for mediocrity. Most chili’s do best when they have an opportunity “fester” for several hours or several days. I call this the next day effect. This is the case for some other foods as well: lasagna, some types of pizza, cole slaw and more (you can share your favorite next day food with me as a comment to this post. Read more about the next day effect -> HERE.

There are many different definitions of what is or is not chili. People that know me, know I am not a purist on any cuisine or as a stickler on the “rules” about what does or does not define a food. However, in the arena of chili competitions, I opine that the contestants should consider the chili of their youth and try to make that, but with better ingredients. Chile Verde, White Chili, Vegan Chili…..I am cool with all of those, but if you aim to win, make the most mainstream chili you can think of and make it well. I cook a lot of different varieties of chili at home and I really like my white chili, but when I aim to impress, I go traditional.

What is chili as we know it in the Midwest? Here we go: a tomato based sauce, a mix of spices that always includes chili powder, meat, usually ground beef, and beans, often kidney beans. That is the chili my dad made, it is what I ate at neighbors houses and it is what Dave Thomas made with leftover hamburger patties at Wendy’s. Make that, and make it well, and you can win.

A note to competitors. If possible, ask the coordinator what the judging criteria are and consider those in your preparation. The esteemed Mary Martineau from North Market runs the best judged contests in town. Her ship is tightly run and on schedule. Tied scores are expressly verboten. She provides a point system to rate each of four categories which are typically: Aroma, Consistency, Taste and Appearance. If you plan to garnish your chili with cheese, sour cream, corn muffins, corn crusted jalapeno pieces….or whatever, make sure that is placed in a sample cup on the side. Judges are evaluating chili, not the stuff on top of it so you are just blocking the flavor of what your base is and if you choose add garnish on top that implies you have something to hide. Only add garnishes if presentation is a judged category.

I have judged at least ten professional chili competitions. I have participated in three official competitions and several “friendly competitions” including my now defunct annual chili party. I never won any contest but I have consistently placed second and third. My recipe is never the same, but it always uses the same base and techniques with a lot of cheats mixed in to the pot. I most recently tied for second at the Food Fort Holiday Party (December 2012) chili contest which was judged by Chuck Rundio from Charity Newsies, Miriam Bowers Abbott now at Columbus Underground and Shelly Mann from Crave. While I am biased, this was the best collection of chili I have sampled in years.

I never make the same chili twice but all of my concoctions fall on the same spectrum and have the same base.

Here is the step by step breakdown of my base.

I go to Bluescreek and buy 2 lbs of whatever meat looks most interesting. Sometimes I get goat, other times ground beef. Most often I get some type of sausage. The sausage is usually well spiced, that might be considered a cheat.

I set out my crock pot and start to put the base together. The base is always as follows:

I pour this in:
2 cans of Trader Giottos (Joes) Low fat Tuscano Marinara sauce (28 oz)
1 can of Red Gold or Ro Tel Diced Tomatoes and diced green chilies (10 to 16 oz)
and crank my crock pot to high.
I then shake in the following:
cracked black pepper
chili powder
garlic powder
other spices that suit my fancy
whatever fresh or jarred garlic I have on hand

I then drain in a colander a mix of beans which is usually two cans of dark red kidney beans and one can of black beans….sometimes two.

Depending on the type of meat I get, I may add 1/2 jar of Giardinera using either Il Primo or Marconi usually hot and finely diced when I can find it.

After the base is made, I cook the meat in a cast iron skillet with a bit of olive oil until it is brown and then drain the meat in a colander and dump into the crock pot. I let the chili “ferment” for a minimum of 6 hours. I then take a few tablespoons to sample, place in a cup to cool for 15 minutes then taste. At this point, I then add some more spice if desired and check the consistency of the base (I’ll add just a bit of peanut butter if the base is too soupy). I dump the condensation from the crock pot lid, place it back on the crock and set the temperature to low. When I go to bed, I place the crock in the refrigerator for more “fermenting”. The next day, I pull out the crock out again and set it to low for three or more hours before serving time.

The only thing special in my recipe – again as you can see, it is mostly “cheats” – is I give all the ingredients time to cook down and blend together. Do that and you will have a better chili and I will suffer less at the next chili competition.

3 Responses to “Chili: A Rant, A Recipe and Some Science”

  1. As a competitor (actually, the winner) of the most recent North Market Fiery Foods Chef Chili Challenge, I certainly appreciate your point of view and value your feedback. I am one of the guilty ones, having garnished my chili with cheese and sour cream (in my defense, that was in response to a judge’s comments two years previous that it needed “sour cream or something” to offset the heat, but I digress), as well as a strip of my homemade Ghost Pepper bacon. Totally agree with your comments re: Mary Martineau and how she runs her events…she is top-notch by any measure!
    The PTO event you judged…was it by chance the one at Dominion Middle School? I was supposed to help judge, as I am partnering with the school via the Chefs Move to Schools program, but I was doing a demo at the Home & Garden Show and just couldn’t make it. I gave them your name as a potential judge (hope you don’t mind)!

    • Note: Ed’s chili was my winner for the North Market Contest. Ed – don’t listen to the other judges. Yes, I picked up the Dominion Middle School contest since it is close to home and I like to support my community.

  2. novakarts said

    Well said, Mr. Gourmand. I strongly agree with your point of chilis having to “age.” Having participated in several (non-professional) chili cookoffs, I have to add that too many “chilis” barely have any flavor from chiles or even chili powder. People make what is essentially a ground beef/tomato stew with a teaspoon of chili powder. C’mon! And how about some real chiles? Dried ancho or New Mexico chiles can add a lot of flavor and depth.

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