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Defining 'Chili', a Contest, and a Recipe

Sarah Wood, the editor of Edible Monterey Bay, asked if I could take her place as a judge  for the Chili Cook-off at The Park Lane today. Sure thing. So, I was there with Mike Hale, whose column Grub Hunter appears on Wednesdays in the Monterey County Herald; you can read his blog: here. Someone asked, "So you're here to judge? You must be a food expert!" Well...I'm a food writer. Not sure if that makes me an expert, but I do love to eat.

Mike and I were tasked with tasting - and evaluating - the eight entries. Interestingly enough we came to a consensus fairly easily. We both picked the same one as our first choice. And our second and third choices were the same - just flip-flopped. Done deal. And though we didn't talk about our criteria too much, I suspect that Mike and I were both weighing the offerings in a similiar fashion. I was basing my judgement on flavor, spiciness, texture, consistency, and overall enjoyment.

But it got me thinking: what makes a chili chili? I mean, most chilis are a thick, tomato-based, spiced stew with meat (though not always) and beans. Is that it?! What are the traditional chili spices? Is there such a thing as a canonical chili recipe?

The first chili we tasted was labeled 'Exotic Wild Game Chili.' We mused about the possible meat that was in it. It didn't taste like wild boar, so I guessed venison; another attendee spoke to the cook, who said that it was wildebeast, from a supplier in Wyoming. Yes, wildebeast. As in the antelope-relative in Africa. What?!? I had no idea you could eat them, much less purchase their meat in this country. But I did a quick search and found a supplier in this state, based in Riverside County - Exotic Meat Market. They also sell lion, alligator, alpaca, bear, guinea pig, nutria, peacock, yak, and more. Wow. Mike asked me, do you think that's sustainable? No clue.

We also tried a vegetarian chili where the beans were a tad undercooked for my tastes. Abe's Bomb Chili was on the greasy side, but had nice flavor. I could definitely taste the beer in TuTu's Chili. The Cowboy Chili was a little too much like refried beans, both in color and texture. I haven't a clue what made the Pinoy Chili filipino. Patis?!? And in the Chipotle Chili I got hints of citrus, lemon perhaps, but no chipotle. They were all interesting.

In the end, Mike and I awarded first place to the Texas Turkey Chili. It was deliciously seasoned with lots of flavor and just the right amount of heat. The beans weren't mushy but didn't have too much of a bite. It was, overall, the best chili there.

Still, after that experience, I'm not any closer to figuring out what makes a chili chili. But here's my favorite version...

Camilla's Chili al Diavolo 

1 pound of beef
1 pound of ground buffalo
1 bottle of beer (chose a pale one for this part)
1 bottle of Young’s Double Chocolate Stout (16.9 fl. oz)
2 shots of espresso
2 T unsweetened cocoa powder
1 large can of diced tomatoes
1 large can of crushed tomatoes
sea salt
2 fresh poblano chilis
2 fresh Anaheim chilis
2 fresh goldspike chilis
2 cans of black beans
agave syrup, to taste

Thinly slice the onions and crush the garlic. Sauté in olive oil till they start to soften. Add beef, thinly sliced, and braise in pale beer for three hours. Drain off any excess liquid and reserve the beef in a separate bowl. Brown the ground buffalo meat with more onions and garlic. Add the beef back into the pot. Season with cumin, sea salt, paprika, and unsweetened cocoa powder. Add the chocolate stout, espresso, diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, and one can of black beans. Clean, seed, rough chop and add all the fresh chilis. Bring to a boil, then simmer for one hour. Add the other can of black beans and simmer for another 30 minutes. If the chili is too bitter, add some agave syrup to sweeten. Let the flavors develop overnight before serving. Serve hot with mini cornbread muffins.

What's your favorite chili recipe? And what, in your mind, makes a chili chili? Would love to hear your opinion. Post a comment below, or email me at constantmotioncamilla [at] gmail [dot] com.


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