Ok, so a little background: I've been a home cook for years now and have quite a few recipes under my belt that I think (and have been told) are good enough to be served at good restaurants. Of course this includes all sorts of chili recipes.. some that I have put together myself, and some that are riffs of existing recipes from cookbooks or found on the internet. Jason (the co-host of the drinkfive podcast and co-founder of drinkfive.com) has decided to hold an official chili cook-off this year to coincide with opening weekend of the NFL season. Heck yeah! I've decided to post some of my recipes and my thinking as I run through some ideas in the months leading up to the cook-off.
Here are the rules for the competition:
- We will not have the space available to cook on site, so you must bring your chili ready to eat (or at least ready to sit in the crock pot for a while). Since we will not be able to police this, it will have to be a gentleman's agreement that you do not start cooking any part of the chili more than 24 hours before the event starts.
- Your chili must consist of at least the following ingredients: Meat and chili peppers. I'm not going to be strict about this, use whatever meats you want, whatever peppers you want. Beans are optional. Pasta is strictly forbidden - this isn't friggin' Cincinnati.
- Each judge will try each chili and grade them (1-10) based on the following categories: Appearance, Aroma, Consistency, Taste, Aftertaste(the burn). I will provide a sample of the score card ahead of the competition, but remember it's up to the judges to determine what they feel is the best kind of consistency, taste, spice levels, heat levels, etc. Do your best not to provide details at the cookoff that would tip people off as to which chili is yours. The highest cumulative score wins. Ties will be broken by the number of "10"'s on the scorecards, followed by fewest low numbers.
- We will provide garnish at the house to use for casual eaters (cheese, sour cream, onions, scallions, chips, crackers). I would prefer to not use these in judging; we certainly will not be giving points for that if we do. I will leave this point up to the judges to decide how they would like to do it. We will decide before the cookoff starts, so if we go no garnish, any of those ingredients you want in your chili will have to go in it before presenting (in the pot, essentially).
So, pretty straightforward.. make the best chili possible including both peppers and meat. Honestly, you could go one of a thousand different directions here including things like white chicken chili, chili verde, vegetarian chili (as if I would consider that one!), etc.. but it basically boils down to the simple choices that you have available to you in several different categories.. let's go through those a bit and break down the options. Although there are certainly many ways to go about this, we're going to keep it simple. As of a few weeks ago I've been constructing some recipes and have fallen into the trap of using too many ingredients and trying to develop overly complex flavors that are difficult to balance. I've decided that the key to a great chili is to use a small amount of simple, high quality ingredients and then throw in one of a few 'secret' ingredients at the end or include a little more of one thing (a particular spice, a few more chile peppers, etc) in order to leave the eater with a memorable impression.
Designing the base of the chili:
Generally chilis are tomato based, either using fresh tomatoes or canned - if I'm using canned I prefer to buy the whole peeled tomatoes (San Marzano, if you can find them!) as they tend to have a better flavor then the crushed or diced. Another option is to go with tomatillos (they look like small green tomatoes inside a loose green casing if you've never seen them) which have a stronger, tart flavor.. tomatillos are fantastic and have a flavor that many people have never tasted, but they don't necessarily go along with regular chili ingredients. No, they go much better with southwestern or mexican flavors as in a chili verde. I have recently tried combining the two as a regular chili base but I wasn't too happy with the outcome - the flavors seemed to compete with each other rather than coexisting peacefully.
One of the more successful things that I have done is to grill, broil or roast the peppers and/or tomatoes/tomatillos that I'm using for a recipe along with some onions and garlic cloves. After you get a nice char on these you can throw them in a food processor and pulse until at the desired consistency. Although I usually prefer more of a chunky chili, using this method can develop some strong flavors that are more integrated after having been pulsed together. You can always add some extra diced tomatoes (I prefer the fire-roasted garlic, if using canned) afterwards. Here is a quick recipe for a chili base that works well for any kind of meats and seasonings that you'd like to finish the chili with:
Smokey Poblano Chili Base
(1) Large Onion (Vidalia or Spanish, cut into wedges)
(2) Poblano Chile Peppers (stemmed, seeded, cut in 1/2)
(2) Serrano Chile Peppers (stemmed, cut in 1/2)
(4) Garlic Cloves (whole, peeled)
(28 oz.) Whole Peeled Tomatoes (or 10 fresh plum tomatoes, cut in 1/2)
Good Quality Olive Oil
Fresh Ground Black Pepper
1. Combine the onion, peppers, garlic and tomatoes (if fresh) in a large bowl and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
2. Spread everything out on a large baking pan, skin side up and broil on high for 10-15 minutes, or until visibly charred.
3. Let the peppers cool and then peel the skin from them.
4. Combine all ingredients in a food processor (if using, add the canned tomatoes at this point along with the other ingredients) and pulse until at desired consistency (8-10 times).
Tips: To better balance the acidity of the tomatoes, you may need to add 1-2 tablespoons of sugar to taste. If not using a gas stove with actual flames, you may need to add a few dashes of liquid smoke in order to get the desired smokey flavor.
So, enjoy! Let me know if this worked for you as well as it did for me - add in some meat, beans, vegetables, spices, etc at this point and build your own chili using whatever ingredients that you and your family really like! The most basic additions to this recipe would probably be to add some browned ground beef or turkey along with 1 or 2 cans of beans (traditionally light or dark red kidney beans or pinto beans) and some chili powder and cumin. But go nuts, you're only limited by what your local grocery stores carry on their shelves. :) Next time, we'll go over the different kinds of chile peppers and meats that you could add to your chili and which are the best to use!