I used to think that taste buds were hereditary. And in some cases I still do. But somehow I developed a semi-unnatural obsession to spicy food that hasn’t come from my dad and especially not my mom. So you could imagine when mom told me she entered a chili contest I was a little confused. Not to mention, neither of us have made it before. Growing up Italian, chili wasn’t exactly in our dinnertime repertoire. The closest we got was a pasta bolognese but still no heat. But in true mom form, she’s in it for the thrill and the social gathering with her friends that will take place at the bar while the judges are deliberating.
So I went to a few trusted sources like Ruth Reichel and Serious Eats and made a few decisions. Ruth suggested bison meat because it’s naturally very lean and full of flavor. Both sources suggested making a homemade chili powder. And Serious Eats made some cautionary comments about using dried kidney beans properly (another thing I’m not familiar with).
After gathering some preliminary ingredients I went to Holiday Meats in Little Silver, NJ to pick up the bison. Holiday Meats is a family run wholesale meat supplier to some of the best restaurants in the area. This was my first time visiting and owner Vinny Valentino was gracious enough to show me around the facility. Coming from a direct line of family butchers I always get excited by an opportunity to learn more about the craft practiced by my family. And personally, I feel that true butchers are a rare breed of artists. Vinny is especially rare. He inherited the business from his father, who was a product of the golden ages of New York butcher shops with a legacy to do one thing, and do it right. While many things have changed from those golden years, the passion to share quality meat and service that takes you back to the days when businesses shared true genuine relationships with their customers, has not.
Back in the kitchen my mom and her friend Margo were ready to get started. Margo is Greek and has some experience with chili and definitely more of a risk taker when it comes to the spice factor. Margo was a true asset in this operation and a trusted ‘double checker’ as I like to call it. We weren’t working from a recipe so a double check in everything from when to add the tomatoes to the spice mixture was critical. And like hell my mom was about to taste anything spicy. I forced her to try a roasted poblano pepper just to expand her pepper knowledge. You’d think she was a 2-year-old about to take cough medicine.
One of the major things I learned in culinary school was to taste as you go along. And that was absolutely a key part of building this dish. I was going purely off of flavor building techniques and trusting our instincts. The voice of Chef Anna, a very influential ‘tough love’ kind of instructor was replaying in my head all day. “Just think!” is what she would bark at us in the kitchen. Cooking is thinking. Things just don’t magically taste good. You have to think. Think that you better add those fresh bell peppers in last otherwise they will turn to mush. Think that its okay if your beans are still a little hard because you will be reheating the chili again in the morning and it will be sitting in a crock pot at the competition for at least four hours.
About six hours later with a little of this and a little of that we were in pretty good shape. The chili looked really nice and the level of heat was perfect. You got the meaty, tomato base up front and that slow rise of spice on the finish.
With twelve other competitors I was keeping my expectations low. Chili is a very personal thing to most people. Family recipes that have been passed down from one tailgate to the next. But I was hoping my homemade chili powder and chili paste would give us some muscle. As an added bonus I fried fresh corn tortillas to serve on the side.
The judges took a good hour to come to their decision. After which the public got to taste and make a public vote. We were table number 6, right in the middle of the tastings. By the time I tasted up to number 6 I noticed ours definitely stood out from the previous five. My mom had a small entourage of her bowling friends all of which said our chili was the best. Somehow I wasn’t convinced. There were some pretty good chilis out there, and it really comes down to what the judges are feeling. I felt we put forth a decent, traditional chili with a foundation in good technique and balanced flavor.
What seemed like hours later as the crock pots were starting to burn the last remains and people began picking on the stale chips the crowd gathered to announce the winners. The small neighborhood pub was jammed with people and I barely make my way to the front of the pack as they announced second place #6! I literally screamed and ran to Margo and my mom, hugging all of my moms friends and our new supporters. Some people in the crowd felt my reaction was even better than the 1st place winners!
While I’m not about to revel our secret recipe I will share some helpful tips:
1. Bison meat was a great choice. I was almost turned off by the fatty ground beef, some of which had little pools of orange fat at the top.
2. My mom made an excellent observation that starting the chili in a dutch oven rather than cooking in a slow cooker made a lot of difference. Building flavor is a gradual layering process that you can’t achieve in a slow cooker.
3. Make homemade chili powder using toasted dried peppers and spices such as cumin and cloves. Who knows how long the chili powder in your spice rack has been sitting there.
4. I also opted for a homemade chili paste using a range of fresh peppers (on the hotter end) and canned chipotle in adobo which you can find in the International section of the grocery store. Blend all together adding a little tomato juice of beef stock to help it loosen up.
5 . For us, we kept it simple and didn’t use any secret flavor boosters like chocolate, soy sauce or beer. But we did use about half a bottle of red wine to deglaze. Again, in the words of chef Anna, THINK. Take your chili in one direction then experiment later.