Award-winning Chili Recipe: Quarantine comfort food at its best
Divorced, Broke and No Clue How to Cook
When I was about 40 years old, I found myself single and without any real clue how to cook. I was also unprepared when family and friends invited me over for BBQs or pot luck dinners and was expected to bring a dish. I quickly realized that picking something up at the store just sent the wrong signals. And let’s be honest, I thought a bottle of wine was a “dish.” My culinary achievements up to this point consisted of opening a can of soup and adding Old Bay, or going to the grocery store salad bar and creating a masterpiece with iceberg lettuce and bacon bits. So I began to ask friends for ideas and soon developed a handful of budget-friendly recipes that I would focus on, finding a few things that even I could do well. Over time, some of these became exceptional, and people would ask me to bring a particular dish, sometimes the main course.
From Canned Soup to Award-winning Chili
The first recipe I learned was All American Chili. A co-worker, the late Bob Santos, gave me his recipe which I first mastered then began to develop into different variations, both meat and vegetarian. These recipes eventually won three chili cook-off contests. No one was more surprised than me to beat out a couple hundred folks who had
been cooking chili for years. My advice for novice cooks: once you’ve mastered a single batch of chili, enter a contest. This will do two things for your psyche. First, you will learn that your chili is as good as most of the competing concoctions (I guarantee this). Second, you will discover by checking out and tasting the competition things that you want to incorporate into your own recipe and presentation. For example, I learned that presentation was about 50% of what made a contest winner.
My Old Friend the Crock Pot
One lesson I first learned was the gift of a crock pot. Originally popular in the 80s & 90s, this contraption is dummy proof to use and makes burning food, or your house down, very difficult. So, for this recipe, you will need a good-sized crock pot. If you don’t have one, borrow one from a neighbor. Trying out someone’s crock pot will inform you when you buy your own. Even after cooking for hours in a crock pot, this chili is best made the day before you eat it. This was another trick that I learned. Chili needs to rest before you eat it so that all the wonderful flavors work their “magic” and make the dish something the neighbors will talk about. Your primary job is to play with this recipe, using what ingredients you can get your hands on (fresh or canned), tasting, adjusting and tasting again and again.
All American Chili Recipe
Below is my recipe for All American Chili.* I’ve provided information for you to make it without meat into a just as delicious vegetarian version. Or you can swap out the meat for turkey, chicken, beef, even venison! The key to this recipe is the spices. The goal is not to light anyone’s mouth on fire. I’ve entered a lot of contests where a great looking chili with expensive ingredients burned the roof off the judges’ mouths. No one wants that. You want a chili that is spicy not HOT. I promise that you will have fun with this as long as you are satisfied with the taste. *I know, "real" Texas chili does not have beans, but the goal is for everyone to master a chili recipe they enjoy.
1 lb ground chuck, and either a couple of chorizo and/or andouille sausages. Omit for vegetarian version
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 green bell peppers & 2 red bell peppers, diced into big spoon-sized pieces
2 habanero peppers & 2 banana peppers. Before dicing, slice peppers in half and get rid of the seeds, otherwise it’ll be too hot. Wear gloves!
3 cloves garlic, minced (you can also buy a jar of diced garlic in the produce section of your food store)
½ cup celery, diced
1 cup corn kernels (if you use a can of corn, drain the water)
1 red onion, diced
3 beefsteak tomatoes, peeled and chopped, reserving juice (or use two cans of diced no-salt added tomatoes)
3 cans red kidney beans, drained. Substitute black beans for one can for a more interesting color.
2 small cans tomato paste
1 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Pinch of ground cloves
In a large frying pan add the ground chuck and sausages (peel off the casing) and sauté on medium heat until everything is browned. Remove from pan, toss the grease and throw the browned meat into the crock pot.
Still on medium heat, add the olive oil to the pan. Once heated, add the onions, celery, corn, and banana & habanero peppers with salt, and sauté until the onion and celery start to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic at the last 2 minutes so it doesn’t burn. In the meantime, turn the crook pot to high and add the beans, diced red and green peppers, tomatoes, and tomato paste. When the frying pan onions and celery are softened, add it all to the crock pot. Now that everything is in the crock pot, start adding the remaining spices then give it a good stir to incorporate well (you can always jazz the dish up with more spices the when you reheat it the next day). Cook in the crock pot for 6 hours on high stirring every hour or so. I am a bit of a nut on cooking meat so I err on safety’s side, but cook only 4 hours if you are making the vegetarian version. Remember the chili is going to get quite hot, so in the last half hour you will need to turn off the crock pot and let it cool before putting in the fridge to season overnight. Reheat the next day and serve, with corn bread, cheddar cheese and diced onions. When reheating you may find the spices have kicked up the flavor overnight, which is why you may want to go lightly on day one. Or, if you are like me, you can ramp up the spices as you reheat the chili. Enjoy!