Where we live the country is hilly
And people might think that it’s silly
With no burger nor bean
Whether it’s red or it’s green
To call my recipe chili.
Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In May 2010, I left my position of 23 years, and honoring my non-compete clause, traveled for a year doing locum tenens work. In June of 2011 I joined up with the Community Health Center, which provides care for the underserved. I’m now working part-time, which, for a doctor, means 54 hours a week.
I made my second foray into competitive cooking today at the clinic’s annual chili cook-off.
My first experience came while still working at the Clinic Formerly Known As Mine. I had a dynamite recipe, inherited from my mother; it brings consistent accolades when I serve it to guests. But in accepting corporate sponsorship, I accepted the mandate to make the product heart healthy. Perhaps my sponsors didn’t mean vegan. I definitely do not qualify as a vegan. But I decided to make a vegan chili.
I considered the basic recipe, and after a couple of false starts, decided on ground roasted pumpkin seeds as the substrate. Once a week over a twelve week summer, I produced another batch, each time fine tuning the mixture of spices.
Simple arithmetic scales a recipe easily; if I put 12 cloves of garlic into a recipe that produces 4 quarts, I need to use 120 cloves of garlic if the rules say I need to produce 10 gallons. I did the math, I prepped the ingredients, and on the day of competition I arrived early. With the help of a friend and my wife, we cooked for four hours. The chili came out absolutely delicious.
The contest awarded a total of 30 prizes to a total of 27 competitors. I won none. Of the 10 gallons of chili I made, we brought home 9.
In the end, I decided that entering a vegan chili in an Iowa chili cook-off made as much sense as bringing a knife to a gun fight. Even if every bunch of hungry firemen and ER staff we gave the leftovers to loved it.
The tastes of cocoa and tomato disappear and a distinctive savor that the Mexicans call mole (pronounced moe lay), replaces them both. Finding the correct balance is very difficult. My mother got a recipe out of the newspaper, and in an uncharacteristic move, followed it to the letter, nailing a culinary conundrum the first time out.
I took the recipe to college and refined it. I adapted it from chicken to hamburger, and eventually to deer, elk, and aoudad. I decided that the meat didn’t matter with a sauce that good.
Which brings up the question: What is chili? Growing up it meant browned ground beef, canned tomato, and beans. When we lived in New Mexico, it usually included meat, rarely tomatoes, never beans, but always chiles, whether green or red.
This time I used dark meat of turkey as the base; I would rate the result as exquisite.
I wanted to win the contest but I didn’t want the prize, a gift certificate to a faux Mexican food chain. Bethany and I know we don’t like their food because we ate what drug reps gave us.
Five cooks entered the contest. I didn’t place in the top three. I suspect I came in last.
I came away a trifle disappointed, but I really liked having one of my favorite dishes as a hot lunch.
Enjoying your own cooking ranks as more important than a prize in a chili cook-off.
Maybe I would have won if I had used beef instead of turkey. Maybe I would have won if my entry had less heat.
Maybe mole isn’t really chili.
Next year I might try doing a Pueblo Indian-style beef red chile, something that I’ll work on this summer, with chunked chuck and cascabel chiles.
If I win, I hope I like the prize.
3 pound chicken, cut up
Olive or corn oil
1 large green pepper, chopped coarse
1 large onion, chopped medium
28 oz can crushed tomatoes
12 ounce can tomato paste
7 rounded teaspoons cocoa
2 ½ tablespoons ground cumin
Ground chile, chile molido puro, powdered chile, jalapenos, or crushed red pepper; the inherent heat will dictate the amount. I use 2 ½ tablespoons of a medium hot ground chile.
Garlic to taste
Water as needed.
In a heavy pot, brown the chicken and remove. Sautee the pepper and onion. Add tomato paste and crushed tomatoes, thin with ½ cup water, and add cocoa. (The balance can be so close that scavenging the fugitive bits of tomato paste left in the can make the difference between success and failure; the result should taste neither of tomato nor cocoa). Press in the garlic. Add the cumin and the chile, stir in ½ cup water, add the chicken. Bake covered at 350 degrees for 90 minutes. Serve with soft corn tortillas and/or rice. Serves six.