Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Working hard to be the next Chili King

When I arrived in the Cornerstone Parking lot Saturday in Livermore, California, it was 5:55 a.m. – five minutes before the allotted start time. Fear immediately set in. I was the only one in the parking lot. Had I come on the wrong Saturday? After a few minutes of searching, I found the set-up guy. What a relief. Because I was first, I got one of the church’s two canopies, so I would be covered all morning from the blazing sun.

I wanted to use every minute of the 4 hours, 45 minutes allotted to us, with a 6 a.m. start. For me to become the 2010 Rimz & Ribz Chili King, it would mean lots of hard work, including testing my recipe and fine-tuning it. On Friday, I did all my shopping, cut up my chuck steak into half-inch pieces and began the 18-hour marinade in my special dry-spice rub. I have a travel container on wheels that I use for such events so I don’t have to break my back carrying heavy loads. I had an ice chest on the ready. I borrowed a 5-foot long, three-burner propane camp stove, plus a 10-gallon pot for the chili to simmer in.

The recipe I chose was an authentic (and red) recipe straight from the Chile Queens of San Antonio, Texas in the late 1800s, where the original chile (Spanish speakers use an e at the end, whereas English speakers use the i) came from. The recipe I came up with meant more work, because 60 dry chile pods had to be soaked for an hour in boiling water. The ultimate flavor and maroon color I was seeking came from using three different kinds of chiles: New Mexicos, anchos and mulatos. Chile purees can be bitter, but I countered that with sugar and roasting sweet peppers to throw into the mix.

I looked at past winners of the International Chili Society competitions, whose rules we used. Lots of ground beef and powdered spices. I’m more about using fresh ingredients whenever possible. Because of the time restrictions, I used canned tomatoes instead of roasting them on the grill, my preference. Beans were nixed because the last 10 ICS national titlists didn’t use them.

By 6:30, I had my water boiling to soak the chiles and the beef frying up in the mongo pot. After extracting all the beef and oil, I added a cup of red wine to deglaze the bottom of the pan. Those leftover yum-yums are great flavor enhancers.

I used dumps (such as pureed tomatoes, sautéed onions and roasted garlic in tomato paste and pureed roasted sweet peppers) to enhance the flavor. Instead of water, I simmered the beef in a combination of beef and chicken broth. It was two hours before I had the chile puree ready. After the pods had been soaked, the stems and as many seeds as possible were removed, then pureed with fresh water in a blender for 30 seconds. After tasting, I added a little sugar to offset the bitterness.

After two hours of work, I had all the ingredients in the pot. All those amazing flavors were being melded into what I hoped would be the winning chili. Every 30 minutes, I would do a taste test, then add spices. By that time, I’m down to a combination chili powder that’s fairly mild, ground cumin for a smoky flavor, kosher salt and ground pepper, about a tablespoon of each at a time until I found the mellow heat level I wanted. I did not want a hot chili that burned people’s mouths when they tasted it. That’s lunacy. I want my cooking to be remembered for its fantastic flavors, not for packing a punch.

By 9:30 and three hours of hard work, I was virtually done. For the next hour, I rested a little, drank some cold water, stirred the pot to look like I knew what I was doing and added spices occasionally.

Now, it came down to waiting on the judges and the people, each of whom would vote on the six entrants in two different categories. Stick around and find out who would be the Rimz & Ribz 2010 Chili King or Queen.

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