Judge's verdict: Chile con carne pros' pros and cons
This issue of the Culinary Corner marks our seventh anniversary, and again I am writing about the Cambria Chili Cook-Off, which will be Saturday, April 21. The first time I was an observer and "sampler" like everyone else, and it looked like so much fun that the following year I was a contestant, sponsored by The Cambrian.
The competition wasn't so formidable because it was so friendly. It was a lot of work, preparing my family's delicious recipe from scratch, and I wasn't in for the win so much but to be "up close and personal" with the other competitors. And I got a nice T-shirt, which is the envy of my kids.
Another year I was asked by Piedras Blancas light-keeper John Bogacki (since retired) to facilitate and assist in his production of a unique white chicken chili. It sure makes a difference when working with someone so compatible, and we ran out of stock early in the game - people were coming back for seconds and we had none left for new voters.
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Pleading weak ankles the last couple of years, I gave up competing and instead was asked to be "on the other side of the table." I served as a judge, as well as doing the annual article to report the final results of the cook-off and the car show.
Having cooked and worked with some fine chefs gave me a real insight to make my selections. Many have asked for my criteria, so here goes.
Texans claim that "real chili" is chunky beef with nary a bean. Well, California provides a wonderful variety of ingredients, which not only includes all kinds of beans, but also choice cuts of meat and poultry.
(Every year we get requests for a good vegetarian sample, so we'll have to work on that.) To me, it's the taste that's paramount. The sauce should be brick red, well-simmered into the other ingredients so the chili doesn't taste chalky.
Onions and bell peppers are a must, and there should only be a hint of garlic, Emeril notwithstanding. Cumin powder gives the most authentic flavor to enhance the chili, and some cilantro is nice, although there are those who cannot abide the taste.
The meat should be browned first, then the sauce added. Beans stirred in must be thoroughly cooked if prepared from scratch - we disqualified one batch which was not done. Most importantly, the hottest chili is not the best - contrary to Texas and New Mexico claims. Spicy and tasty get my vote, but because the 5-10 gallons are necessarily prepared the same morning, we don't have the opportunity for the best flavor to be enhanced overnight.
The texture should not be too thick or too soupy, which is difficult for the contestants to maintain. And it's no mean feat to keep it nice and hot in temp without scorching on the bottom, especially having begun to cook as early as 7 a.m.
Focus on the chili, disregarding the myriad and sometimes weird non-traditional ingredients, unless you are making a selection for the Most Unique Category. While presentation is important, all the garnishes (such as shredded cheese, parsley, chopped fresh onions, etc.) should not be the determining factors.
Focus on the chili, and enjoy!
Please send your recipes to Consuelo, c/o The Cambrian, 2442 Main St., Cambria CA 93428; or e-mail to email@example.com. Consuelo Macedo cooks on Happy Hill in Cambria.