I guess it wouldn’t be Topanga if our annual Chili Cook-off was a legitimate competition.
Goofy chilis often win. Last year, in the traditional chili category, the top prize went to a Moroccan lamb chili. This year, second place went to friend Kali’s chili — which featured habanero whipped cream and strawberries. (And was actually quite tasty, once I got enough past my initial shock to try some.)
Several years ago, I was a judge. There were only three chilis entered, none of which had any meat. (And one of which was a salsa-like “raw” vegan chili.) Our task that year, the other judges and I determined, was to choose the least bad of the three.
It seemed there was some effort by our local community house powers-that-be in the intervening years to make it more of a legitimate event. And this year, the chilis were of a much higher caliber. Still, there was missing a true sense of competition, as the entrants traded secrets, shared ingredients and utensils, and passed around beers and bottles of homemade wine.
It’s more of simply a big community chili cookout, I suppose.
“I’m worried about my beans,” my cooking neighbor, Tom with the Big Chili Paddle, confessed. “I didn’t soak them, and I don’t think they’re going to be cooked through.”
“Don’t worry,” I assured him, knowing he was the only entrant this year in the vegetarian category, “I feel pretty good about your chances.”
In 2014, my first year “competing,” I made a traditional chili that was heavy on Mexican influences — in particular, a heavy masa influence from corn flour. I also tossed in a couple slices of American cheese for creaminess. (“Hey man,” said my pal Dan, cooking across from me, with a look of bewilderment on his face, “Did you just throw some processed cheese into your chili!?”)
I did not win. But I had fun, and got lots of props for my chili.
This year, I chose a more strictly traditional route. I would use no beans, just beef (and a few smoked pork bones — technically a violation, but no one seemed to be paying much attention to violations), roast and grind my own chilis and cumin seeds, lots of sweet onion and fresh garlic. My base would be Tecate beer, and a second level of smokiness would come from a few ounces of Del Maguey Vida mezcal.
I had brought along some extra beers, figuring I’d start the day early and have a couple come noon-time. But I’d only just finished my coffee, the rising sun slowly warming the ballfield, when Tom offered me a taste of his homemade wine, which I accepted. Soon, the sound of bottles and cans snapping open all around me heralded an earlier start to the afternoon than anticipated. It was a warm, beautiful morning and there was plenty to celebrate.
“Want some beer?” said my 20-something neighbor cooks and buddies from the year before, Trevor and Julian, who prepare their chili on the coolest ancient rusted cast iron camp stove ever — and deserve to win for that alone.
Walking around the swap meet with my Tecate in hand, I ran into my friend Sue. “Drinking already?” she said. I glanced around at the people drinking their coffees, looked at my phone, and it was 9:47.
“It’s a whole different scene up there at the chili stage,” I meekly objected.
By noon, the chilis were taking shape, their flavors integrating, as we contestants walked about sampling and complimenting one another’s creations. And then it was 1 p.m. — judging time. But it seemed the judges — Topanga’s Engine 69 Fire Department — had left to go douse a house that was burning. So the usual non-qualified assortment of chili judges was scrambled together.
The contestants gathered at the front of the stage as the effusive MC lady did her schtick, and then the winners were announced. Tom won the vegetarian category, as predicted. Trevor and Julian collected their blue ribbon for “Best Traditional Chili”, and we all returned to our pots where customers were lining up to try the diverse variety of chilis.
“Dude, you were robbed,” said Julian graciously, and I gave him a hug.
“It ain’t so much about winning as spending the day with y’all,” I told him from the bottom of my beer-soaked, cumin-infused heart.
* * *
Sonoran Vaquero Chili
1 lb. choice tri tip, cut into small cubes
1 lb. choice carne asada, chopped
1 lb. choice short rib on the bone
1 lb. smoked pork neck bones
1 lb. grass-fed ground beef
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. heirloom tomatoes, pureed
4-5 dried guajillo chiles
2-3 dried chipotle chiles
2-3 dried chiles de arbor
1 head garlic, peeled and crushed
1 white onion, chopped
3 cans Tecate
3 oz. Del Maguey mezcal
1 oz. Mexican chocolate
1 tbsp. ground cumin
sea salt & pepper to taste
Toast dried chiles and grind to a powder. Combine with cumin.
Heat oil over medium high heat in a large pot. Brown cubed and chopped meat (tri tip and carne asada). Add onion and garlic and cook until golden and translucent. Add short rib and ground beef, continue browning. Add beer and pureed tomato, bring to a simmer, lower heat to medium low and cover.
Cook for 90 minutes. Add chili powder, mezcal and chocolate. Stir, cover and continue cooking for another 90 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Adjust seasoning to taste. Uncover, and continue cooking until desired consistency. Remove bones and any large chunks of meat, which should be chopped.