Cowboy Chili in the Canyon

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.

Trevor & Julian adjust the beeriness of their chili

Trevor & Julian adjust the beeriness of their chili

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.

My chili, round about noon

My chili, round about noon

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
serves many

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.

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    Nov 20, 2015 @ 15:39:54

    You are so right Sean its not so much about winning (you all were winners!) its more about friendships in a competitive sort of way?! Have a great weekend! Cheryl


  2. Mom
    Nov 20, 2015 @ 16:11:23



  3. Kali
    Nov 20, 2015 @ 20:45:12

    You set a standard for the rest of us to step it up each year. Maybe TCC should add an untraditional category.


  4. Joy Neubert
    Nov 22, 2015 @ 19:17:00

    Hi Sean,
    A Florida friend wants to know what tri tip is and carne asana, were these previously prepared?
    You also have some unknown chillies there,probably not found here yet.
    Thanks for all the inspiration and getting people together and of course all your pictures and stories.
    Wishing you a bountiful Thanksgiving.
    Joy Neubert. (From The BigWolf family )


    • scolgin
      Nov 22, 2015 @ 19:50:59

      Hi Joy!
      So nice to hear from you!! Hope to see you guys back up at Big Wolf in the coming years (Jon said, “You guys coming up to Big Wolf again next summer?” 🙂 A tempting offer, but I think we may be in Asia or Europe. But maybe 2017…)
      Anyway, tri tip is a very tender cut of sirloin. It’s very popular here in the west. “Carne asada” is a type of Mexican preparation of what is essentially skirt steak. Neither of them were previously prepared in my chili. Also, you could use more of less any dried chiles. I used several mild dried chiles (the guajillo) and several medium-spice chiles (the chipotle and the arbol). You could also order all three online:—herbs-chilipods.html
      Happy Thanksgiving!


  5. Trackback: The Topanga Chili Cook Off 2015 | SavRaw Local Farm Box
  6. Trackback: A Chili in the Air | skinny girls & mayonnaise

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