Battle of the chilis

Whenever you have a room full of chili competitors, you’re bound to find some unusual approaches, for chili is a canvas for individuality. And although this particular competition took place among representatives of churches, there was plenty of devilish fire.

My friend Fredi Morf, a Wake Tech culinary instructor, asked me to help judge the competition at St. Saviour’s Center in Raleigh. The center offers wellness programs for seniors and infants, including the Diaper Train, which provides diapers to needy families, and Wake Relief food pantry. Proceeds from admission went to the programs.

The third judge was Bob Passarelli, executive chef at US Foodservice and spice rub maker, who I hadn’t seen since he was a chef at the governor’s mansion. We discussed heat level before we got started and I discovered that I exceeded the others in tolerance for flame.

The nine chilis were prepared by First Presbyterian (who entered two), Hillyer Memorial, Christ Church, St. Paul AME (last year’s winner), St. Michael’s Episcopal, White Memorial Presbyterian (who entered two) and Wake Relief.

As those attending voted for a people’s choice award, we judged in two categories: meat and vegetarian. Since only one chili was vegetarian, the winner was rather obvious. But the other chilis were as varied as the fiendish minds of cooks can make them. Some were chicken, some included pork, one had canned pumpkin as an ingredient, one had such a strong cinnamon aroma I thought more of a muffin. One richly dark chili had an afterburn that snuck up from behind. “Too hot for you, boys?” I said sweetly to my fellow judges. They smiled, temporarily unable to speak.

We picked the Bo-dacious Southern Chili  from St. Michael’s as our meat-category winner. And it had plenty of meat – ground beef and sausage – in addition to poblanos, ancho chile powder, chipotle, canned green chiles and beer. The people’s choice winner was St. Paul AME, and it was a very fine chili.

White Memorial’s vegetarian chili was a default winner, but it would have been a strong contender in any case. It was more hearty, thick and flavorful than I’ve found many vegetarian chilis to be and contains some unusual ingredients. The cooks were glad to share their recipe with me. I haven’t tested it myself yet; these are their directions.

White Memorial’s Vegetarian Chili

1 cup bulgar

1 ounce dried ancho peppers

1 ounce dried anaheim peppers

1 ounce dried guajillo peppers

4 cups vegetable broth (divided use)

2 cups diced yellow onions

1 cup diced red bell pepper

6 cloves garlic

3 tablespoons safflower oil

3 (14-ounce) cans diced fire-roasted tomatoes

1 (14-ounce) can kidney beans, drained

1 (14-ounce) can black beans, drained

1 (14-ounce) can corn

1 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms, ground to powder in a blender

1 1/2 tablespoons cumin

1 tablespoon Mexican oregano

1 or 2 canned chipotle peppers, chopped

2 tablespoons adobo sauce from chipotle peppers

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter

2 bay leaves

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Salt and pepper to taste

Soak the bulgar in 2 cups boiling vegetable broth for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, toast the ancho, anaheim and guajillo peppers in a frying pan over medium heat until fragrant. Don’t let them burn. Remove the seeds, tear them into small pieces and puree in a blender with about 1/4 cup water. Add 2 garlic cloves and a pinch of salt. You will end up with a chile paste. Set aside.

Drain the bulgar. Set aside.

In a heavy-bottomed 5-quart pot, saute the onions and red bell peppers in the oil until soft but not brown. Add the powdered mushrooms, cumin, oregano, remaining garlic and bay leaves. Cook 2-3 minutes or until fragrant. Ad the tomatoes, corn, beans, honey, bulgar, chile paste, chipotle, adobo and peanut butter. Add remaining vegetable broth. Bring to a boil then simmer for 1 hour. Sprinkle on the cilantro just before serving.

Sochi salsa

It’s appropriate for me that the Winter Olympics are starting during New York’s Fashion Week, because a group of friends and I look at the opening ceremonies as a giant runway show. As we have for many times, on Friday we will gather to eat, drink and critique the athletes’ ceremonial uniforms as they walk in.

Many of us bring food inspired by the host country, although it’s not required. (One is bringing spanakopita, I found out today.) I have visited Russia and am interested in the country, so I brought out my Russian cookbooks and began considering dishes. There is more to Russian food than borscht.

Then I contacted my friend, Darra Goldstein, the author of “Taste of Russia” and “The Georgian Feast” and founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. She wrote a piece on the food of Sochi for Eating Well magazine.

Goldstein writes that Sochi has been a trade crossroads for centuries and was influenced by Greeks and other ethnic groups. (So maybe that spanakopita is appropriate after all.) Dishes often combine Russian flavors with those of Greece and Turkey. For example, she writes, Circassian chicken pairs poached chicken breast with ground walnuts, hazelnuts and cream. In the mild climate – this may the first time palm trees have been seen at a Winter Olympics – citrus fruits, grapes and tomatoes thrive.

Goldstein shared this recipe for a type of Georgian salsa in Eating Well. Sochi is near the border of Georgia. I was thinking of making Potatoes with Walnuts from “The Georgian Feast” for the party, but this sounds pretty darn good. It can be served with grilled meat or vegetables, or simply with crackers.

Adjika

1 large red bell pepper, cored and seeded

1/4 pound hot red jalapeno peppers, stems and most of the seeds removed (she likes to leave some seeds to give some bite but adjust for yourself)

4 cloves garlic, peeled

1 large celery stalk including leaves

1 1/2 cups firmly packed cilantro, including tender stems

3/4 cup firmly packed fresh basil

3/4 cup firmly packed fresh dill ,including tender stems

1 tablespoon dried coriander

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

Coarsely chop the bell pepper, jalapeno peppers and garlic and place them in a food processor. Pulse until coarsely ground. Roughly chop the celery and fresh herbs and add to the food processor along with the coriander, salt and vinegar. Pulse just until well mixed; the salsa should still have texture. Transfer the mixture to a container and let sit overnight in the refrigerator for the flavors to meld before serving.

Makes about 2 cups