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.


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