There’s this thing Abby and I do, before every soccer game. She’s usually sitting on the wooden bench by our door, in her too-big uniform, and even though she’s in third grade, I’m enabling…I mean, tying her cleats. When I’m done, I give her a pat on the knee and look into her eyes.
“You ready?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says. The affect couldn’t be more flat. She has heard this before.
“You gonna be tough out there today?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says.
“Good,” I say, “because if you lose, don’t bother coming home.”
She rolls her eyes.
So when I was loading my stock pot full of chili into the back of our car at 8:30 last Saturday morning, on my way to deliver it unto the judges of our town’s first annual Chili-Off, Abby saw her opening.
“Hey, Dad,” she said.
“If you lose today, don’t bother coming home.”
You know where this is going, right?
We’d signed up for this Chili-Off — which would take place at the Pumpkin Fair, which raises money for our town’s elementary school — a few weeks ago, and Abby wasn’t the only one having fun at my expense. Jenny, too, had been gleefully applying the pressure, getting all up in my mug about it. (“Remember that venison chili Francine made for us like ten years ago?” she asked a few days beforehand, out of nowhere, which I took as challenge — brazen in its passiveness — to my manhood. “Mmmm, that was so good.” Damn, I thought. Should I be using venison?). The night before the contest, she’d been watching me like a hawk as I got my mis en place going, hovering, looking skeptical, asking me if I was nervous, if I knew anything about “the competition,” if I had a secret ingredient up my sleeve (meaning: you might need one), if I’d be able to show my face at the coffee shop if we lost. But I had waited until 9:00 on the night before the contest to start cooking, and I didn’t have the time or bandwith for new recipes or special ingredients. Go with what you know, as they say, and so I did. I’m not about to abandon the chili I love because there might be someone out there building a better, prettier one. It’s called loyalty, people.
Besides, I only know how to make one chili by heart. It’s quick and easy, about thirty minutes of hands-on time, and is a regular in the family rotation. Every Halloween, actually, we make a batch of it for friends and neighbors, who stop in before they go trick or treating, or while they’re out trick or treating, sort an open house kind of deal. It’s a dinner party in a pot. We stick a ladle in the Le Creuset, put some paper bowls and fixings on the counter — sour cream, cheese, cilantro, avocado, chips — and everybody stands around with a glass of red wine and serves themselves. It’s become something of a tradition, and nobody has ever complained about the food. To my face, at least.
The chili itself is a pretty straightforward base with lots of possible variations, but for the First Annual Chili-Off, I decided to go classic (beef), with a slight twist (chorizo). The chorizo adds some subtle heat and smokiness and, in general, just really good depth of flavor. I mean, it’s sausage, for chrissakes; it’s not going to make it worse. By 10 pm, the stock pot was in the refrigerator, marking its time until Judgment Day.
We showed up at the fair at 12:30, having completely missed the Chili-Off, not to mention the panel of seven judges who apparently tasted all fourteen entries with the seriousness of the dead. The day was beautiful, sunny and windy, the leaves just beginning to turn. High clouds were blowing through in long formations. A soccer kind of day. One of Phoebe’s friends ran right up to us as we walked in. “You guys came in second place!” she said. “Phoebe, your dad almost won!”
Almost. Hey, I tried, right?
Jenny looked at me. She smiled. “Second place, wow,” she said, throwing an arm around my shoulder. “Not bad, not bad. But you know what George Steinbrenner said: Second place is really first place loser. I’m just saying.”
Ouch. I don’t the name of the guy who won first place, but I have two things to say to him: Congratulations, your chili rules. And: Stay away from my wife. — Andy
Second Place Chili
Serves 12 to 15
Again, this recipe is super versatile — you can make it with ground turkey, diced sirloin, shredded chicken. If you want to — and I want to – you can even add 1/2 piece of really smoky bacon. Ideally, you’d want to saute the onions and garlic first to build the flavor, but since we were dealing with so much meat and such limited pot space, we browned it in batches, removed the meat, then added the onions and garlic.
2 pounds ground beef (I used 90% lean)
4 links chorizo sausage, cooked
3 medium yellow onions, chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
2 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes
1 28-ounce can tomato puree
1/2 cup red wine
3 bay leaves
2 tablespoons dried oregano
8 tablespoons chili powder
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon (secret ingredient!)
2 dried chili peppers (for medium spicy; add another if you want hotter)
3 15-ounce cans black beans, rinsed
salt and pepper as you go
Brown the ground beef, in two batches, in a large stockpot in olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper as it cooks. Remove to a bowl with slotted spoon. Brown chorizo links for about two minutes a side, and remove to a cutting board. Chop up or slice.
Add onion and garlic to the pan with salt and pepper. Cook about 8-10 minutes, in all that beef and chorizo juice, until golden. Add wine, all tomato products and spices, chili peppers, and ground beef and chorizo back. Stir until well blended.
Cover at a lazy simmer for 30 minutes to 2 hours, stirring occaionally. Add beans and serve 15 minutes later.