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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Chili and Charros Cook-Off: A Bi-Cultural Event

A giant paper mache mojiganga

"Wish I had time for just one more bowl of chili."  Alleged dying words of Kit Carson (1809-1868), Frontiers Man and Mountain Man

The Chili and Charros Cook-Off:  A Bi-Cultural Event
by Victoria Challancin

Chiles may have originated in Mexico, but "Chili" is purely American, with hats off to Texas, New Mexico, and California.  And San Miguel de Allende's annual chili and charros (beans) cook-off is a perfect example of one of those rare occasions when the local gringos, especially the transplanted Texans, get to strut their stuff in an event that benefits various charities and provides a good time for the foreigners and locals alike.

 For the past six years the San Miguel Community Foundation has put on an outstanding event that benefits various charities and non-profit organizations in San Miguel.  "Chili and Charros" 2012 features a competition for Best Chili, Best Charro Beans, and Best Margaritas.  Local residents, restaurants, organizations, and temporary visitors here just for the event, compete for the various "crowns," with the proceeds going to charity.  In addition to the actual competitions, ticket-holders can sample the various chiles and charros, casting their votes for their favorites.  Also, live musical bands featuring different kinds of music, stunning rodeo ring performances, a denim jacket fashion show, donkey rides and face painting for children, and a silent auction round out a full day's activities.

Now I am not about to get into an argument involving any of the controversies that habitually swirl around the beloved regional dish of chili, such as: about where it originated, beans vs no-beans, the degree of heat required, or even the appropriate type of chiles to be used.  No, not this humble cook.  Reams have already been written on these topics, with more being added almost daily.  Let's just leave it to say that chili lovers take their recipes seriously, and nowhere it is more evident than in a good old-fashioned chili cook-off.

My well-used tasting bowl

Cornbread!  One booth served delicious cornbread to sop up equally delicious chili

Some Signs

Personal Note:  For the Chili Cook-Off I worked as a volunteer representative for Mujeres en Cambio, a non-profit organization that I have worked with for over 15 years.  This group, an all volunteer, grass-roots organization committed to enhancing the lives of women living in the rural communities surrounding San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, currently provides educational scholarships to 150 young women, 38 of whom are now in university.  As a former educator, this is particularly important to me, but I am equally proud of our rug hooking project, which developed into a women's craft cooperative that supports a number of rural families.

A Few of the Cooks

Props and Humor

A Bit of Other Food

One Satisfied Customer

Musicians, a Donkey, and Kids

My Own American-Style Chili
One of the best chilis I have ever made is a beanless version from the late Craig Claiborne which I found in an early New York Times Cookbook.  For years, this was my "go-to" recipe for chile.  When I had clients request that I teach an American-style chile here in Mexico, I had to come up with something I could produce in less time, hence the recipe below.  I cobbed the Homemade Chili Powder recipe together from various sources whose identities have been lost over time.  The chili itself is what my Mother made, although she used packaged spices and I prefer to grind my own.

Homemade Chili Powder
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
Cook's Note:  I change the chiles every time I make this, using whatever I have on hand, which is usually quite a selection.  Usually, I toast and grind whole spices as well instead of using previously ground ones.  This recipe can be used as a dry rub for meats as well as for chili.

3 ancho chiles, seeded and torn into pieces
1 chile pasilla, seeded and torn into pieces
1 guajillo chile or 4 chiles de árbol, torn into pieces
1 tablespoone cayenne
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon top-quality garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon sugar

Toast the chile pieces on a comal, griddle, or in a dry skillet until fragrant, being careful not to burn.  Briefly press the chile pieces with a spatula as they toast.  This process will take about a minute.  Grind the chiles to a powder in a spice mill or food processor.  Add the remaining ingredients and pulse again to combine.  Strain through a fine mesh strainer if a smoother texture is desired.

My Chili Recipe
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
Serves 10

1/2 lb dried pinto or red kidney beans, soaked overnight in water
3 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil or bacon fat
2 large onions, chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
2 lbs lean ground beef
3 (14.5-ounce) cans chopped tomatoes with juice (or use whole canned tomatoes and chop them)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 to 6 tablespoons homemade chili powder (see recipe), or more to taste
1 to 2 canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, minced,  or 1 dried chipotle chile left whole
1 cinnamon stick
4 whole cloves
2 tablespoons masa harina, cornmeal, or cornstarch

Cook dried beans in water to cover for 1 1/2 hours or until done, adding more water as necessary.  You can also use a pressure cooker, but be careful not to cook the beans until they are mushy.

In a large, heavy pot heat the oil over medium heat.  Sauté onion and garlic until soft.  Add the ground beef; cook and stir until the meat is no longer pink.  Add tomatoes with liquid, salt, pepper, chili powder, chipotle chiles, cinnamon stick, and cloves.  Cover and simmer for 45 minutes.

Stir in cooked beans with a bit of their liquid, and cook another 25 minutes.  Remove cinnamon stick and dried chipotle chile, if using.  Mix in the masa harina. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 30 minutes more to marry the flavor and thicken the chili, stirring occasionally.  Add more water or liquid from the cooked beans, if necessary.

Optional garnishes:  lime wedges, sour cream (preferably Mexican crema), shredded sharp cheddar cheese, cilantro, onion, and avocado cubes.


And remember that it will be better the next day, for as in the words of businessman/humorist John Steele Gordon, "Chili is much improved by having had a day to contemplate its fate."

As for me, I would have to agree with the following words, apocryphal or not, that Pat Garret supposedly said to Billy the Kid, "Anybody that eats chili can't be all bad."  

©Victoria Challancin.  Please don't use photos or text without prior arrangement.  Thanks!


Hotly Spiced said...

Wow Victoria! What a fun festival. The Mexicans live with so much vibrant colour in their lives. That's a great charity you worked for - such a good cause and fabulous that so many of those girls have gone on to university. I just love chilli though and all my children love it to and we find it's a great meal to enjoy in winter with sour cream, avocado, cilantro and corn chips! Your recipe looks delicious.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What a fun event! It looks so full of life and full of real characters! :D And a wonderful sounding charity you volunteered with too!

Ben said...

Wow sounds like a great event! I loved your recipe as well.

FOODalogue said...

Looks like such a fun event and, like everything, in's so colorful!

I realize reading this post that I haven't had chili in a couple of years. I'm going to have to remedy that!

Lisa Tyson said...

Thank you Victoria for such a wonderful write-up, and for the fabulous pictures. You captured a lot of moments that even I didn't see. I can't tell you how much we appreciate your support!

Lisa Tyson Sandefer
Co-Chair, Chili & Charros!

Flavors of the Sun said...

Thank YOU, Lisa, for co-hosting such a fabulous event. It was a true pleasure to help in any small way. said...

Thank you for your support of this wonderful event and your interest in chili!!
Jim Ezell
VP, Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI)

Lynne Daley said...

Looks like a ton of fun! Your chili looks amazing! thanks for all the beautiful photos of your jugs (in a previous post) and the beautiful photos of Mexican life and scenery.

Lynne Daley said...

Looks like a ton of fun! Your chili looks amazing! thanks for all the beautiful photos of your jugs (in a previous post) and the beautiful photos of Mexican life and scenery.

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What a great post. I will give your chili recipe to my husband.

Anonymous said...

I'd definitely have tried the S.P.A chili being the animal lover I am. And I'll definitely try your recipe - being the chili lover I am. ツ

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