The chili cook off was due to take place 12:00 - 16:00 on the Saturday and then the BBQ competition was taking place from Midnight Saturday until 14:30 Sunday afternoon. Despite it raining most of Sunday, and being a fairly miserable day to be sitting on my own in a field in the early hours of a Sunday morning, it was a great weekend. Something that I would whole-heartedly recommend anyone to try (well, the BBQ competition does require the equipment to smoke - or at least low'n'slow cook - some bigger pieces of meat, although that is perfectly possible on a decent kettle bbq).
So lets start at the beginning. The chili cook off.
I had been iterating on my recipe for a couple of months, adjusting each iteration based on feedback and tasting - the outcome of which can be seen here (yes, I did have a spreadsheet for my cooking), any but the version 1 of the chili will make a decent chili, and those quantities will actually produce enough for 3-4 people with rice. Going into the competition there were still a lot of unknowns, primarily: 1) practice runs had all been in the house using an oven; 2) I had not attempted scaling up to 1 gallon, so was unsure how that would cook/reduce with the increased volumes; 3) I had further adjustments to the final recipe that had not yet been tested.
Anyway, all fears aside I am happy with how it turned out - I knew on submission that it was too runny: I had been a little over-zealous adding additional stock early on, and the smoker just didn't run hot enough to effectively reduce that volume of liquid. But consistency aside, I was pretty happy with the submission in the 4 hours.
Unfortunately, the judges weren't quite as happy (more on that later). I came 9th out of 12 - which given it was my first run, and all the other chilis I tasted were really good (and a lot of the other competitors had won regional cook-offs in Gower or elsewhere), I was bracing myself for last place.
But despite the less than glowing feedback from the judges, and the fact that we didn't win any of the public vote, I am still sharing it here because: 1) I think it tasted pretty decent; 2) whilst not getting any of the votes for the "People's Choice" award, several people returned to compliment the chili and to find out more about how it was cooked and how we achieved the taste.
The whats and whysRather than writing out the recipe (as that is already written out in the spreadsheet) I thought I would write down the key ingredients and the reasoning behind each one:
- Short beef ribs - these are one of the most intensely beef-y cut of the cow. Incredibly deep flavour, a lot of connective tissue and usefully, very cheap! I used them to add a rich meaty flavour to the chili. The ribs need a long time cooking, so it was important (as I discovered first iteration of the chili) that after the first hour on the smoker, it by cut quite small to make sure if was sufficiently cooked in the liquid. Given the volume of liquid being cooked, and the temperature of the smoker, the meat wasn't as soft and melt-in-the-mouth as it could have been.
- The chilis - dried Ancho, dried Cascabel, Chipotles and Jalapenos. The Ancho and Cascabel were almost entirely because of availability - but they provide a fruity and nutty flavour - being dried, much like raisins or sun-dried tomatoes, they have a concentrated and more intense flavour. The chipotle was a must have on account of the smokey direction of the chilli (chipotles are smoked jalapenos). The Jalapenos were fresh and were to provide the heat, plus a fresher pepper taste.
- The savory base - Given the time constraints to practice the chili, I opted to keep it relatively simple with the flavour base of my chili, and went with the classic oregano, garlic, onion, chili, cumin and coriander mix. I will start to turn this up a notch in preparation for next year, as this is what will really come into its own and shine on being reduced for 4 hours.
- Umami - an important part as well, in providing a deep, complex savory flavour and boosting the beefy-ness of the ribs - Standard options here including tomato puree, Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce (although Waitrose has started selling jars of Umami..)
What I learnt
- I went into the competition that using proper cuts of beef (rather than ground mince) and smoking the meat before adding to the chili would be a competitive advantage. This was not the case - the judges seemed to not be keen on the smoked element, and as I was later told by an experienced competitor:
"mince always wins"
- The biggest insight into competition chili was tasting the other competitors chili, they were not what I was expecting. They were a lot richer, deeper - in my opinion, sweeter - than I would expect for a chili. In many ways it reminded me of a rich bolognese sauce (obviously with chili ingredients instead, but the way the flavour is boosted by slowly reducing to a thick, intense sauce). Next time I enter, I will go with mince, and focus on reducing to that thick, intense sauce over the 4 hours.
- A further observation I made, in the same vein as above, was that a lot of competitors included pork (pancetta, pork belly, etc) - which is a common approach in bolognese sauce to add flavour and gloss (and gelatin!).
- You can start chopping vegetables before the start time! We did discover this before the start time, but unfortunately our organisation was a little shambolic, so our ingredients didn't even turn up until just before the start time!
What the judges saidIf you are interested (in the format or content) of what the judges had to say about the submission, here are the feedback forms. Not an awful lot to work with (particularly the "Taste: Odd" comment or the comments about the burnt aroma/taste - which is strange as I can confirm that none of the ingredients were even close to being burnt.. not even charred at the edges, or the fact that more than once the judges made diametrically opposing statements)
As I said, the real insight was tasting the other chillis.