As a soup fanatic, a soup connoisseur and a soup savant, I am exceedingly well versed in the controversy around the definition of soup. Whether it is chowder or bisque, stew or chili, goulash or gumbo, if it is liquid in a bowl, then I am going to suggest that it is celebrated as soup! So, the culinary delight that is chili is regarded as such, in my eyes. However, another point of debate that reigns for this typically southwestern dish is “to bean or not to bean?” Does a true, unaltered “chili con carne” include frijoles? Historically, soaking, then boiling dry beans for several hours made beans a difficult addition to a dish for a cattle drive. Moreover, we can also argue about the popular vegetarian chili, which would dispute the “con carne” reference to meat. Therefore, I am apt to negate the chili elitists and propose that the egalitarian world of chili makers unite — make what satisfies and create what tastes scrumptious. And, that is exactly what occurred at the Eagle Vail Community Garden Chili Cook Off on Sunday.
At the Eagle-Vail Pavilion, I sampled nearly 15 unique chili recipes, each with their own spin on sorted ingredients. The red chili that Charles Hayes made offered unexpected accompaniments — New York strip steak pieces, sliced green onions, a clam juice cracker, a drizzle of Italian olive oil and the creamiest, most decadent goat cheese. It was such a surprisingly delicious bite of chili!
Shawn Smith served a 12-hour applewood-smoked, pulled pork green chili topped with cilantro and crema, where the sweetness of the applewood was very apparent. But, the most celebrated taste of this chili was created while enjoying his panko-breaded Oaxaca cheese garnish, which I savored like an upscale, Southwestern cheese curd. He precisely paired his chili concoction with homemade white sangria that he crafted with his father-in-law’s wine. All of which afforded him the winning trophy!
“Bobby’s Red Chili,” by Rob Page, portrayed sweetness from freshly pureed and strained red chili peppers; he dressed his chili with a cumin crema. His daughter and biggest cheerleader, Davis, said that “he doesn’t make (the chili) very often, but when he does, it is so good.” I concur!
And, although the firefighters were called away during the event, they were well represented with the “Red Hot Firefighter’s Chili” that had an unanticipated undertone of cinnamon and spice.
Finally, this third annual Chili Cook Off would not be the same without the reigning champion’s new entry. Dave Courtney’s “Chili Pot Pie” was served with fresh cilantro and tomato relish, a cornbread pancake and chipotle creme fraiche. As in years past, the level of sophistication and competition (and, heat index) was increased for this 2013 chili cook off.
The labors of these chili makers reminds me of my father, who is always tinkering with a chili recipe of sorts. Never working from a recipe card, I doubt he has made the same chili twice. For me, a simmering, stewing pot of chili makes me nostalgic of cold days past. Not unlike my trip to Aspen a couple weeks ago, I enjoyed a steaming bowl of chili at Little Annie’s Eating House, where the staff agreed that all dishes are made with love. Little Annie’s will be closing its doors at the end of the month, so this culinary journey was like paying homage to this 40-year-plus Aspen staple. To Little Annie’s Eating House, I say that it was a delight and honor to enjoy your chili one last time. I salute you and sing your praises between reflective bites of the chili of yesteryears.
Much like Little Annie’s, Woody and Jodi Johnson, the owners of The Back Bowl Soup Company in Winter Park, create labors of love in fluid form for friends to enjoy. So, if you aim to reflect on a memorable bite of chili, then there is no better place to appreciate a steaming bowl of liquid comfort than at Back Bowl. The amount of heat in the red chili recipe can be suited to an individual taste by choosing hot or mild with many of the ingredients: chorizo, whole dried chilis, green chilis, chili powder, etc.
Fresh off a hiking trail a couple weeks ago, I had the utmost chili craving — mild or spicy, either would suffice. I would have especially relished the Beaver Creek Chophouse chili, which is featured in the “Ski Town Soups” cookbook. But, specifically, I wanted to consume a robust and hearty bowl with accompaniments and garnishes of sharp cheddar cheese, sour cream and diced red onions. Dressing-up an already decadent serving of chili is my favorite way to consume. This is exactly how Larkspur suggests one devours their tried-and-true chili. The Larkspur recipe will feed a swarm of starving skiers! As many of the ski country natives know, we entertain guests and friends — seemingly coming out of the woodwork — during ski season. Happily, you have a cozy, warm, inviting meal in a bowl to serve this drove! So, I suggest you get out your soup crocks and stew pots in preparation for the winter wonderland of eating and entertaining.
Jennie Iverson lives in Vail and is the author of the “Ski Town Soups” cookbook. She provides insight into the culinary scene of ski towns across America. You can find more recipes and information at www.skitownsoups.com.