Monday, April 08, 2013

The Great Chili Cook-Off.

Enough with cooking competitions on the television. Sage Adelaide journalist Helen Covernton (below right) whisked Masterchef off the screens and into the domestic dining room to create the last, or first, word in fine, fun dining. The dinner party Cook-Off.

And so it came to pass that two of Adelaide's high-achiever Americans were pitted to showcase their mastery of their native gastronomic classics - Chili.

Chili Con Carne, generally known just as Chili, is an ubiquitious dish in the US. No diner worth its name has a menu without chili either as a main or side dish. Family restaurants, also. And, there are a gazillion of them in the US. Even the beloved hot dog often gets a garnish of chili. The dish has moved up from its Latin roots in Mexico, through southwestern America's Mexican cuisine and into the realm of culinary domestica.

Many are the expatriate Americans who quietly grieve for a fix of classic chili - just as Aussies abroad may yearn for a pie and sauce.

Helen Covernton knows two of them and set up the challenge for them to showcase that iconic dish in a cook-off.

Gale Carnes is an environmental scientist.

Bruce Blackwell is a physicist-cum-space engineer.

Both are chili cooks.

Helen Covernton laid down the rules. As many variations of chili as they wished could be prepared by the two cooks. There would be three judges. Herself. Arts supremo Cate Fowler. Food writer and critic, Samela Harris. The chili would be marked on Presentation, Discernible Ingredients, Chili levels, Flavour.

The competitors would be called upon to explain and background each sample.

The competing chilis were three.

The Cincinnati Chili - Carnes

TexMex Chili - Carnes

Classic Chili - Blackwell

Cincinnati Chili was presented on pasta with grated cheddar cheese. Carnes explained that this was the chili of her childhood, the common Cincinnati take-away, a strong cult version typical to Cincinnati only.

The judges found the pasta perfectly cooked and the cheese a nice complement. The flavours of the chili had them mystified. There seemed to be no tomato in this version. Nor beans. Red or black beans are traditional but this chili was dark and dense ground beef. Its level of chili heat was moderate. The judges found it pleasant. But they tasted the dish repeatedly to discern the other ingredients. There was a mysterious musky flavour. Very agreeable. But was it herb or spice? The more they ate, the more they liked it. Cloves?

They could not categorise it. They decided it must stand in another class of chili.

Classic Chili was presented on white Basmati rice with a dob of sour cream on top and a light sprinkle of fresh onion.

Blackwell introduced the dish as a derivation of the authentic south-of-the-border tradition, rich in soaked and pre-cooked red beans, its chili flavours achieved by layers of different varieties of fresh chilis and capsicum. This dish was beautifully-balanced with the chili flavors emerging both as an instant sensation and then a good, slow after-burn. "Deep chili", as it is known. There was also a light, healthy sense of vegetables with the fresh tomato base and the perfectly-textured beans. It was moist, the sour cream adding a smooth, luxurious further favour and textures. The meat also was light, being pork and veal. And the tiny, fresh crunch of the onion brought forth exclamations of delight. The judges were rhapsodic.

TexMex Chili was presented straight with nachos on the side and a sprinkle of cheese. Carnes explained that this was a more conventional variation, one she had learned while living in New Mexico. It contained kidney beans and tomato.

It was rich and dense with a very good level of chili fire - softer than the classic, but good with aftertaste. It was more a cayenne than habanero flavor. The nachos were crisp and novel accompaniments giving a very Mex culture and a very hands-on character to the dish. The kidney beans were fairly sparse and nicely textured. The judges could not stop eating it.

The judges repaired to the balcony to compare notes while the cooks re-arranged the table for an ensuing chili dinner for all.

The judges then delivered their verdict.

Cincinatti, it was agreed, required a category all of its own. Quizzed on the elusive flavours, Carnes acknowledged that clove was one of them and also a little Allspice. But the big secret ingredient and that which made it so dense and dark and delicious was chocolate.

The two more traditional varieties, the TexMex and Classic had scored 9/10 from all the judges. Both came first. Both cooks were awarded chocolate Bilbies. There might have been a third chocolate Bilbie to acknowledge the stand-alone winning qualities of the Cincinnati Chili - but it seems that it had already gone into the dish.

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