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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

The Good, the Bad, and the Spicy

February 2, 2009

The First Presbyterian Church in my hometown asked me to serve as a judge in their first annual chili cook-off this weekend. After some persistence, I agreed.

I have tried to wean myself off of judging cooking contests. Several years ago I was asked to judge an out-of-state cooking contest where the contestants were asked to create home-cooking style dishes in several categories. The judging table was on a stage in an auditorium filled mostly with ladies who had submitted dishes.

The ladies stood at the edge of the stage and glared intently as I tasted each entry. They seemed to be searching for subtle nuances and expressions which would give them some type of clue as to what I thought of their particular dish. The pressure was intense.

Some of the dishes were OK, but most of them were pretty bad. Unfortunately, I am not very good at acting, so when I tasted tuna casserole number six— a lovely and inventive creation that was more akin to a fish-flavored chipped beef on toast with something gelatinous on top— I had to force a smile.

It should be noted at this point that I was born with a very weak stomach. My friends who know me well will attest to this. I get nauseated at the mention of some things and often have to leave the room at the mention of others. This came in handy when it was time to change diapers at home, but it is a burden while judging a cooking contest.

A new acquaintance is usually surprised when I talk of my weak stomach. They say, “No way. You’re that food guy who eats everything.”

At that point I correct them and say, “Wrong. I am that food guy who eats a lot.” There is a difference between quantity and quality. I am not a food snob, far from it. But there is a huge difference in eating 36 courses at The French Laundry and 27 versions of Tamale Surprise at a sate fair.

I once filmed a segment with Andrew Zimmern on his Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods. In the segment, he ate baked coon and opossum. I passed. Actually, if one watches the episode closely, you can see me coming pretty close to hurling. Good TV, I know.

Back to the angry ladies. The home-cooking contest was one of the early food judging events I had attended. I didn’t know to tell the event organizers to make sure I was seated in a back room while I tasted the entries. I had never entered a cooking competition, so I didn’t know to tell them to make sure it’s a blind tasting. They watched as I tasted each dish. Most dishes were pretty bad.

I tried to mask my imminent nausea on a few occasions, but I was probably not very successful in pulling that off. I will say this— the tuna casserole did not win the day.

Once the event was over, a lady whose dish hadn’t won came up to me and said, “What was wrong with my dish?” I stuttered and stammered and tried to think of a way to let her down easy.

Eventually I said something like, “It was a hard choice, they were all very interesting entries, but maybe you could tweak your recipe a little bit.”

To which she replied, “Well I got it out of one of your cookbooks.” Touché.

So how does a guy who doesn’t eat a lot of chili end up as a judge in a local chili contest? I have no idea. Maybe everyone else said “No.”

As it turns out, it ended up as most cooking competitions I have judged, one entry stood out among the others as a great entry. In the end, it was for an excellent cause, and a good time was had by all.

My Favorite Chili

1 Tbl Olive oil
1 Tbl Bacon Fat
2 pounds Beef sirloin, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 1/2 tsp Kosher Salt
1 1/2 tsp Fresh ground black pepper
3 cups Yellow onion, medium dice
1 cup Carrot, finely shredded
1/4 cup Garlic, freshly minced
1 Tbl Ground Cumin
2 tsp Ground Coriander
1 tsp Oregano
1 1/2 Tbl Chili powder
1 6-oz can Tomato paste
2 28-oz cans Diced tomatoes
1 quart V-8 juice
1 quart Hot chicken broth
2 Bay leaves
2 14-oz cans Kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 Tbl Corn flour
1/2 cup Water
1 Tbl Lime juice, freshly squeezed
1/4 cup Fresh cilantro, chopped

Heat the oil and bacon fat in an 8- quart, heavy duty sauce pot over high heat. Sprinkle the meat with salt and black pepper. Place half of the meat in the very hot oil. DO NOT MOVE THE MEAT FOR 3-4 MINUTES, you want to achieve a nice golden brown sear. Turn the meat over and brown the other side the best you can. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and place it on a paper towel to drain. Repeat this process with the remaining meat.

Turn the heat to medium and add the onion, carrot and garlic to the pot. Cook for 3-4 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the cumin, coriander, chili powder and tomato paste. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning. This step is very important, caramelizing the sugars in the tomato paste and vegetables will make a huge difference in the outcome of the chili.

Return the meat to the pot. Add the canned tomatoes, V-8 juice, chicken broth, and bay leaves. Simmer VERY slowly for 2-3 hours. Stir often to prevent sticking. Add the beans and simmer for 15 more minutes.

Turn up the heat up so that the chili reaches a slow boil. Combine the corn flour with the water to make a paste. Stir the corn flour mixture into the chili. Allow the chili to cook for 2-3 more minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice and cilantro.

Yield: 1 gallon

© Robert St.John, from his cookbook, Southern Seasons

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