With only faint conceit I can pose as a bit of a chili strategist.
On a memorable Super Bowl Sunday some years ago, while I still lived in Atlanta, I took first prize at a rowdy sports bar’s well-attended chili competition. My winning entry was a different sort of chili, enhanced with a little marketing.
My theory for that chili had actually crystallized several years earlier. While I was visiting family in Boston, their neighbor sought my cooking opinion regarding the chili contest he hoped to enter. I asked what his “hook” was, which I then had to explain. To win, I theorized, you needed something different, something catchy. For example, “Three-Alarm Chili” or “Texas Brisket Chili” simply bore judges. You need to create more freely — like, say, ostrich meat chili or brother-in-law-hunted venison chili, or maybe top your chili with chipotle-chocolate salsa, that sort of thing.
As my credential back then, I had previously won in a local, non-official chili competition. It was at Athens’ Sandy Creek Nature Center, actually. My Red and Black Turkey Chili sparkled with scarlet bell pepper and black beans and subliminally invoked UGA. It took first prize — in the “Unusual” category. Still, I savored the moment.
But then virtually every one of the many chili entries won a prize in some contrived category or other. The word processor was churning out certificates. My son-in-law, Andrew, as Volunteer Coordinator at the Nature Center back then, had organized the chili cook-off to coincide with the annual Volunteer Recognition Day reception. I later realized that this was how with virtually no budget he provided plentiful hearty food for the honored volunteers.
But back to the Bostonian would-be chili competitor (you remember the Bostonian, don’t you?). I suggested to him a white chili, for example with turkey, navy beans and cream, but no tomato, chili powder or red or green peppers. He seemed intrigued. Later I heard that after considerable thought and trial cooking, he submitted an elegant red chili full of expensive prime beef. He won only obscurity.
At that Super Bowl Sunday chili competition in Atlanta, I finally tested my turkey, white bean and cream chili concept. With mouth-tingling heat, and its name spiced up for the occasion to “Hot Blond Chili,” the dish took overall first place. It won both the judges’ prize and the “crowd favorite” award. Lured by the name, everyone had tried it. Fortunately, they liked it.
So here is my recipe for prize-winning hot blond chili, updated slightly.
The punch in this dish comes from habanero peppers, pale yellow in color but among the hottest in the world. Including their seeds and membranes, habaneros can exceed 200,000 Scoville units. Jalapeños, by comparison, range up to 8,000 units and tabasco up to 50,000. One habanero makes a pot of zesty “One Alarm Chili.” Two make “Fiery Hot Chili,” three make “Run-for-the-Maalox Chili,” and four make “Someone-Please-Call-911 Chili.”
The recipe serves six to eight.
Tim’s “Hot Blond” Chili
- 1 medium-large onion, finely chopped
- 2 thick or 3 thin slices (raw) hickory-smoked bacon, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 3/4 teaspoon oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground annatto seed (“Achiote Molido” at Mexican groceries)
- 1 or more small whole yellow or orange habanero peppers
- 1-1/2 pounds ground turkey
- Water as needed
- 1-3/4 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
- 2 (14-ounce) cans Great Northern beans, drained but not rinsed
- 3/4 cup sour cream
Grated “Queso Blanco” or “Cotija” (Mexican-style crumbling cheese)
Coarsely chopped cilantro, including part of stems
Fry onion, chopped bacon, and olive oil together until onion softens and begins to turn golden. Reduce heat. Add garlic, herbs and spices plus whole habanero(s). Stir and fry one minute.
Add meat. Raise the heat. Break up meat as it fries. When raw color is gone, stir in 1/2 cup water plus the salt. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until meat is tender, 10-15 minutes. Add a little water as needed, so there is always a bit of liquid with the meat.
Add the drained beans. Heat together for five minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a little water to keep it moist but not soupy. Taste and add salt if needed. Stir in sour cream and simmer several minutes. Taste again for salt at end of cooking. Remove habanero(s).
The chili is tastiest when made ahead and reheated to serve.
When serving, sprinkle lightly with grated cheese and chopped cilantro.
Tim Dondero is co-owner and executive chef at Donderos’ Kitchen, 590 N. Milledge Ave. Formerly a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, he lived for many years in Southeast Asia and West Africa. An enthusiastic cook since childhood, he always sought out local restaurants and local cooks when traveling. Now in Athens, he devotes his time to his restaurant, catering, teaching, and blogging about cooking (timsspecialrecipes.com).