Tyler Florence is my homie.
That is to say, we grew up in the same town – Greenville, SC – which, in my book, makes us homies. If I ever see him on the street, I plan to give him a thorough accosting.
But we have something else in common, too. No, not branded menu items at Applebee’s; that would require some serious changes in my life trajectory. What we have in common is an interest in achieving the “ultimate” version of a dish by assimilating as many versions as we can find. TF (as his homies call him) has his efforts documented on the nationally-aired television show Tyler’s Ultimate, while mine are documented on the nationally-acclaimed blog Food Junta. The differences, I believe, end there.
My drive for the ultimate really kicks into high gear when I am looking to make something classic with many iterations like roast chicken, mac and cheese, or martinis. So when Claire told me that her birthday party was going to involve a chili cook-off, I started furiously reading recipes and concocting my first attempt at the ultimate chili…
The variety of options was astounding, so I quickly had to make some limiting choices: I went with Texas-style chili (chili con carne) as opposed to the Cincinnati- or Louisville-styles. (Detroit, it seems, lacks a native chili culture.) I also decided to use beans and tomatoes in my chili, even though the inclusion of either ingredient is still punishable by flogging in certain Texan counties. I like beans and tomatoes in my chili, and the idea of eating something that really just amounts to ground beef soup struck me as leaving something to be desired.
Having made it this far, I discovered that the only real remaining differences between recipes were in the peppers and spices used and the accoutrements provided. I made a running list of all the additions I found and then narrowed it down based on instinct and how likely I thought I was to ever use such a spice again once I’d spent $5 on a cannister. Finally, I decided that my ace-in-the-hole would be to serve the chili with a topping of Fritos corn chips, as a number of recipes suggested, to give it a sort of deconstructed Frito pie feel and to help it stand out from other entries.
So did I succeed in making the ultimate chili? Absolutely not, but it was my first try after all. As you’ve probably gathered from the title of this post, my chili took no blue ribbons at the ‘off, but it did feed me really well for a week and give me an excuse to eat Fritos, a processed food that I freely confess to a weakness for. (It’s interesting to note, though, that Fritos only have three ingredients, all of which are recognizable as actual foods. Nevertheless, Fritos remain, to quote the new and more health-conscious Cookie Monster, a “sometimes food.”)
Claire’s chili (Future post, Claire?) won the grand prize, and while the competitive asshole in me would like to accuse the judges of some scandalous birthday girl favoritism, I have to admit that her chili was excellent.
But despite all the chilis and Fritos (and whiskeys and beers) I consumed, I lived to fight another day. The ultimate chili is out there somewhere, just waiting for me to bungle my way into it and make Ty-Flo proud.
Do-it-Yourself Chilifest 2009
The base: Brown ground beef in a large-ish pot then remove, leaving drippings in the pot. Saute onions and garic in the beef drippings (adding some olive oil if necessary) until soft, but not brown. Add the beef back in along with cans of tomatoes and beans. I used kidney beans, but any bean’ll do. If using dried beans, be sure to soak and allow for extra cooking time. This, basically, is now chili. Bland chili, but chili nonetheless.
The spices: Here’s where the magic happens. Add any or all of the following ingredients in any ratio you like. This list is certainly not comprehensive. I’ve bolded ones that appear almost always or that I highly recommend.
jalapeno, serrano, or (carefully!!!) habanero peppers or chipotle peppers in adobo
red pepper flakes
Accent or Goya sazon (MSG)