It’s National Chili Day, and also happens to be quite the dreary comedown from yesterday’s fake-out spring weather (at least in NYC), so there’s really no better excuse to bust out the skillet or crock pot for the purposes of comfort food. As such, I reached out to my buddy Jenn de la Vega (author of Showdown Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ: Bold Flavors from Wild Cooking Contests, editor at large of Put A Egg On It, caterer at Randwiches, former Guy Fieri’s Grocery Games contestant, resident chili expert AND ultra-cool human) to talk about her history with chili, her tips and secrets for beginners, how to get a great Instagram photo, whether or not canned chili is chill and MORE! Prepare to be v. enlightened, and be sure to follow Jenn on FB, IG and Twitter, grab a copy of Showdown, and cruise on over to her official website for all the latest news!
My dad was big into perfecting his chili recipe when I was growing up, so I feel like I have a long-standing history with chili as a whole. Was this a dish that played a big part during your childhood? If so, tell us about that, and if not, how and when did chili enter the picture for you, to the point that it became a focal point of Showdown?
Chili arrived in a cardboard boat only as a topping for nachos at the Pinole Valley Lanes. My dad, Jose “The Hammer” de la Vega, was in a bowling league. My brother and I would share the concession nachos and play in the small arcade. I didn’t actually enjoy chili as a bowl when I went to restaurants, for some reason people loved putting in bell pepper and I hate those. It wasn’t until I entered my first Chili Takedown ten years ago. I was pushed to create new types every year and I got to try up to 20 kinds each time by fellow amateur chefs. The batches that I’ve entered into competition are the first chapter of my cookbook. I’ve lost and won for many years, now I’m proud to be a judge.
I’m sure you’ve tested a lot of variations of chili in the kitchen; how do you typically get your ideas and go about developing recipes?
Everything I make is based in comfort. What did I or my friends grow up with that made them feel better when they were sick or sad or having the worst day? For me, that’s a lot of 90’s fast food or MSG-packed things you could get at the AM/PM in my hometown.
I like the challenge of flipping a recipe, like, can we make a soup version of a BLT? Is it possible to create a sandwich that tastes like pho? When I write recipes, I do a lot of research. From classic French Escoffier to archaic tomes and Google searches; I can compare the same recipes across history, draw my own conclusions and add a personal touch.
I’m unusually motivated when my friends say, “That’s so messed up.”
What’s the craziest or most unexpected source of inspiration you’ve ever had for a chili recipe that turned out even better than you imagined? And/or were there any complete failures in the mix that you’d like to shout out?
In my cookbook Showdown, I created a biscuits and gravy chili with my friend Emily Hanhan. We were inspired by the Paula Deen controversy and threw a whole stick of butter in at the end. I also learned about an ancient Mesopotamian spice blend called advieh, it went really well with the cream. It’s a warm mix of nutmeg, cinnamon, rose petal, cardamom, and cumin.
I learn from every dish disaster and every competition loss. I’ve overcooked steaks in chili, ruined a whole batch from not stirring the bottom enough and made things too sweet with chocolate.
Chili obviously varies by region and by household. There is also, of course, controversy re: whether or not beans and/or tomatoes belong in chili. Do you have any strong feelings about these issues? Similarly, what (for you) are the key components needed to call something “chili”?
The way that I cook is about improvisation, open mindedness and discovering new ingredients. I’ve had people refuse to try my chili because it had beans or didn’t have ground beef, “HOW DARE YOU USE PORK AND/OR CHICKEN”. Sometimes I feel like beans and sometimes I don’t, maybe I want to stretch the batch to last me all week. The point is that it is hot and cooked for a while, makes you feel good. I like how sludgy it can get when a wooden spoon stands up in it, haha.
Do you have any fun chili facts? (#FUNFACTSAREFUN!)
If your chili is too thin, mash up some of the beans. They get thirsty.
You can make chili the night before and let it rest. The flavors get stronger.
There is an International Chili Society.
What is your stance on canned chili? I see it all the time at stores and turn my nose up; am I being an ignorant, arrogant snob? Is there a brand that’s killing the canned chili game?
I’ve been a poor 20-something in New York City. I’m not too proud. My favorite way to eat canned chili is over a bunch of Fritos and lots of shredded cheese. When I realized how easy and cheap it was to make my own, I sort of lost interest in the cans.
What are your tips for a first-time chili maker? Are there certain pieces of equipment, key ingredients or cooking methods that will make or break a beginner?
A big pot with a matching lid is important. When you use a thinner metal pot, it’s important to keep stirring the bottom. I once tried to travel to a competition without a pot lid, I thankfully made it without spilling all over the cab.
Never underestimate a sturdy wooden spoon. Ones that are striped with different kinds of wood may fall apart over time.
Patience, guys. Stirring and checking on it is fine but it will take a couple hours for everything to marry. Grab a book!
Taste the chili when it is hot and when it is cold, you’ll be able to tell clearly if you need to add more spice and salt.
Warmer weather is upon us. Is cold chili a thing? If it’s not, should it be?
I hadn’t thought of that. I think playing with the idea of a gazpacho, cold drinking chili sounds cool but I’d have to test it out. The problem with the current idea of chili is that it’s fatty and hearty, not exactly refreshing in the spring. When fat is cold, it goes solid and not in a pleasant way.
If we make a large batch of chili, but don’t want to freeze it, what are some good ways to diversify? Any good ideas for making good use of the leftovers? Slash what, besides burgers and hot dogs, is good to top with chili?
Throw an egg on it! Thin out the chili with a little water, crack a few eggs into it and bake until the eggs are cooked.
Blend cream cheese in to make it a warm dip with tortilla chips.
Another idea from my cookbook is to bake cornbread directly on top of it to make a chili pie.
It’s 2018 and everybody’s gotta get that ‘gram. Do you have any food styling secrets or tips to make chili look maximally appetizing for the purpose of garnering ALL of the IG envy?
Pick one or two brightly colored toppings to contrast the dark reds and browns. I like to use scallion, chives or cilantro. Another garnish to consider is lemon zest if your chili has an oil slick of fat on top. Avoid using bowls that look exactly like your chili and don’t crowd the bowl or no one will see the magic you made.
I feel like I have said “chili” a lot of times, and now it is starting to not look like a word! So finally, what are you working on right now that you’re excited about? Any recipes in development, new books in the works, appearances on deck, etc.?
I’ve got my last winter pop up at Project Parlor in Bed Stuy on 2/26. I’ll be making arroz caldo, which is a Filipino rice porridge with ginger, garlic and lemon. It’s what my family makes when we feel under the weather.
Me and the Put A Egg On It crew are busy putting together our biggest issue yet for our 10th anniversary party. I will be frying eggs to order!
I’m also developing recipes and teaching CSA members how to use their vegetables through Local Roots NYC. You can check out my live videos every week on my Facebook page.
Grab a copy of Showdown Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ: Bold Flavors from Wild Cooking Contests here!
AND be sure to check out the Smokemonster Chili recipe she shared with us back in the fall!
Photos by Colin Clark