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This was the weekend for the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) world championship in Terlingua, Texas. Around 300 competition chili cooks from all over the country were there along with their families and friends. I was not there. It is an invitational event, and all of those cooks have been entering cook-offs all year-long to collect enough points for an invitation. I am home. We have returned from California, having enjoyed the California Chili Cook-Off Championship and then an extended visit with our family in the Bay Area. It should be apparent by now that I did not win anything at the cook-off, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. On top of that I learned a lot about chili competitions if I should ever decide to enter another one. This post will include lessons learned along with a chili recipe based upon my non-championship chili  but made milder for my good wife who has no tolerance for spicy foods. The recipe also will contain the greatest of heresies – pinto beans and tomatoes. Those and the garnishes cut the piquancy of the dish and make it a family favorite. If you want a hotter chili, just double all of the amounts of chili powder. You can order these specialized chili powders on line from Pendrey’s Spices in Fort Worth, Texas or Mild Bill’s Spice from Ennis, Texias. If you don’t want to go to that bother, you can just use store-bought chili powder. You can even try a combination of the stand-bys: McCormick’s, Gebhardt’s, and Mexene. LESSONS LEARNED 1. Don’t be too ambitious. It rapidly became obvious that on my second attempt, it was foolish to enter contests for the best salsa, the best guacamole, and the best chili. That clearly wound up being too many balls in the air. 2. Try not to have anything to chop. Cutting up avocados, green onions, and tomatoes for a half-gallon of guacamole is nearly a full-time job in itself. Besides, having sharp knives anywhere in the vicinity of the booth is dangerous. A sliced finger will send you to the first aid station or the emergency room. 3. Grease is the challenge of the chili cook. A pool of glistening red grease floating on the top of the turn-in cup is probably the surest way to be disqualified. It presents a paradox that even the most accomplished cooks wrestle with. Most use 80/20 ground beef. That is, 80% meat and 20% fat. The fat definitely enhances the flavor, but it is also unattractive and needs to be removed. Some champion cooks make huge meatballs and boil them in water for 30 minutes before they add them to the chili mix. That gets rid of the grease, but it reduces the amount of umami savor from the Maillard reaction developed with browning of the meat. Some cooks brown the meat and pour off any extra grease, but they are still stuck with a lot to deal with. Compromise solutions include browning the meat balls before boiling or boiling and straining the meat after it has been drained. It seems to me that both of these approaches sacrifice some of the umami. Another alternative would be to blot the browned meat in a clean kitchen towel. An approach all good cooks undoubtedly use is to skim any grease that rises to the top during cooking, using a small spoon or ladle or a wad of paper towel. There is a final mop-up of the sample ladled into the turn-in cup. Whatever, it is a problem to be dealt with. 4. Be sure to bring plastic bags for trash and a container to hold discarded liquids. You would be surprised at how much trash one generates just cooking one pot of chili. It may easily fill up a household trash bag, so be sure to bring plenty. Another problem is what to do with all the production liquids, including the water for boiling meatballs, drained grease, and skimmings. It is considered bad form to pour any of that on the ground. And you are responsible for cleaning your booth. 4. Camp stoves are not the same as kitchen stoves. I practiced several times making chili on the stove at home, but it was an entirely different experience on a butane camp stove. The flame kept going out, and it seemed like it was either on – burning things – or off – not cooking as I had thought it was. Fortunately, my friend, Reggie,  had brought a butane fire lighter or I would have used up a box of kitchen matches. However, the experience pointed out the need to practice on a camp stove under challenging conditions. 5. Visitors can be distracting. While we were busy cooking our competition chili and worrying about the deadline, crowds kept coming by to sample our chili, guacamole, and salsa. It was fun to meet all the different people, but it certainly increased my anxiety level. 6. You will need a lot of luggage. When you travel to chili cook-offs, you need to have everything you need. Of course, that means your ingredients, your utensils, and your stove. There are other things to worry about: the contest sponsors may or may not furnish a table and chairs. You need both. An umbrella or other cover is handy to shield you from the sun and rain. If you are entered in the showmanship contest, you will need all of your props along with lots of giveaways and your pirate costume if that is your theme. Clearly, at least one and maybe two of the largest suitcases you can find are important. Unless, of course, you do what many fierce competitors do. They buy a motor home so that they can pull up next to their friends on the circuit, spend the night, have space for all of their gear along with a refrigerator well stocked with beer and/or wine.


Spice Packs

First “dump”


  • 1½ teaspoons Fort Worth Light chili powder
  • 1½ teaspoons RT-Rio Tejas chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon chicken bouillon granules
  • 2 teaspoons beef bouillon granules
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½teaspoon monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • 1 packet Goya Sazón with cilantro and annatto (con cilantro y achiote)

Second “dump”


  • 1½ teaspoons Fort Worth Light chili powder
  • 1½ tablespoons San Antonio Red chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder
  • 2½ teaspoons garlic powder
  • 5 teaspoons ground cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1 packet Goya Sazón with cilantro and annatto )con cilantro y achiote)

Third “dump”


  • 1½ teaspoons San Antonio Red chili powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon turbinado sugar


  1. Measure ingredients into three small plastic containers with tight-fitting lids.
  2. Have the containers ready so that you can add them, one at a time, at the appropriate time during cooking.

Non-Championship Chili


  • 2 pounds 80/20 ground chuck
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 3 ounces pork stew meat
  • 3 fresh Serrano chiles, pierced several times with a sharp knife
  • 8 ounces tomato sauce
  • 14.5 ounces canned beef broth
  • 14.5 ounces canned chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup
  • 15 ounce can pinto beans, drained
  • 15 ounce can, petite diced tomatoes, drained
  • spice packs
  • chopped white onion (for garnish)
  • grated Cheddar cheese (for garnish)
  • Frito original corn ships (for garnish)
  • sour cream (for garnish)


  1. In a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, brown the ground beef in the vegetable oil, stirring frequently to break up any clumps of the meat and to prevent burning. When the meat is well-browned, remove from the heat, drain in a colander, and pat dry with a kitchen towel. Set aside.
  2. Wipe the pot clean with a paper towel or kitchen towel. Return to the heat. Add the pork, Serrano chiles, tomato sauce, beef and chicken broths, and the first spice “dump”. Stir until well combined. Bring to the boil and boil for 30 minutes.
  3. Remove the pot from the heat. Then remove the pork and the chiles, squeezing their juice into the pot. Return to the heat, add the cooked ground beef, and cook over a low flame for 1 hour.
  4. At the end of the hour, return the mixture to the boil for 10 minutes. Stir in the ketchup, and simmer, covered, for 25 minutes.
  5. Stir in the second spice “dump”  and continue to simmer for 15 minutes.
  6. At the end of the 15 minutes, stir in the third spice “dump”. Continue at a slow boil for 20 minutes.
  7. Stir in the beans and tomatoes and simmer until completely heated, about 5-10 minutes.
  8. Serve with garnishes


Filed under Food, Photography, Recipes


The 2014 California Chili Cook-off Championship has come and gone, and I didn’t win a thing. But I had a lot of fun and learned about chili cook-offs. (This was my second, the first one being in New Mexico over ten years ago.)

The event was held at the Woodbridge Winery near Lodi, California. I had never been to that part of California, and was pleasantly surprised by Lodi. It is not Napa or Sonoma and sits on the edge of the Central Valley. It reminded my wife of Lubbock, Texas “with hills”. That said, the downtown turned out to be charming with lots of wine-tasting rooms, restaurants, and shops. The fields surrounding the town are almost completely taken up by vineyards.

The Woodbridge Winery is the elephant in the room. It has 300 acres of vineyards, and a large bottling operation that bottles 27 different brands of wine. It ships millions of cases of wine each year (One source says over 6 million compared with 500 cases or fewer by local family operations.)

Woodbridge was established by Robert Mondavi, but is now owned by a huge conglomerate that bought out Robert Mondavi a number of years ago. Still, it feels committed to the local community and makes a point of sponsoring a number of community-oriented activities throughout the year at its park-like headquarters space.

For 12 years it has put on a combined chili cook-off and car show. The cook-off serves as the California state championship with the winner entitled to go to the CASI (Chili Appreciation Society International) World Championship  in Terlingua, Texas. That’s sort of the chili equivalent of the Burning Man in Nevada. This year the contest attracted entrants from all over California as well as from as far away as Illinois and Kansas. The reigning world champion along with two former world champions were cooking.

The car show was huge. There were hundreds of cars of all ages, makes, and models. They were all in mint condition.

There were other things to do as well, so that the crowd was in the thousands, most of whom were anxious to taste chili, guacamole, and salsa that were prepared for respective contests.

I tagged along with my friend,, Reggie Graves, who is himself a champion chili cook who has won many contests throughout Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. We decided to enter all three contests. Reggie was in the Top Ten chili cooks. I was not. And we also didn’t win in the guacamole or salsa contests. That’s just the way it goes.

Here’s an image of some of the winners:


some of the winners

some of the winners


Filed under Food, Travel


When I was considering this post, I thought, “Who doesn’t know how to make a breakfast burrito? More than that, who doesn’t have his or her own favorite?”  While all of that is probably true, I decided to write this post anyway.

Part of the reason is that I just made some breakfast burritos for my wife, who started out before dawn to drive more than 14 hours and more than half way through Texas to visit her sister in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and then to pick up our grandson from the airport to take him to Shreveport, Louisiana, where his parents will be involved in a two-week-long food and cooking demonstration. I will join them and plan to send posts about the events, including my daughter’s demonstration on how to butcher a whole hog! You read that right, and I plan to document the event for posterity.

The second reason for the post is that whenever I visit San Francisco, I always make breakfast burritos for Evan and Sarah as they rush out the door to the restaurant. After the birth of their new son, they have both gone on diets, so I have been told that there will be no more breakfast burritos. So I thought I needed to share with somebody.


Breakfast Burrito


  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil + more as needed
  • ¼ pound breakfast sausage
  • 2 cups frozen hash brown potatoes
  • 3 crimini mushrooms, coarsely chopped
  • ½ cup diced red onion
  • 6 cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
  • ¼ cup diced green chiles
  • ¼ cup salsa
  • Cholula hot sauce, to taste (optional)
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 extra-large flour tortillas (10½ inch wrap size) I used garden spinach herb flavor, but you can choose any flavor)


  1. Heat the oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add the sausage and sauté until the pink color is lost, breaking it up as it cooks.
  2. Stir in the frozen hash browns, adding more oil if needed. Stir frequently until the potatoes begin to crisp.
  3. Stir in the mushrooms and sauté until they give up their liquid and the mixture is nearly dry. Then add the red onion and tomatoes. Sauté until the onions and tomatoes are softened.
  4. Lower the heat to medium-low and stir in the eggs, mixing them in thoroughly. When the eggs have nearly set up, stir in the green chiles and salsa. If you want more spiciness, adjust the seasoning with hot sauce, salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low as you prepare the tortillas.
  5. Heat a large cast iron skillet or comal over a high flame. When the surface is hot, place one of the tortillas on the skillet and bake for 15 seconds or until it is lightly browned. Turn and bake the other side until lightly browned and the tortilla is softened. Do not cook too long, or the tortilla will become stiff. Set the first tortilla aside and then bake the second.
  6. Place half of  the sausage and egg mixture  in the middle of each tortilla. Fold over opposing edges, and then roll up from one end. Serve immediately or wrap in foil so it can be taken on the road. If you are going to eat them at home, you can cover them with red or green chile sauce.


Filed under Food, Photography, Recipes


It is clearly high season in Santa Fé. Nearly everyone has visitors, and tourists jam the Plaza. Our own first visitors were two of our grandchildren, and so we tried to have kid-friendly meals that they could help make. When their parents came to visit and pick up their kids, we planned an easy meal for their arrival. We needed something that could wait in case their plane was late. Fajitas came to mind, so I started getting them ready the day before their arrival. The first thing to do was to trim and marinate the skirt steak. Skirt steak, called arracheras  by Mexican cooks, is actually the diaphragm muscle which separates the chest and abdominal cavities. It is well-flavored but tough, so it has to be prepared to make it tender. The first thing to do is to strip off the pleura and peritoneum (the linings of the chest and abdominal cavities respectively). That is an easy but necessary step, using a sharp, pointed knife to cut at  the demarcation line between the steak and the fibrous linings. An overnight soak in marinade, followed by grilling over hot coals are additional steps to create a tender meat for the fajitas. I got the recipe for the tequila marinade from The Sunset Southwest Cook Book (Lane Publishing Co., Menlo Park, CA, 1987, p. 45). If you don’t want to use tequila, just substitute more lime juice.

I had to deal with some of the food dislikes within the family. Some don’t like onions or even things that touch onions. Some can’t tolerate piquant chiles because of food sensitivities. Some don’t like avocados. Because of all these variables, I grilled the onions separately from the meat. Instead of classic pico de gallo (rooster’s beak), I made what I call pico de gallina (hen’s beak) without the jalapeños. I omitted the guacamole, but I would encourage you to include it in your choices of fillings.

In the end, everyone seemed to enjoy the modified fajitas.

The next day  we became inveterate tourists, trying to pack in as many events as possible.

There are lots of things to choose from: the Santa Fé Opera is high on the list, the Chamber Music Festival, dancing on the Plaza, riding the Rail Runner train, visiting the Bandelier ruins, hiking in the mountains, visiting the Shidoni Foundry, swimming at the community center, visiting the many museums, and eating, eating, eating.

The first day of the visit we went to one of our favorite restaurants, Babaluu’s Cocina Cubana, a quirky place away from town with great Cuban food. My daughter and I went to Whole Foods for the picnic for our tailgate dinner that evening at the opera. The opera tailgate is totally unlike the ones you may have attended at a football game. People show up in tuxedos and long gowns with candelabra, white tablecloths, fancy silver, and elaborate food on tables in the middle of the parking lot. Years ago we spent hours getting ready a fancy feast, but we now just go to the market for wine and food.

Following our festive meal, some of us went to the opening of La Traviata. It was our twelve-year-old granddaughter’s first opera and she was excited. She watched intently to the end and shed a few tears when Violetta died.

The next day my wife and I visited the Opera Ranch, the grounds of the Santa Fé Opera where singers, musicians, and technicians gather, practice, and enjoy the beauty of the area. Afterward we had lunch at the Tesuque (Te-su’-kay) Village Market, a combination country store, wine shop, gourmet bakery, and rustic café serving typical Northern New Mexico meals like huevos rancheros and green chile cheeseburgers.  It is very popular with locals.

The kids enjoyed the Shidoni Foundry where bronze sculptures are cast on commission from all over the world. The sculpture garden is filled with some amazing, interesting, and beautiful pieces. The foundry is near the end of Bishop’s Lodge Road, named after Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, a Frenchman who built a French-styled cathedral on the plaza of very Spanish/Mexican Santa Fé. He had a beautiful summer retreat along the road; the retreat has subsequently become a posh resort.  The archbishop was also the model for  the protagonist in Willa Cather’s famous novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop.

The kids and their parents rode the Rail Runner train. We shopped on the Plaza. We took a short hike in the mountains until we retreated in a thunderstorm. We had another great meal at another favorite restaurant,  Taberna La Boca. Finally my daughter made her famous “Law School Chicken” at the kids’ request. My granddaughter specifically forbade me from writing about “their secret family recipe.”

Then time ran out, and the visit was over.


Tequila Marinade


  • ½ cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup tequila (may substitute lime juice)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1½ teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dry Mexican oregano leaves
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper


  1. In a small bowl, combine all of the ingredients.
  2. Set aside until ready to marinate skirt steak

Pico de Gallina


  • 2 medium ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 large white onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
  • juice of 1 lime
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
  • 1-2 fresh jalapeños, seeded and chopped (optional)


  1. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl.
  2. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use



  • 2 pounds skirt steak, trimmed of membranes
  • 1 batch tequila marinade (recipe above)
  • 3 bell peppers (red, yellow, or green) seeded and sliced into strips
  • 2 large yellow onions, peeled and sliced into strips
  • 1 dozen large flour tortillas
  • 1 batch pico de gallina (recipe above)
  • sour cream


  1. Combine the steak and marinade in a plastic zip bag. Refrigerate overnight, turning frequently to coat the steak on all sides.
  2. When you are ready to cook the fajitas, prepare a hot fire in either a charcoal or gas grill.
  3. Place the steak over the hot fire.  Grill for about 7 minutes. Then turn over and grill for an additional 7 minutes. Baste frequently with reserved marinade.
  4. Meanwhile, place the sliced peppers and onions in a fire-proof grilling basket and place on the grill. Stir or turn occasionally until caramelized on all sides.
  5. When the steak is done, transfer to a cutting board. Arrange the grilled vegetables in a serving bowl.
  6. Rest the steak, covered with aluminum foil for 5 minutes before slicing thinly on the bias.
  7. Meanwhile, warm the tortillas.
  8. Invite each diner to make his or her own fajita with sliced steak and grilled vegetables on a warmed tortilla. Add pico de gallina and/or sour cream as desired.
  9. In a group that is not avocado-averse, fresh guacamole is a welcome addition.
  10. Roll and eat.


Filed under Food, Photography, Recipes, Restaurants, Travel


With two of the grandkids here, we cooked together for our dinner on their first evening. The main dish was nachos – who doesn’t like nachos? And they are so easy to make. Everyone got involved in putting things together, but waiting for them to bake made folks a little impatient. When the nachos came out of the oven, we all pitched in on eating them – with milk, of course – and then we had fresh palmiers for dessert.




  • vegetable spray
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • ½ pound ground beef
  • 1 package taco mix
  • 1 14 ounce can refried beans
  • 1 large bag tortilla chips
  • 1 3.8 ounce can sliced black olives, drained
  • 1 large bag grated Mexican cheese blend
  • salsa
  • sour cream


  1. Spray  a 11 x 17 inch jelly roll pan with vegetable oil
  2. In a medium skillet, brown the ground beef in the oil over medium heat, breaking it up as it browns. Stir in one-half of the taco mix. Set aside.
  3. In a small bowl, combine the canned refried beans with the remaining half of the taco mix. Set aside.
  4. With a table knife or small spatula, spread about a tablespoon of the refried bean mixture on a tortilla chip and arrange on the prepared jelly roll pan. Continue until the pan is filled with tortilla chips and the refried beans have been used up.
  5. Sprinkle the cooked ground beef, sliced black olives, and grated cheese over the pan of tortilla chips
  6. Bake the tray of prepared chips in the middle of an oven preheated to 350°F for 10-15 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the chips are warmed.
  7. Remove the pan from the oven, sprinkle with dollops of salsa and sour cream. Eat immediately while still warm.


Filed under Food, Photography, Recipes