Dining With Denise Neil

Chili like the champs make, just in time for fall

A bowl of Wichita Wagonmasters chili.
A bowl of Wichita Wagonmasters chili. The Wichita Eagle

Chili is like barbecue.

Everyone likes to eat it, and everyone thinks he can cook it better than the next guy.

But some really can cook it better than the next guy, and those people enter the annual Wichita Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff, which is coming up on Sept. 24.

The event is considered the kickoff to the fall eating season, which stars comfort food dishes like chicken and noodles, mac and cheese, and big bowls of chili loaded with cheese, jalapenos, sour cream and corn chips.

Bob Thompson is the longtime “cookie” for the cookoff, which draws about 12,000 people every September. He leads a crew of cooks, who each year prepare 300 gallons of chili in 30-gallon cauldrons. The cookoff allows entrants to taste all the chili made by competing teams, but at the end, they also get a full-fledged bowl of Wagonmasters chili, with all the fixings.

For years, the Wagonmasters – a group of local businessmen who help promote Wichita and organize charity events throughout the year – made their chili using a sausage topping as the main protein, donated by a Wagonmaster who also was a Pizza Hut franchisee. It was good, but when the Wagonmasters took over running the festival in 2005, local chef Tanya Tandoc created a new recipe for them, utilizing high-quality ground sirloin. The recipe also includes several unique seasonings, like apple cider vinegar and Worcestershire sauce.

The Wagonmasters will cook their ground beef with all the spices in an industrial cooker at their deluxe clubhouse at Old Cowtown the weekend before the event. They’ll freeze it, then the morning of the event, they’ll add the tomatoes, beer and other wet ingredients and let it simmer in the cauldrons until the people come.

Thompson shared the official Wagonmasters recipe with us, and it’s a good one, he said. He was raised eating chili, but his mom often made hers using a prepared chili brick. The Wagonmasters recipe is an improvement.

“It’s rich. It’s not a vinegar base. It’s kind of spicy, but it’s tolerable,” Thompson said. “People come back and they claim it’s one of the better chilies down there.”

One of the other cooks providing chili at the cookoff is Merle Simpson, who last year won the trophy in the “no beans” category.

Simpson has been entering chili cookoffs since the 1980s, when the International Chili Society used to put on its contests in his wife’s hometown of Chanute.

Now, he travels to at least three cookoffs a year. He’s amassed a pretty large chili trophy collection over the years and has qualified for at least six trips to the World ICS Cookoff, which happens in a different city each year. Simpson also has been able to perfect his ever-evolving recipe by tasting competitors’ chilies and figuring out what wins and what doesn’t.

“I didn’t win anything for a long time,” he said. “Finally, I got to know some people, and I got a few tips, and I tasted the chilies that were winning and kind of got a better idea of what it took. Then, I started developing my recipe, and finally, in 1996, I got a fifth-place ribbon.”

Good-quality meat is the key to a good chili, said Simpson, who agreed to share one of his recipes, which he makes with chunky rather than ground beef. The recipe’s New Mexico- and California-style chili powders can be found in the Mexican spice section at local Dillons stores, he said.

Also included here is a different twist on chili – a green chicken chili that’s a specialty of Wichita Eagle photographer Bo Rader, the man responsible for the gorgeous autumnal photo of chili and cornbread on the cover of this publication.

Denise Neil: 316-268-6327, @deniseneil

Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff

What: An annual chili competition that includes a public tasting, beer garden and contests

Where: East Douglas between St. Francis and the railroad overpass

When: Public tasting starts at noon on Saturday, Sept. 24.

How much: Admission is free, but tasting kits are $5 a person.

Information: wagonmasterschili.com

Wichita Wagonmasters chili

Serves 11

2.5 lbs. ground beef

1 cup yellow onion

1 28 oz. can of diced or crushed tomatoes

2 15 oz. can of chili beans

1/4 cup water

6 oz. of dark beer

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Dry seasonings:

1/4 cup chili powder

2 tablespoons paprika

1 1/2 teaspoons cumin

3/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon of oregano

1/4 teaspoon of thyme

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

3/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Cook ground beef on high setting in a large skillet for 3-4 minutes and then add onion and cook until done. Drain ground beef and onion then pour into a large stockpot. Add all other wet ingredients to stockpot along with all dry seasonings.

Reduce heat to low, simmer and cook for 30 minutes until temperature reaches at least 165 degrees before serving.

Serve hot with grated cheese, jalapenos and crackers or corn chips. For an added touch, top off your chili with a fried egg.

Merle’s chunky red chili

3 pounds of tri-tip or chuck roast (cubed)

1 medium onion minced

1 small can diced green chiles

2 cans chicken broth

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce

Spice blend:

2 tablespoons New Mexico hot chili powder

3 tablespoons New Mexico mild chili powder

3 tablespoons California mild chili powder

3 tablespoons cumin

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

Brown the meat and add to the cooking pot with veggies, broth and half the spice mix. Simmer two hours. Add the remaining spice mix and cook for one hour, adding liquid if necessary. Adjust the seasonings (salt, heat) to personal taste in the last 15 minutes.

Bo’s green chicken chili

1 cooked rotisserie chicken, skinned and boned

About 10 chili peppers, mix of Anaheim and poblano peppers, roasted, stemmed, skinned and seeded

4 cups chicken broth

4 15 oz. cans Northern white beans, undrained

1 16 oz. jar chile verde (this is the green chile verde sauce in the Mexican aisle, like Herdez brand)

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon dried parsley

1 tablespoon dried basil

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Shred chicken by hand. Roast the chili peppers on the grill until charred. (This can be done in your broiler or on gas stove.) Peel off skin and clean out seeds, then chop into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces. Place chicken, peppers and broth in a crockpot or stove-top pot. Add 2 cans white beans and mash with a masher or meat pounder. Add the other two cans of beans, leaving them whole. Add chile verde and spices and cook mixture until ingredients are hot and flavors are blended.