When it comes to comfort food, chili ranks as one of American food lovers' favorites.
Chili has a multi-textured flavor profile and stars a multitude of ingredients and spices to satisfy any appetite. And being one of the heartiest of food offerings, it's the perfect choice for bitter cold winter days.
"Chili has wide appeal," said Brian Merz of Munster, who won Chef's Choice first place for his chili in last fall's Munster Chamber of Commerce's first Chili Cook-Off.
Merz said he believes the key to his chili being a success is having a balance between the right amount of heat and the right amount of tang. "There's a little bit of a kick but not too much." His recipe also has the "right amount of meat to beans."
For most home cooks, perfecting a good chili often takes some trial and error. And perfecting it for a competition often takes even more experimentation.
"I've been tweaking my recipe for chili for the past 20 years," Merz said, adding his chili features beef, beans and tomato and is served with chopped onions and cheddar cheese.
Merz, who's a resident of Munster, works for New York Life in Tinley Park, Ill. He said he'd definitely consider entering the Munster Chamber's chili contest again next year.
Taking second place in Munster's competition was the team of Pat and Jon Popa of Popa Heating and Cooling.
"My son Jon and I collaborated on the chili recipe," Pat Popa said. The Popas' recipe featured chipotle for a bit of heat and was also on the sweet side as it was flavored with dark chocolate.
"Chili is just one of those favorite things to make because you can put so many things in chili to make it good," Popa said.
Participating in the contest, Popa said, was great fun.
"I've always enjoyed cooking with my two sons," she said, adding that her son Ryan also likes to make chili and placed third in another chili competition.
According to Popa, the key to their chili is to make sure they have "a bit of heat on the back end" so the "flavor stays with you."
For chili cook Jason Hinman, a tasty concoction should have lots of layers of flavors.
Hinman and his wife Dawna won last fall's Ogden Dunes Chili Contest. They took first place in the classic division and were also named the overall winners.
The Hinmans' chili also took a starring role on the menu for a November event at Miller Bakery Cafe in Gary.
"We were at the restaurant for six hours cooking the chili the day before the event," Hinman said, adding he was honored to have his recipe featured on the restaurant's menu.
Hinman's chili recipe included a mix of hot Italian sausage, ground beef and chuck steak.
"It's very hearty," he said, adding he and his wife are big chili fans.
"I love chili. It's the best comfort food and always good especially in the winter."
Since most chili competitors aren't in favor of disclosing their recipes, here are chili recipes from the National Pork Board and its porkbeinspired.com web site.
WINTER WHITE CHILI
1 pound ground pork
1 medium onion, diced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 16-oz. can white beans, drained
1 14-oz. can corn, drained
1 14 1/2-oz. can chicken broth
1 4-oz. can diced green chiles
DIRECTIONS: In large saucepan, brown pork with onion, stir in cumin and chili powder; stir. Stir in remaining ingredients; bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until heated through and flavors are blended. Serves 6. Serving Suggestions: Warm up with this ground pork chili. Serve with tortilla chips and carrot sticks on the side and chocolate cupcakes for dessert.
PORK CHILI EXPRESS
1 pound ground pork, lean
1 15-oz can chili beans, undrained
2 14 1/2-oz cans diced tomatoes, in juice
1 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
Salt, to taste (optional)
DIRECTIONS: Cook ground pork over medium-high heat in 12-inch, nonstick skillet for 3 to 4 minutes or until pork is no longer pink, breaking pork in to small crumbles. Drain and discard any juices. Stir chili beans, tomatoes, water, chili powder, cinnamon and oregano into pork in skillet. Cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium. Uncover and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes or until desired consistency. If desired, season to taste with salt. Serves 4. Serving Suggestions: Serve the chili in a bowl with reduced-fat sour cream, shredded cheese and chopped onion as toppers.