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Steve Brandenburg, who was representing the Downtown Hammond Council in the Munster Chamber Chili Cook-off, serves a bowl of his winning chili at the event.

MUNSTER — This writer recently had the pleasure of being a judge at the recent Munster Chamber of Commerce fifth annual Touchdown Chili Challenge at the Center for Visual and Performing Arts.

Just when you think that you’ve tasted every kind of chili possible, you come across a new variation or are introduced to a new twist on this traditional comfort food.

The judging panel, which also included Terry Zych, retired chef/instructor at Ivy Tech Community College Northwest Michigan City campus, and Billy Mix, chef/owner at 95ate5 Brewpub in St. John, was handed a dozen chili entries and each one was distinctly different. Some chilis had a bit of a kick that was just the right amount, but nothing was over the top.

“I was impressed with the fact that people were using local ingredients and seasonal ingredients as different as butternut squash incorporated into the chili,” Zych said. “I was also impressed with the different proteins that were used — chicken, lamb, chorizo, Italian sausage. It wasn’t just ground beef. There was a variety of different proteins.”

In the end, it was a beef brisket chili that won over the judges. The brisket was slow-roasted for 24 hours, making it unbelievably tender without being stringy or mushy. The chili also included butternut squash, an unlikely chili ingredient that simply worked and completed this flavorful entry. The winning entry came from Steve Brandenburg, an attorney with offices in Hammond and Chicago, who was representing the Downtown Hammond Council in the contest.

Second place was another unique chili, a white chicken chili presented by Eon Clinics. It had great flavor and was thick and hearty, leaving you with a tad of a spicy aftertaste. Sometimes the judges' picks and the people’s choice are different. The crowd often seems to favor the more traditional take on chili, while judges often take creativity and risk into account. This competition was no different. Taking the People’s Choice were Popa Heating and Cooling for first place and Planting Possibilities for second place.

Brandenburg hit a homerun on his first time up to bat. He never had entered a chili contest and his recipe is one he adapted after seeing it in a magazine about a decade ago.

“I saw a similar chili in a magazine maybe 10 years ago and started making a brisket and butternut squash chili in the fall each year,” Brandenburg said. “My recipe has changed a little bit over time. The most important aspect of the chili is getting a high-quality brisket. For the contest, I bought two whole untrimmed USDA prime briskets from Costco. These have more marbling than a standard brisket, giving the meat a much better texture in the chili."

Making chili with his father is one of his favorite childhood memories and something that instilled in him a love of cooking. Now he enjoys sharing cooking time with his wife, Carly. She’s a fan of the recipe and encouraged him to enter the contest.

“We had a lot of fun participating in the cook-off and engaging with all of the members of public who attended to taste the chilis,” she said. “I know Steve is already anxious to start testing out new recipes for next year to defend his title.”

Steve’s Brisket and Butternut Squash Chili


1 5-pound beef brisket, trimmed, cut into 2x2 inch cubes

1 butternut squash peeled and cut into 2x2 inch cubes

8 dried ancho chilies

½ lb. bacon, chopped

1 1/2 pounds onions, chopped (about 4 cups)

6 peeled garlic cloves

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 teaspoons freshly ground cumin

2 teaspoons dried oregano

2 teaspoon freshly ground coriander

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 10-ounce cans fire-roasted diced tomatoes

1 12-ounce amber beer

1 7-ounce can diced roasted green chiles

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1-2 chopped jalapenos (seeds removed)

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro stems


Fresh cilantro leaves

Sour cream


Place seeded dried ancho chilies in medium bowl. Make sure the Anchos are torn into pieces. Cover with boiling water and soak until chilies soften, at least 1 hour. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Sauté bacon in heavy large oven-proof pot (cast iron preferred) over medium heat until beginning to brown. Add chopped onions. Cover the pot and cook until tender.

Season beef all over with salt and black pepper. Add to pot; stir to coat. Set heat to low.

Drain softened ancho, reserving soaking liquid. Place chilies in blender. Add approximately 1 cup of the chili soaking liquid to blender. Then add garlic, chili powder, cumin seeds, oregano, coriander, cilantro stems and 2 teaspoons coarse salt. Run the blender on high until it is a puree. Pour puree over brisket in pot. Add tomatoes with juices, beer, green chilies. You also can add chopped jalapenos depending on how spicy you like your chili.

Turn heat back up to medium and bring chili to simmer.

Cover the pot and place in oven at 350 degrees F. Cook covered for two hours and then cook uncovered for one hour. Add squash and stir. Roast uncovered until beef and squash are tender. This will take about 45 minutes but could take longer. You may need to add cooking more of the soaking liquid from the chilies to keep the beef covered.

Remove from oven and let sit until the fat comes to the surface. Remove any fat with a spoon.

It is now ready to eat. It can be stored in the fridge for several days.