Labakais Čili! The Best Chili

Labakais Čili! The Best Chili

A Love of Cooking

Liesma

“I make it with love”. That is what my beloved mom told me once when I asked her why her food tasted so good. She never made anything fancy or even interesting, but everything she made for us was irresistible. Growing up with 6 siblings and a nephew, I competed for my daily bread, but Liesma always made sure we didn’t go hungry. I have the fondest memories of standing next to her as she made her chicken soup, and she would pull the boiled meat off the bones, and I would eat it hot and fresh from the pot. Comfort foods were her specialty.

Making Latvian Pīrādziņi

I always loved to cook. Even when I was in elementary school, I experimented with the oven and the stove, trying to make recipes before there was an internet. I recall trying to make potato glazed donuts, carving potatoes into the shape of a donut, thinking that was how to do it. I kept insisting that my mom buy a donut holer, but she never did.

It wasn’t until after I got married and started a family that I got serious about cooking. I discovered that I loved to cook, and I loved to see people enjoying the food that I made. What could be a more perfect equation than preparing a dish, having people at it, and watching them be satisfied by what you have created?

The Chili: Husker Heatwave

I started making chili early on in my post-university life. I was inspired when I started teaching at Stapleton, and teachers got free meals. Friday was chili day, and the cook there made homemade chili that was just wonderful. I grew up with my mom’s “chili soup” which was tomato juice and ground beef. Sometimes she put kidney beans in there, but I didn’t like them.

I got over my strange issue of being picky about ingredients. Now I use three kinds of beans along with a host of other ingredients to combine and blend flavors to make a thick, spicy chili that warms you up in autumn, and fills you up all winter.

I was perusing Facebook when I saw the American Chamber of Commerce advertising for a chili contest. I had attended a couple of their events in the past, and thought they were pretty cool, so I thought this sounded fun. I kind of thought it would be a bunch of amateur chili makers, like myself, gathered together in the spirit of fun. I filled out a google form, named my chili “Husker Heatwave” and entered as my company name “Fantasy Brackets.

I gathered ingredients from markets and stores. I harvested some of the chilis from our garden plot on Lucavsala, and I had to borrow an 8 liter pot from my friend Iveta. I took a chance on some good looking Rimi beef, and began cooking. Rita told me prior to the contest that one of the judges was a celebrity chef in Latvia, Mārtiņš Sirmais. Then, I suddenly had this realization that this wasn’t just going to be a bunch of locals enjoying chili, but a serious contest. The heat was on!

I won’t take time explaining the whole recipe here, but it started with bacon and ended with tomato sauce and chili powder. I spent 3 hours the night before simmering the meat and tomatoes and chilis together. The next day, I finished with three kinds of beans and more chilis and more tomatoes. The final purchase was fresh cinnamon rolls because in Nebraska, for some reason, we pair chili with cinnamon rolls.

Rita helped me by chopping vegetables, and getting the side dishes ready to go. We put the pot of warm chili, cinnamon rolls, corn chips and cheese into two cardboard boxes, and loaded up in a Bolt car. When we arrived at the beautiful Pullman hotel, I got some serious butterflies in my stomach. It was so fancy and nice. We found the restaurant which was hosting the contest and checked in at the table. And as we walked through the space, we saw most of the other teams had already set up their spaces, and they were very professional.

Most of the people were dressed in professional chef’s garb from some of the best restaurants in Riga and had amazing side dishes and beautifully prepared spaces. Here we were with the old boxes in our street clothes… what had I done?!

The Contest

My friend Mike, the owner of a local beer bar (originally from Iowa), showed up with door prizes. He gave me mine early, a four pack of super tasty beer, and we had a nice talk. That relaxed me quite a bit. Rita helped serve people chili and scouted out all the other chilis there to see how they were.

The contest began with a blind tasting. The officials took one bowl from each team with no side dishes or anything else, and they went in a private room to complete their tasting while all the other guests were allowed to go around and taste all of the different chilis.

Eventually, Rita took over serving, and I went around to taste some of the other chilis. There were two Indian restaurants that were very interesting and spicy. My favorite was the vegetarian chili, which ended up winning the People’s Choice award. One of the teams was giving away tequila shots with the chili. That was cool, too.

The only problem with the contest was that most people only wanted to taste tiny bites of chili, and the most common question I was asked (fear in eyes), “Is it spicy?”

Knowing my audience, I did not make the chili very spicy. It had a nice little touch of heat, but it wasn’t going to burn your mouth out. And we offered cinnamon roll bites which are a great way of staving off the heat. They really liked the cinnamon rolls!

At the end of the night, Chef Mārtiņš announced the winners. He started by going from team to team and giving them some feedback. One team was told that they needed to cook the chilis completely. Another was told that it was too thick. He got to us, and he said, “Team 8… we’ll talk later.” I thought… oh, that’s either really bad or really good.

Door prizes were given out including a little chili plant with bright red chilis on it. The Chef then gave out an award for the 3rd place chili, 2nd place chili and finally he announced the winner. It was us! I was so excited. I popped one of the fresh chilis from the plant into my mouth, took a swig of beer and went to collect the trophy and other prizes.

After it was all over, I asked the chef what he thought of my chili, and he said, “What do you want me to say? It was chili. It was perfect. What do you want?” I just laughed and walked away on cloud nine. Rita was so happy, and we packed up our leftovers and took a Bolt home.

Aftermath

Cousins

We had been planning to invite my cousin Ginta to our house for awhile, and now this gave us a perfect excuse and dish to share with her. She and her husband visited us and I made them a toned down version of my award winning chili.

Journalists

Then, I was interviewed by a journalist from the magazine Ieva where I told my story about moving to Latvia and gave her the recipe for my chili. She and her cameraman and assistants came over to watch me cook and take some photos. What an honor that was! I think that photo of me is the best I have ever had.

Side Note

People ask me for my recipe, and I did come up with one for the magazine, but I don’t really cook using recipes. I go back to what my mom said about making food with ingredients I like and then adding love. I feel like that is the secret to any good meal. Make what you like, make it with love, and share it with those you love. Everything will be fine!

 

 

 

 

Some more photos…

 

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