What Makes Great Chili? Where to Sample in FC?

Stacy Lytwyn Maxwell

Stacy Maxwell is the author of the upcoming book, El Cheapo Gourmet—Thinking Outside the Restaurant Box:  The Best Homemade Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner in Connecticut.

Chili with…corn? Absolutely….That’s what some of the evening’s guests at this past winter’s Connecticut Audubon Society Center’s Adirondack Night felt about the three corn-laden crock pots full of chili while others at the event felt: absolutely not!  Without doubt, the bright, sunny specks of color added aesthetic appeal to the Adirondack, Sweet and Vegetarian-style dishes that provided the main fare for one of three major annual fundraisers. Of course, when the palate is involved, beauty amounts to beans. 

As I sampled a cup full of chili while chilling next to a guest who was also hankering down on his eats, I commented, “Perhaps the corn in the chili is a Yankee tradition.” While chewing intently on the kernels, he shrugged off my assumption, saying, “This belongs somewhere in northern New York—far north.”

Chidings in the chili world are not new.  Back in the 1980s, I was part of a television crew that filmed a piece about the beans in chili: yeah or nay?  (I don’t recall which side won, but I do remember the argument got to be serious, and I’m thinking we called it a draw.)  Then there’s the the big brew-ha-ha about canned or fresh tomatoes; chunky or ground meat; canned or dried beans.

Adirondack Night inspired me to revisit the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink ingredients that go into a good pot of home-cooked chili, cook up some good conversation, and further probe “What makes a good chili?” After all, while chilidogs are associated with a traditional summer fare, many times served from a vendor’s cart or seasonal drive-in canteen, nothing can melt the chill off the bone better than a nice, steaming bowl of chili in the wintertime.

At Adirondack Night, the man who went thumbs down with corn in chili, what’s his favorite penchant for a good chili?  Venison.  The food world, as we all know, is subjective.  On the other hand, I found many other guests who felt that corn makes chili distinctly delicious.  One thing certain, none of the three dishes featured were even remotely spicy.  The Adirondack-style dish was mildly soothing, but on the watery side; the sweet chili had, as one would expect, a sweet bite to it, and the vegetarian brand paralleled more of a vegetable medley than a chili. 

To me, a good chili screams with jalapeño and hot chili peppers; after you chop them up, they burn for days under the fingertips.  At the center, it seemed most chili eaters like mild versions, like my friend Jill who I ran into there.  Her favorite ingredients in a chili she said are a bay leaf—and McCormick Chili Seasoning Mix—the kind that you can buy in a packet that hangs in the spice aisle of the supermarket. 

Diners who prefer a yearlong Adirondack-type of dining experience can go to Fairfield’s Bear and Grill, a long time Black Rock Turnpike tenant, or sister restaurant in Milford, to sample a bowl of chili.  Chef/owner Patsy Santangeli likes it hot, flavored with fresh jalapenos (Yeah!).  On the menu, however, he says he “keeps it neutral,” unless per special request.  Also on the top of Pat’s list?  Cilantro.

You can’t talk chili unless you get the insider’s scoop from Donovan's & Mackenzie on the corner of Washington and Water Streets in South Norwalk that features “award-winning” chili on the menu.  Guillermo Sanchez, the chef, says the key to cooking good chili is “consistency, flavor and the ingredients,” which, in this case, are kidney beans, ground beef, melted Cheddar Jack Cheese and raw onions, accompanied with chips and sour cream on the side. Where exactly did the chili, on the thick and mild side, win its title?....After being in business for three decades (not including a three-year hiatus) the details have been lost in time.

If you try the chili at Georgetown Saloon at the Junctions of Route 107 and Route 57 in the Georgetown section of Redding, you’ll probably become a regular customer, if you aren’t already.  “The three kinds of meat and spices that we put in are really good,” says owner Nancy Silverman.  The kitchen serves up chunky bowlfuls of chili with a moderate zest, topped off with chopped raw onions and cheese. 

Patrons can enjoy chili every Thursday and Friday at Mr. Mac’s Canteen, 838 Main Street, Monroe.  Chris McPadden, cook, and one of the four brothers who own the eatery along with the one in Milford by the same name, says chili “has to have a nice base to it.  I like a tomato base.  Most people like some beans, not a lot.” 

Although his recipe is top secret (aren’t they all?), the basic components are ground beef, beans, green peppers, garlic and spices…mild not strong. In season, at Mr. Mac’s, you can expect chopped fresh grown tomatoes and garlic purchased from nearby farmers.

As a side note, the restaurant’s chilidogs are made from finely ground meat and sauce that’s hot!  The recipe, in fact, derives from the family’s father who started working at Bridgeport’s Merritt Canteen when he was 15 years old and continued working for about 56 years until he sold the business eight years ago.  So what’s dad up to these days?  He keeps his four sons from “killing each other” while they run the two canteens.  After raising a family of eight, five boys and three girls, this father is “seasoned” to be sure.

Although it is not a regular item on the menu, sometimes a house special; however, you can order a bowl of chili anytime—the same one that complements Mario’s chilidogs and nachos at the Westport institution across from the railroad station (36 Railroad Place) that’s been around some 40 years. No beans.  Pure beef.  Manny Martinez, assistant chef says that spicy hot flavor makes a good chili, but he explains, “We have to go light on the hot, because people don’t eat it.”  He calls the chili, “American style.”

For me, the main cook to a family that is both carnivores and vegetarian, I like to cook my chili in a crock; the longer, the better.  My secret ingredients: a sweet potato and a square of unsweetened chocolate.  I have found that when I cannot cook up a meaty chili, those two ingredients make a hearty flavor to satisfy even our meat-eaters.  “What makes a good chili?”  Make no beans about it, this is a hot topic….or, perhaps, depending on your taste buds, not so hot.  Let us know what you think. 


MAXWELL HOUSE Chili (Beef it up, Vegetarian Style)

(I love this chili; it satisfies both the carnivores and meat eaters in the Maxwell House.  Moreover, since it makes a huge batch, there’s usually leftovers, and it’s great to freeze.  If you absolutely must have meat in your chili, add a half-pound of browned ground beef or browned stew meat chunks.) 

1 15.5 oz. can pinto beans, undrained

1 15.5 oz. can dark red kidney beans, undrained

1 15.5 oz. can chick peas, undrained

1 medium sweet potato, diced

1 medium-sized sweet onion, chopped

1  medium-sized regular onion, chopped

1 5 oz. evaporated milk (regular or low-fat variety)

1 square (1 oz.) unsweetened chocolate

2  28 oz. cans diced tomatoes 

4  cloves of garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon fresh or jarred cilantro

3  tablespoons of chili powder (or add a few more spoonfuls per individual taste)

1  teaspoon or tablespoon ground cumin; depending on your taste buds

1 chipotle pepper (from can or rehydrate), minced (or 1/2 pepper, depending on tastebuds) 

Add all the ingredients in a crock pot and set on low.  Cook approximately seven to eight hours or according to the crock pot manufacturer’s instructions.  Stir as necessary to dissolve chocolate square; add salt to individual taste.  For those who like it hot:  before serving add a dash or two of Tabasco sauce and an ounce of chopped jalapeños or crushed red pepper (medium hot or very hot!).  Enjoy!  

Note: You can be included in her upcoming book, El Cheapo Gourmet—Thinking Outside the Restaurant Box:  The Best Homemade Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner in Connecticut.  As stated above, the guidebook will list nearly every annual pancake breakfast, luncheon, lobster bake, shad dinner, chili cook-off, and so on, in CT  that are sponsored by churches, synagogues and a variety of non-profit organizations/clubs/businesses.

If you’d like your organization’s food event listed or to pre-order books, go to http://www.cattalespress.com or e-mail cattalespress@snet.net or ilovect@att.net.