“So, you are here to get all the secrets?”
Michael Pate, an associate professor of agricultural systems technology, sits at his desk, a guarded smile on his face.
I was indeed looking for some wisdom. But I didn’t want to talk about agricultural technology or worker safety, which he studies. I wanted to talk about something important in a different way: chili.
Pate was recently unseated as champion of the college’s coveted Golden Crockpot competition, which he has won three consecutive times. Admittedly, he has come a long way from the grocery store chili kits of his youth in Arkansas where gumbo was king. As a newlywed, chili meant a pan of browned meat with a can of Ro-tel mixed in. But over time, like any good researcher, Pate pored over cookbooks and chili recipes online to improve the flavor and texture.
“My wife has celiac disease so we can’t go to a lot of restaurants because of cross-contamination,” he says. “We just try to make good food so she can enjoy a good meal. As a family we like to sit around and have a conversation and just enjoy that warm goodness.”
For Pate, upping his chili game required leveling up in two areas: using fresh ingredients and sourcing local meats.
“I don’t know if it’s special, but I do a lot of stuff to prep it,” he says. “One of those things is to use fresh chilis.”
Pate uses a combination of sweet and heat peppers, adding Anaheim, jalepeno or serranos, and sometimes poblanos, which give chili a smoky flavor, he says. Pate blisters them to give them “a nice toastiness,” and to remove the skins.
The other trick is focusing on the flavor of the meat.
Use a combination of sweet and heat peppers to add complexity to the chili. Blister them first to add a smoky flavor and avoid stringy peppers.
To avoid watery, gray meat, brown the beef in small batches. “You don’t want to steam your meat because it will give it a bland, watery taste,” Pate cautions.
“When you think about browning the meat, a lot of people use ground beef,” Pate says. “Ground beef has already been processed in the sense that all of the muscle tissue and the cell walls are broken down.”
You know that leakage on the bottom of the Styrofoam package you buy at the grocery store? That’s the cells leaking water. Putting a pound of ground beef in a pan essentially steams the meat, giving it that unappealing gray color.
“You don’t want to steam your meat because it will give it a bland, watery taste,” Pate cautions. Instead, he says, break the meat into small chunks and add it an oiled pan on high heat to brown the meat and give it a “nice crisp edge.”
If you’re thinking there has got to be more to perfecting one’s chili, there is.
“When I won [the Golden Crockpot], I used elk and beef,” Pate says.
He grew up with grandfathers who were big hunters and fishermen. Ever since he could walk, Pate would fish with his grandfather and sit on the back porch and fry their catches. “My dad’s dad was a big deer hunter. I remember him in my grandmother’s kitchen on the bar with a whole deer, just cutting it up. I was so enamored. It was fabulous.”
He enrolled in hunter’s education and killed his first deer at age 12.
“I really enjoy the actual bounty that comes from that,” Pate says. “There are lots of things you do to challenge yourself to be a more ethical type of hunter, like taking good shots, then doing it with a bow. It’s a lot more difficult. So, I haven’t eaten a lot of wild game lately.”
“When I do process deer or elk that I harvested, I take a lot of great care to remove any silver skin, to remove any fat. Because if you look at fat on venison that stuff is really waxy.”
Pate also sources his meat from locally raised beef processed by local butchers.
“It just seems like when you care for the meat during the processing part, especially with wild game, you get better flavor,” he says.
Avoid selecting fatty cuts of meat like brisket, which sound like a good idea in theory but make the chili slimy. And no one wants that.
Lastly, analyze how you can improve your chili next time. In 2020, Pate lost the Golden Crockpot to Caisa Shoop, an advisor in the department.
“I had just moved back from Pennsylvania, so I was off my game,” he says. “Stay humble.”
Perfect Chili Recipe
- 2 lb lean ground beef
- 2-4 cloves of garlic
- 2 cups of chicken broth
- 1 yellow sweet onion
- 1 green bell pepper
- 2-3 peppers of mixed varieties such as Anaheim peppers, jalepeno, serranos, or poblano peppers
- Seasonings including: cumin, salt, black pepper, chili powder, onion powder, and garlic powder in measurements to your taste.
- Use a cast iron skillet deep enough to hold everything.
- Blister fresh peppers, taking care not to char them. Remove seeds, chop, and set aside.
- Brown the meat in small batches so you don’t steam it. Sear it and cook thoroughly. Transfer meat to a plate or paper towel to remove excess grease.
- Dice into ¼ inch pieces a whole yellow sweet or purple onion/yellow sweet or purple onion and add it to the skillet. Sautee for a few minutes then add a green bell pepper that has been diced into ¼ to ½ inch pieces. Cook until they change colors to dull green.
- Add 2-4 minced garlic cloves
- Add two cups of chicken broth and blistered peppers and let simmer until it reduces by half.
- Pour broth and peppers into a food processor with two cans of tomato paste. Pulse with seasonings including, cumin, salt, black pepper, a little chili powder, and some onion and garlic powder.
- Put the meat back in the pan and the sauce back and let simmer
- Ladle into bowls and serve with sugar-free cornbread on the side.