- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
There’s an old saying that “4-H isn’t just about cows and chickens.”
Well, sometimes (tongue in cheek), it’s also about chili!
As in chili cookoffs.
Every year since 2005, the Solano County 4-H Youth Development Program has sponsored a Chili Cookoff Contest as part of its Project Skills Day, where the youths share what they’ve learned in their projects. The scores of projects generally fall under the wide umbrellas of animal sciences, biological sciences, civic engagement, communication and expressive arts, community and volunteer service, environmental education and earth sciences, health, leadership and personal development, personal safety, physical sciences, plant sciences, shooting sports, and technology and engineering.
True, 4-H projects do encompass cows ‘n chickens, but topics also include other “c’s” such as computer science, citizenship, cultural arts, camping, child development and care, career exploration, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), cake decorating and crocheting.
Here’s how the Solano County 4-H Chili Cookoff works: The 4-H'ers (usually enrolled in food and nutrition projects) love chili! They form a team, create or embellish a chili recipe, and prepare the dish.
Judges sample the finished products, quiz the cooks, and score the dishes on temperature, aroma, flavor, texture, freshness and overall presentation.
In the past, the main ingredients have ranged from beef, pork, chicken, turkey and elk to strictly vegetarian. Unusual ingredients have included sweet potatoes, chile-laced mangoes, semi-sweet chocolate morsels, pineapple, coffee, beer, wine, peanut butter and bananas.
At this year’s Chili Cookoff, the winning team of Courtney Curtis, Toni DeTomasi, Halie Pringle, and Emma Couvillion of the Vaca Valley 4-H Club, Vacaville, came up with a chicken-chili recipe that wowed the judges.
“It was a great chicken chili recipe,” said judge Heidi Johnson of Dixon, one of three adults judging the event, which took place Jan. 19 in the B. Gale Wilson Elementary School, Fairfield.
Johnson, active in the Roving Clovers 4-H Club, Dixon, judged the chili cookoff with Suzanne Cline of the Rio Vista 4-H Club, and Jestine Pinon of the Tremont 4-H Club, Dixon. All praised the flavor and the texture. “It was just the right texture—not too thick and not too thin,” Pinon said.
“And the flavor was really good,” Cline said.
The winning chefs, self-described "Chili Birds," donned chicken-decorated baseball caps they’d made for the occasion.
Afterwards, they confided "This is the only chili we'll eat."
Their recipe requires eight minutes of preparation and is ready to eat in an hour and 15 minutes. So, total time from start to finish: one hour and 23 minutes.
White Bean and Chicken Chili
By the Chili Birds, Vaca Valley 4-H Club, Vacaville
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 pounds ground chicken
1 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons chili powder
3 tablespoons flour
Two 15-ounce cans of cannellini or other white beans, rinsed and drained
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
Freshly ground black pepper for seasoning
1 can Ortega diced green chiles
In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add the ground chicken, 1 teaspoon salt, cumin, fennel seeds, oregano and chili powder and the diced chiles. Cook, stirring frequently, until the chicken is cooked through, about 8 minutes. Stir the flour into the chicken mixture. Add the beans and chicken stock. Bring the mixture to a simmer, scraping up the brown bits that cling to the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Simmer for 55 to 60 minutes until the liquid has reduced by about half and the chili has thickened. Simmer for another 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Other recipes showcased unusual ingredients. A team calling itself “Two and a Half Beans” from the Wolkskill 4-H Club, Dixon (Spencer and Riley Currey and Ricardo Setka), created a recipe, “Casablanca Chili,” which included sweet potatoes and chile-spiced mangoes.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers of Suisun Valley 4-H Club (Kaylee Christianson, Olivia Frenkel and Tiffany Lum) added semi-sweet chocolate chips to their recipe, “Mexican Chocolate Chili,” while a group from the Wolfskill 4-H Club (Hannah Crawford-Stewart, Madeline Pitto, Katie Polik and Kiarra Ko-Madden) offered “The King’s Chili,” using some of Elvis Presley’s favorite foods—peanut butter and bananas.
The Solano County 4-H Program is comprised of 400 youths. The clubs: Maine Prairie, Dixon Ridge, Roving Clovers, Tremont, and Wolfskill clubs, all of Dixon; Vaca Valley 4-H Club and Elmira 4-H Club, both of Vacaville; Westwind 4-H Club and Suisun Valley 4-H Club, both of Fairfield-Suisun; Sherwood Forest 4-H Club of Vallejo; and the Rio Vista 4-H Club of Rio Vista.
(The author, a longtime 4-H'er - childhood and adult - has taught such projects as swine, cooking, bonsai, photography and computer science.)