The Dead Chili team

It’s too soon to know which team will win the 2020 Lake Highlands Junior High Chili Cook Off this Saturday, but it’s never too early to work on crafting your best recipe. If you haven’t signed up to decorate a booth and enter the contest, you can still buy a ticket here and taste all the variations for yourself.

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If you’d like to cook up your own batch, chili experts say there’s plenty of room for creativity.

“Use good meat and fresh [powdered] spices,” advises Ted Hume, a Terlingua winner in 2012 and 2003 and judge of this year’s contest. “I use Pendery’s from Fort Worth and Mild Bill’s from Corsicana. The stuff you buy in the grocery store, you don’t know how long it’s been sitting in a warehouse, then sitting on a shelf.”

Lots of folks include beer or wine in their concoction, but Hume calls that a rookie mistake.

“Ever been to a party, and the next day there’s a stale beer smell? It’s great in bread, bad in chili. You can also taste when they’ve burned the meat.”

Chili day is no time to scrimp on the salt, Hume says.

“If you cook something, and you feel like it’s almost there – spaghetti sauce, taco meat, chicken noodle soup – add a little sea salt and fresh garlic.”

Food writer Emma Christensen also shares advice for making the perfect pot of chili.

“Start with a few strips of bacon,” she writes, though it’s the fat as much the bacon that adds the flavor. Cooking the beef and onions separately allows both to brown in an uncrowded pan instead of steaming, and she suggests a secret ingredient like cinnamon, strong coffee or dark chocolate to boost the rich flavor. Lastly, she prescribes a splash of something acidic like red wine vinegar or lemon juice. Of course, Christensen’s tips must be taken with a grain of salt. Her chili recipe calls for beans – the one ingredient downright outlawed in purebred Texas Red.

“First of all, no beans. This is Texas,” insists Wallace Elementary’s Frank Gomez, one of the judges of this year’s contest. “While I may not be the best chili cook in Lake Highlands, I am very good at eating it. I have participated in our chili cook off here at Wallace for many years.

“I think what makes a good pot of chili is after your initial cooking of the meat and adding your spices, give it a long slow simmer to allow it to mix together – kind of like creating a masterpiece. You must take a sample, take a step back and let it reside in your mouth for a bit and let every taste bud get a crack at it. Then you let it simmer a while longer. Meat consistency is also important – it should all be about the same size so that one spoonful may not have more flavor than another. At last, take a good drink of an adult beverage or any drink of your choice, relax and enjoy the smile on your faces of your friends and family as they rub their tummy.”

If you have your own ideas about what great chili should taste like, come on out to Oak Highlands Brewery from 4-7 p.m. Saturday. Celebrity judges State Rep. John Turner, Ken Bethea of the Old 97s, Burton Gilliam from Blazing Saddles, Julie Dobbs of The Ticket, Terlingua veterans Ted Hume and Andrew Hamilton will join LHJH’s Vince Venditto, Wallace’s Frank Gomez and lil’ ole me. Stop by the judges’ tent to say hello.