Beat the winter blues

Warm up with a bowl of red-hot -- plus medium and mild -- chili

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CEDAR RAPIDS — What determines the best chili in Cedar Rapids?

Flavor? Heat? A grass skirt?

You’ll find all three at the 13th annual Blues ‘n’ Buffett Chili Challenge.

The oven mitts are off for this competition, which pits members of the Linn County Blues Society and the Isle of Iowa Parrot Head Club in the quest for chili dominance.

Really, though, this is a friendly contest. So friendly, in fact, that both clubs have their booths interspersed instead of left side, right side.

“We’re forcing people to make new friends,” says Keith Wright, media director for the Isle of Iowa Parrot Head Club and a member of the chili challenge planning committee.

A good time is the key ingredient in this event. Yes, people enter with the hopes that their chili will win one of the awards bestowed that afternoon — including Best Presentation; Best Non-Beef; Spiciest; Unusual; People’s Choice; and Best Chili Overall — but the day also is about spending time with friends, old and new.

Wright likens it to a wedding — in reverse.

Weddings take months to plan with money going out the door. The Blues ‘n’ Buffett Chili Challenge also takes months to plan, but it brings in money for two local charities: Community Health Free Clinic of Cedar Rapids and H.D. Youth Center of Cedar Rapids.

Here’s how it works. The public purchases tickets to attend the event. The cost of a ticket — $10 at the door if you didn’t pre-order tickets; children ages 6 and under are admitted free of charge and adults age 65 and older pay $5 — includes the tasting of the chilies and five People’s Choice vote tickets.

The club receiving the most People Choice votes will get a plaque and their charity receives 51 percent of the proceeds from the event. The runner-up club receives 49 percent of the proceeds for their charity.

The Linn County Blues Society raises fund for the H.D. Youth Center of Cedar Rapids. The Isle of Iowa Parrot Head Club supports the Community Health Free Clinic of Cedar Rapids.

Last year’s Blues ‘n’ Buffett Chili Challenge raised $10,300. In the 12 years since the event began, more than $57,000 has been raised and donated to local charities.

A panel of judges determines the winning chili in the other categories. The club that receives the majority of votes for Best Chili Overall receives a traveling trophy and bragging rights for the year.

About 30 chilies will be available for tasting Sunday. This includes six professional chilies made by local restaurants.

This year’s professional lineup includes The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, the Cedar Rapids Marriott, Red Frog, Cranky Hank’s, Beef ‘O’ Brady’s and Butcher Block Steakhouse.

“We’re at that time of year when people are getting tired of winter,” Wright says. “It’s cold. It’s gray. Why not spend the day sipping on your favorite drink and tasting some great chili?”

The details:


Want to whip up some chili at home in preparation of Sunday’s event? This recipe from Linn County Blues Society member Steve Springer was named Best Chili Overall in 2003.


  • ½ pound pork sausage
  • 2 pounds coarse ground beef
  • 2 15-ounce cans chili beans, optional
  • 2 15-ounce cans tomato paste
  • 1 6-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 2 tomatoes, diced
  • 1 cup onion, chopped
  • 1 cup red pepper, chopped
  • 1 cup green pepper, chopped
  • 1 cup yellow pepper, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon ground sage
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • Cornmeal to thicken, beer to thin
  • The following ingredients are optional; add or eliminate to your tastes
  • 2 jalapeno peppers, chopped
  • 2 banana peppers, chopped
  • 1 to 2½ habanero peppers, chopped
  • ½ to 1 tablespoon red pepper ground cayenne

Brown the sausage and the beef.

Drain the beef, from the skillet, but leave the fat. Sauté the red, green, and yellow peppers and the onion in the remains of the grease from the sausage and beef. If there is a shortage, use a healthy dose of Tryson House Mesquite Mist non-stick flavored spray.

Combine the meat and vegetables in a Dutch oven. Add all liquid and dry ingredients.

At this point your chili is pretty common and tame. It’s time to add the heat.

Wearing protective plastic gloves, core the hot peppers. Sauté and add to the chili slowly, tasting as you go until you get the heat the way you want it. If you like a higher volume of hot peppers but want to avoid a really searing heat, blanch them quickly. You can also add Cayenne pepper or a dose of Bacon Hot Sauce, which adds a unique flavor.

Let the brew cook just below simmer for a long time. The longer you let it cook, the more the spices combine. If you opt to add chili beans, do so late in the process so they don't become too soft.

After the chili seems right, cool and store for a day or two, then heat it up and serve. It gets better with age.

Note: Regarding the sausage and beef, it’s easier to get the sausage in the size pieces you want if you make it into a couple of very thin patties, brown, and then chop into the size bites you want in your chili. For the beef, it’s best if you buy a roast and cut in cubes yourself. Any cheap beef roast will work. This allows you to trim the fat and also gets you a higher grade of beef. Make the cubes any size you want.

Source: Scream’in Steve  

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