Chili Challenge: Home cook brings vegetarian option to the table

Vegetarian chili made by Amy Anderson. Photographed in Cedar Rapids on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Vegetarian chili made by Amy Anderson. Photographed in Cedar Rapids on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Every February, the Blues ‘n’ Buffet Chili Challenge in Cedar Rapids brings together a variety of professional and home cooks for a public tasting of dozens of chili recipes.

For the past three years, Amy Anderson has earned the top prize in her category — best vegetarian chili.

For Anderson, the competition is a fun way to showcase the hobby she’s been perfecting for more than 20 years.

“Cooking has always been a passion of mine. Baking, too,” Anderson said.

From a young age, she’s been in the kitchen.

“I learned a lot from my dad’s mother — my grandmother. She’s full-blooded Czech,” Anderson said. “I was lucky to be able to learn a lot growing up and helping cook family meals. My mom always cooked, and I wanted to be involved in it.”

After graduating from the culinary arts program at Kirkwood Community College in the ’90s, Anderson worked in the food industry before deciding to pursue a different career path after she started a family.

“The hours and weekends are not conducive to having kids,” she said. “So instead I try to use my skills to cook at home and for coworkers and friends.”

Anderson, 43, works full-time as a website editor at Hibu in Cedar Rapids.

While her favorite people to cook for are her husband and two children, she also enjoys bringing her skills to events like the Chili Challenge.

The event is organized by two groups, each supporting a different music genre.

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The Linn County Blues Society is a non-profit dedicated to preserving and promoting blues music in Eastern Iowa. The Isle of Iowa Parrot Head Club celebrates all things related to Jimmy Buffet’s music. Think “Margaritaville.”

Together, the two organizations have sponsored the annual Blues ‘n’ Buffett Chili Challenge since 2001.

Proceeds from the chili cookoff benefit the Henry Davison Scholarship Program and the Eastern Iowa Arts Academy.

Anderson originally signed up to compete, thanks to her parents’ involvement and is now a member of the Parrot Head Club herself.

The competition, she said, is a great way to try a variety of chili recipes.

“They have several categories: beef, non-beef — which includes chicken, pork and turkey — and vegetarian,” Anderson said. “Then people also pick an overall winner.”

Her winning vegetarian recipe has been a favorite for years.

“It’s funny — people are so hesitant to try the chili because it’s vegetarian,” Anderson said. “I use a meat substitute that looks like hamburger and tastes like hamburger. The recipe is actually vegan. It fools a lot of people.”

Anderson has been a vegetarian for almost 30 years, and in that time has found some favorite go-to substitutions for meals that usually center around a meat substitute.

“I do all vegetarian recipes. I use substitutes for chicken strips, burger patties and other items — there’s a wide selection of things available at most grocery stores,” she said. “Being vegetarian is not for everybody, but it’s great for your health and the planet. If everyone did at least one meatless day during the week, it would make a big difference.”

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In addition to chili, Anderson also has several other favorite vegetarian recipes — like lasagna, quesadillas, enchiladas and stuffed shells.

“I’m a throw-it-together kind of cook. I don’t really follow recipes unless it’s something new I haven’t done before.”

She also does a lot of baking — especially around the holidays.

“I love to bake. Pretty much the whole month starting after Thanksgiving until Christmas I’m in full-time-baker mode. I usually make all my gifts for my family,” she said. “Baking is a science — it’s very measured and precise.”

But cooking is what’s in her heart — and she hopes there will be more of it in her future, too.

“I’ve always had a dream to open a bakery/coffee shop that serves lunch and breakfast. My goal is to do that someday when my kids are grown and out of college,” Anderson said.

In the meantime, she’ll continue trying out new recipes, sharing her homemade dishes and maybe winning competitions once in a while, too.

The best cooking advice, she said, is to follow your gut and take a risk now and then.

“Be as experimental as you’d like to be,” Anderson said. “Just try it and tweak it until it is good. Be adventurous.”

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