A Chili Contest, and the Other Gentian

I’m going to be 40 this year, and while I’ve heard of them, I have never met another Gentian. Until this week.

It all started on Monday afternoon. I got an email from a neighbor of mine, who happens to be the coordinator for the Chili Tasting fundraiser for the Chamber of Commerce. “Dear chefs,” it opened. I had seen the signs around town and wondered to myself how I might sign up to compete in this little event, but I had no recollection of actually doing so! The email gave me all the info I needed and asked everyone to confirm their participation. I waffled about whether to confess that I didn’t remember signing up, but I really wasn’t 100% sure I hadn’t, so I decided that rather than come off a little flaky, I would just confirm and start making plans to make chili.

My husband and I chuckled about it for a few days, and looked forward to an evening out with lots of chili, and free beer, and the lovely time we seem to have whenever we get out with our neighbors here in Katonah. On Thursday, the day of the event, I saw a list posted online of all the competitors. Now, the last name on the list was Gentian, but the last name was not mine. The chili had been named “Ridge Chili,” and my neighbor and I live on Ridge Street, so I assumed she’d given it that name since I hadn’t provided one. I was getting really confused, so I picked up the phone and called my neighbor. She was sure she had gotten an email from me, and she thought maybe the other name was my maiden name? Nope, I never changed my name, or emailed her. But the last name was also that of a chef at a local restaurant, so maybe it was somehow connected to him? We went around in circles a bit and had a good laugh about it, but I was still in for the evening’s fun. It turns out that Gentian is the first name of that chef, but he goes by John because it’s easier. There was an Illyrian king named Gentius many moons ago, and I know it’s used as a man’s name in that region of the world, so once we realized there really was another Gentian, it made sense. (I am named after the fabulous fringed gentian myself.) I met him that night. He didn’t seem nearly as blown away, I guess because he’s known others where he’s from, in Albania. I could not get over the fact that there was another Gentian who at least worked if not lived in this tiny town and we made up 2 of the 18 chili contestants! It’s also so funny to me that when I got the email mistakenly I just went with it. Most people probably would have responded to indicate there’d been some kind of mixup. My neighbor still thinks we talked about this and that’s part of how it happened, and it’s 100% possible. Because a chili cook-off is totally my jam.

And in the end, I came in a close 4th. They only announce the top 3, but because we stayed til the bitter end trying to finish the beer with a few fun people, I got the info. I feel like since I was the new kid, back in the corner, and I didn’t know many people, I’m not sure everyone even tried mine. Next year, the podium! At least I beat that other Gentian, and all the other restaurants that entered. The winner truly deserved it–they hunted and prepared their own venison and rabbit meat, and it was delicious! Also, they own an auto body in town and apparently it’s worth it to wreck your car so you can get them to fix it, and then they will invite you to their amazing Christmas party. We have 10 months to do this; I’m sure we can manage it!

Making excellent chili is not hard at all. I definitely riff on the recipe below depending on what I have on hand, how I’m feeling, and how it tastes. A tablespoon or so of unsweetened cocoa powder at the end gives it depth and smokiness if you feel it needs it.

Gentian’s Ridge Chili Recipe

Makes enough for 12-15 servings, depending how you eat it. In our house we love it over Annie’s Mac & Cheese, but it’s also great with just a big dollop of sour cream on top.

  • 3 cans black beans
  • 2 cans red kidney beans
  • 1 large can tomato puree
  • 1 can fire-roasted diced tomatoes with green chiles (I like Glen Muir)
  • half a red onion
  • Fresh tomatoes (optional)
  • 2 lbs. ground chuck (80%-90% lean)
  • 1 lb. Italian sausage (hot or sweet depending on your preference)
  • 3 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)
  1. Brown the ground beef in a frying pan over medium high heat.
  2. Once the meat is evenly browned, add spices.
  3. Add about 1/2 cup water (unless your meat has a high fat content and is sitting in liquid already), stir and allow water to mostly cook off. Add to crockpot.
  4. Cook sausages over medium high heat. Once the outside is somewhat evenly cooked, remove from pan one by one and cut up into small pieces and return to pan. When cooked through, add to crockpot.
  5. Add all canned ingredients to crockpot.
  6. Use a food processor (or mince yourself) to cut up the onion. I usually add a half pint of fresh grape tomatoes if I have them on hand or need to use up some that are getting less fresh. Add to crockpot.
  7. Add cocoa powder and/or additional spices to taste. More chili powder, some crushed red pepper flakes, etc.–you can get creative here but you shouldn’t need to in order for it to deliver.
  8. Allow crockpot to cook on high for 4-6 hours or low for 8-10. We cheat on this all the time, which is fine. The texture of the beans changes with cooking, and the flavors gel better over time, but if you’ve cooked the meat there’s no reason you can’t just dig in when you are hungry!

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