Showdown Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ: Bold Flavors from Wild Cooking Contests

Showdown Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ: Bold Flavors from Wild Cooking Contests

by Jenn de la Vega


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Showdown Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ: Bold Flavors from Wild Cooking Contests by Jenn de la Vega

If ever there was a cookbook on a particular food from a certain region, most people would associate competition-worthy barbecue from a Southern chef. Chef and caterer Jenn de la Vega is out to change your mind about that. Known on the competition circuit and for her blog, Randwiches, Jenn creates uniquely flavorful and approachable barbecue that belongs at any Smorgasburg.

Make eccentric, yet mouth-watering barbecue with or without a smoker, including the specialty side dishes, sauces and pickles that go along with them. This competition cook goes one step further to provide recipes for what to do with the leftovers, too. This book has 100 recipes and 60 photos.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781624143762
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 05/02/2017
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 7.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Jenn de la Vega is a private chef and caterer, as well as the founder of Randwiches, a curated food blog. Jenn has participated in many Brooklyn-based food competitions, including the 2014 Brooklyn Chili Takedown and won The 2013 Brooklyn Bacon Takedown and 2012 Project Parlor Summer BBQ Competition. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Read an Excerpt

- Showdown - Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ

Bold Flavors from Wild Cooking Contests

By Jenn de la Vega

Page Street Publishing Co.

Copyright © 2017 Jenn de la Vega
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62414-397-7



Before we get started, this isn't an ordinary cookbook of winning recipes. In fact, many of them were losers. Therein lies the beauty of innovation! I've taken everything I learned and transformed them into winners. In this chapter, I will expound upon a particular frame of mind, tools and supplies that have helped me throughout my culinary journey.


"There is something about people wanting to watch competition," says Matt Timms, founder of the Takedowns.

Matt was a self-described dilettante, hosting events in Brooklyn while trying to act, make films and create art. A constant was that he always wanted to have friends over at his house and "be the center of attention."

"I love chili; used to make it all the time," he explained. He redeemed cigarette tabs for a copy of Marlboro Chili Roundup Flavor It Up: 50 Winning Recipes One Burning Question — which Matt eventually cooked in its entirety. The appeal of chili is its abundance: when you were low on cash, it could last you a week.

Matt loved chili so much, he joined the International Chili Society (ICS) to judge competitions. He took issue with the strict adjudication and started throwing minicompetitions at home. Later, Matt brought the chili cook-off idea to a trivia night at Bar Matchless in Brooklyn.

"I wanted chili to be 'anything goes,'" he declared. No measuring the cube size of the meat or banning beans. At the Takedowns, Matt focused on amateur cooks for their enthusiasm and range, which reminded him of the camaraderie of the parties he threw. It was about showcasing these cooks in an unpretentious way.

With no-holds-barred, the only element Matt insisted he control was the metal music playing while the audience sampled every chili creation. When the Takedowns expanded to other dishes like mac 'n cheese, salsa and bacon, Matt quit his temp job to run these contests full time around the country.

In fourteen years, Matt has seen six people get married and has hosted events in San Francisco, Austin and Minneapolis. He sums up that the competitors "give such a sh*t," in their cooking and bring heart and soul to the table.


I am so unreasonably motivated when people think I can't do something. Even more so when I'm told a food idea doesn't fit into a traditional paradigm of cuisine.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines competition in three common ways:

1. The activity or condition of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others.

2. An event or contest in which people take part in order to establish superiority or supremacy in a particular area.

3. The person or people over whom one is attempting to establish one's supremacy or superiority; the opposition.

The act, event and competitors are all a part of this. Early on in my cooking career, I took losses harder because I was acting alone and had not yet connected with my rivals. Later on when we became friends, we consoled, we commiserated, we lost together. The competitive experience soon became cooperative. Camaraderie is what keeps me coming back, to see what my friends are doing and to catch up.

I'm competitive because I believe in the possibility that I can win. Sure, I could lose, but I think the idea of winning far outweighs the fear of defeat. When I do lose, I am inconsolable for a short period of time. I already know what went wrong and am already calculating in my head how I will do it better next time.

Another definition of competition is the ecological battle for natural resources, like water, food and space. At the root of it all is survival. Many people compete in formal contests or in everyday life to gain an advantage, be it monetary or social. I will admit, I've been lured by the glory of winning. Having my photo on the Internet with a giant trophy feels pretty good. Prizes like free knives, pans and a year's supply of bacon are great, but the outcome was far more impactful on my life's path. For me, the knowledge of how to be successful was an advantage. The repetition of entering and preparing for these culinary bouts gives me structure. I didn't know what I wanted out of a food career when I started to compete in the Takedowns and other local cook-offs. Losing drove me to hone my skills and refine my recipes.

Winning has its own challenges. What exactly does one do with a year's supply of bacon? How can you top your last winning dish?

You don't have to enter cook-offs to innovate and experience the rush of excitement. Ultimately, I think a little contest between friends is healthy. What new foods are we going to experience? How will our experiments move our ideas of food forward?


Late one night in my Greenpoint apartment, Matt Kiser said to me, "You know, you could do this."

I was puzzled. "Do what?"

"This grilled-cheese thing! It could be a zine, a food cart and ..." he went on. I zoned out on the rest of it because up until that point I never considered an actual cooking career. We were cleaning up the empty beer bottles and plates from my latest grilled-cheese night. I was working at a small music promotion company and moonlighting as a TV researcher. My Sunday night grilled-cheese parties were a relief from the New York hustle, a time for my friends from both worlds to get together and veg out. I hated serving and eating the same sandwich twice. Every Sunday for two years, I cranked out odd and interesting interpretations of grilled cheese.

Some of my creations were queso de mano and pico de gallo toasts, Wenslydale and cranberry, as well as truffled robiola and chive. As time went on, I needed to learn about more cheeses. I applied to be a cave intern at Murray's Cheese Shop and began reading The Cheese Primer by Steve Jenkins. Matt's comment was a push in the right direction, and I quit my office jobs later that year.

After I finished reading about cheese, I had my nose stuck in The Escoffier Cookbook: A Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery for two years to keep my mind harnessed to cooking techniques. Along the way I started blogging. It came naturally to chronicle my food adventures in this manner ever since Mr. Hill assigned "the sandwich project" in seventh grade. We were tasked to write out explicit instructions on how to make a sandwich, from which face to apply the mayo, to its physical assemblage. If you succeeded, Mr. Hill would have to eat the sandwich, if not, you had to eat it. Many of my cohorts failed and attempted to spike their recipes with "gross" combinations like anchovy and peanut butter (strangely enough, together in a winning recipe, Whose Bacon? Nacho Bacon!. To be safe, I went for a simple ham sandwich with mayo, lettuce and tomato. I even made him smooth out the air pocket in the plastic baggie so that the sandwich would last until lunch hour. Little did he know how significant this skill became for me.

I scoured Craigslist for cooking jobs. I lacked enough experience on paper or was too afraid to apply. There was just one listing that didn't request a resume or photo. (Ew.) It simply asked, "Please send us a paragraph on why you'd like to work at a wine bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn." Cracking my knuckles, I quickly responded with my lack of experience but need for structure to support all of my reading at home and cheese internship.

Honestly, I was shocked I got a response.

Walking in to Tini Wine Bar was a dream. The walls matched the dress I was wearing. I brought a wheel of Mt. Tam cheese from Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco, not knowing that Monica Byrne and Leisah Swenson were from San Francisco. I trailed Monica in the kitchen for two weeks before she left me alone for dinner service.

I stayed with my "Moms" for a couple years as they expanded the restaurant, renamed it Home/Made and moved it down the street. We catered weddings with me in the kitchen, Monica arranging the flowers and Leisah orchestrating the layout. I remember overhearing one catering consult, "Oh! Jenn's Filipino; she can make lumpia." I poked my head out and stared as if beaming the message, "What?! No I can't ..." We did our research and pulled off a Filipino wedding menu for 150 people. Even the father of the bride visited me in the kitchen to thank me. It was one of those moments that made all the panic worth it.

I like to challenge myself. Even now, working in an office enviornment at Flipboard, I revel in cooking limitations. Can I make a gourmet lunch for myself with just a microwave? I'm not competing with anyone but myself in these situations. Personal challenges jumpstart my brain, help me keep my skills in check and push me to learn something new.


We don't talk about failure enough. All of the advice in this book is lessons I've learned from attempting to fry grit cakes on-site at an outdoor venue with no running water or transporting gallons of chili in a New York City cab. The portions were originally made for large crowds and for competition. I've scaled them down for your convenience and to enjoy at home.

You will also find the extremes of meat heaven and restrictive veganism. For a couple of years, I would deliver random sandwiches to hungry worker bees all over New York City. My Randwiches project had no menu and was a creative exercise in catering to a variety of diets, palates and allergies. I got to explore my city and meet many lovely people who love sandwiches. Some of my best ideas are in this collection.

Before you get started, here is some advice for how to use this book.

1. Read the recipes all the way through before shopping or beginning to cook.

2. Vegetables are to be washed in cold water before cutting. Herbs are unbundled and soaked in at least two changes of water to remove sand or grit. Mushrooms should be cleaned with a dry brush or paper towel.

3. Assume that I'm using kosher salt, unless otherwise noted.

4. Dry beans are to be soaked and drained. That liquid is not accounted for in the final recipe.

5. Mincing is chopping finely with a knife. Grating is with a cheese grater. Microplaning is super fine grating.

6. Sautéing and browning assume that you are stirring the food every couple of minutes to prevent sticking, unless otherwise noted.

7. Whisking requires quick incorporation. Folding is more delicate; you must run a spatula around the edges of a mix and then lift from underneath.

8. Anything to do with pickles requires sanitized jars. Steam glass jars and metal lids for two minutes or dip them in a hot water bath before using.

9. Roux is a French paste for thickening sauces. In the case that you do not have flour or butter, a mix of 1:2 cornstarch and cold water will also work.

10. My food processor holds five cups (1.2 L). Consider that if you have a smaller one! You will need to blend multiple batches.

I develop recipes as a remix of something that I know already. Always start with the ingredients and all of the different ways you can prepare them. Once you know the methods, compare all of the flavors that could go with it as well as benefit from the same type of cooking. Explore the overlaps.

What I want to teach you is that you don't just make a recipe and then be done with it. Use what you've learned to apply it and combine with other dishes.


Bring it to a Boil

My roommate Steven Valentino encouraged me to enter an amateur cook-off called the Chili Takedown in 2007. It was hosted by Matt Timms at the now closed Mo Pitkins in the Lower East Side. There were no prerequisites except a fifteen dollar entry fee. I puffed up my chest and was confident my mole chili was going to knock everyone's socks off.

I vividly remember panicking that my stockpot didn't have a lid while calling a car service to drive me and my friend Yan Yan from Greenpoint. Fifteen cocktail tables were arranged in a half circle with foil trays and Sterno cans. We observed the scene as other teams unpacked their streaming concoctions. There was Ida, who always had Star Trek–themed dishes, and Tony Santoro, who I later learned worked on lighting for Sesame Street. When the doors opened, a horde entered, grabbing our small plastic cups of chili samples. I was getting nervous because my Sternos were not hot enough to reduce my very thin looking chili. After the event ended, Yan consoled me as I stirred the leftovers sadly. Everyone else's trays were empty. Matt Timms knew it was my first time, and he encouraged me to try again.

I totally did.


• My first chili was very thin. Doubling a known recipe does not always mean doubling the volume and flavor.

• Consider your containers when transporting liquids. Make sure they have lids! If they are hot, you'll need insulation, like dish towels, and the right tools to serve.

• The sting of losing my first contest was even stronger when I realized how much money I spent on ingredients. Budget and track expenses. Even if you win a cash prize, it may not feel like it if you spent too much on fancy ingredients.


MAKES: 4 servings

TOTAL TIME: 5 hours, 30 minutes

I'm really not sure where I got the confidence to enter a chili cook-off. I'd never even made a chili from scratch. Most had been glammed up from a can. In my head it wasn't impossible, and that was an excellent (maybe dangerous) place to start.

What would win? It was a great question, but perhaps I had not done enough research to know the right answers. At the time, steak was the answer. Who doesn't love a steak? Well, in chili situations, I learned the hard way that steak should be cooked quickly or forever. Here is an adjusted recipe for my very first competition chili. The marinated steak is an umami bomb on top of hearty, tomato-y chili.

1 lb (0.5 kg) skirt steak
1 tbsp (15 ml) soy sauce
1 lemon, juiced and zested
2 cloves garlic, grated and divided
2 tbsp (30 ml) olive oil, divided


¼ cup (40 g) fresh cilantro
2 tbsp (22 g) sesame seeds
1 medium onion, diced
1 (14-oz [415-ml]) can whole peeled tomatoes
1 jalapeño, seeded and diced
2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce from a can, chopped
1 quart (950 ml) beef broth
1 tbsp (10 g) corn meal
1 tbsp (7 g) cocoa powder
1 (16-oz [475-ml]) can cooked pinto beans
1 tsp (5 g) salt, plus more
½ cup (120 ml) sour cream

Marinate the steak in the soy sauce, lemon juice and zest, and half of the garlic and half of the olive oil for at least 4 hours or up to 24 in the refrigerator. Remove from the fridge 30 minutes before cooking.

After washing the cilantro, cut off the dirty root ends and discard any discolored leaves. Chop the stems like they are chives and keep the leaves whole. Set aside.

Toast the sesame seeds in a dry pot on medium heat for 2 minutes. Once they release their oils and become a light brown color, add the onion with the other tablespoon (15 ml) of olive oil. Sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. Once they are browned, add the tomato, the rest of the garlic, jalapeño and chipotles. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer on medium-low heat for 30 minutes. Break the tomatoes up with a wooden spoon. When the tomatoes have reached a dark red hue, stir in the beef broth. Continue to simmer for another 30 minutes. Add the cornmeal and cocoa powder.

Rinse the pinto beans in cold water and drain, make sure none of the slimy can liquid sticks to them. Fold the beans into the chili with a teaspoon (5 g) of salt, place a cover on the pot and reduce the heat to low. If the mix is still bubbling, move the pot halfway off the heat.

Prepare a grill pan or cast iron skillet on high heat for 10 minutes. Cook the skirt steak on each side for 4 minutes or until a thermometer reads 145°F (63°C) for medium doneness. When I flip steaks, I like to pour in the marinade for extra drama. Once done, let the steak rest on a cool plate or pan with high sides. You don't want to lose all of that precious juice.

When the chili is ready to go, taste it and salt as desired. Stir in the cilantro stems before serving. Garnish each bowl with sliced steak, cilantro leaves and a dollop of sour cream. Congratulate yourself, because this is just the beginning of your chili adventure.


Excerpted from - Showdown - Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ by Jenn de la Vega. Copyright © 2017 Jenn de la Vega. Excerpted by permission of Page Street Publishing Co..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 8

Basics 11

An Interview with Matt Timms 11

What is Competition? 11

Personal Challenges 12

About the Recipes 13

Bring it To a Boil 17

Holy Mole! Steak Chili 18

Geri Halliwell, You Know, Ginger Spice! Chili 20

Cocoa Coriander Chili 22

Dirty South Biscuits 'n Gravy 25

Dirty South Pot Pie 26

Advieh Bolognese 28

The Smokemonster* 29

Leftover Chili Casserole 31

Lazy French Onion Soup 32

Black Bean Soup 34

Hot Ham Water Dashi 35

Hot Ham Water Ramen 36

Tonkotsu Broth 37

Nanay's Arroz Caldo* 39

Roll With It 41

Fuzzy Five-Spice Meatballs 42

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Pasta 45

Black Bean and Pepita Balls 47

Cherry Chocolate Meatballs 48

Gimme Kibbeh 51

20K Meatballs Under the Sea 52

Meatballin' Tribute 54

Chinese Sausage 55

Chorizo 56

Longaniza 58

Spicy Longaniza Champorado 59

Winner, Winner, Bacon Dinner 61

How to Cook Bacon 62

Bacon Vinaigrette 63

Fatty Fat Tortillas 64

Bacon Chili Oil 67

Whose Bacon? Nacho Bacon!* 68

Shumai, Oh My 71

Crispy Bacon Jianbing 72

Make Your Own Damn Bacon 75

Bacon Tartine 76

Peanut Curry Mazemen 78

Homemade Tasso 79

Light It Up 81

Smoking Vegetables and Fruits 82

Came Asada* 83

Pulled Chicken Mole* 84

Chicken Mole Torta* 87

Grilled Flakey Flatbread* 88

Roasted Stuffed Poblano Flatbread* 91

Poblano Fried Rice 92

Brooklyn Bulgogi* 93

Korean Sub* 95

Crunchy Elote 96

Korean Dip 98

Miso Curry Onigiri 99

"I Like It Shallot" Burger 100

Baa-daass Burger 102

Black Bean Burgers* 105

Adobo Wangs* 106

Buttermilk Chicken Skewers 109

Whole Lemongrass Chicken* 110

Grilled Stone Fruit 113

Crowd Control 115

"Fries" 116

Cinnamon Black Beans* 117

Herb Slaw* 118

Potato Salad with Wasabi Sesame Seeds* 120

Bitters Melon Salad 121

Chopped Chickpea Sandwich 123

Watermelon!* 124

Spiced Ham Butter 127

Wild Mushrooms 128

Mushroom Hoagie 129

Hen of the Woods Bouquets 130

Wonton Fruit Cup 133

Lumpia Chips* 134

Miso Gritty 135

Lob Gnarleys* 136

Devilish Old Bae 139

Wham Bam Thank You Lamb!* 140

Grand Finale Finishers 143

Advieh Spice Mix 144

Chicken Dust 144

Miso Pesto 145

Ancho Achuete Oil 145

Whole Grain Mustard 146

Pickled Chive Buds* 147

Mustard Crème 149

Chermoula* 150

Cher-meow-la 151

Kimchi Apples* 151

Whipped Ssamjang* 152

Savory Yogurt* 152

Meyer Lemon Mayo 153

Toasted Sesame LMAO' 153

Romantic Romesco 154

Black Bean Spread 154

Miso Dressing 155

Nuoc Mam Cham* 155

Dandelion Pesto 156

Sauerkraut 157

Tomato Salt 158

Sweet & Savory Surrenders 161

Chocolate Bark 162

(Not Sorry) Berry Shortcakes 165

Thiiiick Apple Pancakes 166

My Favorite Cheeses 168

Vegan Whipped Cheese 169

Labneh 171

Mozzarella Purses 172

Grown-Up Handi-Snacks 173

Shropshire Blue Queso Fundido 174

Chèvre Brûlée 177

Pantry Items 178

Tools and Travel Kit 180

Staying Organized 182

Menu and Party Ideas 185

Homework 185

Acknowledgments 185

About the Author 187

Index 188

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