SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
Long, long ago in the faraway Kingdom of Pots and Pans, there was a great battle between the green chile army and the red chile army. It went on for centuries. Wise rulers, magicians and warlocks tried to settle the differences between the two, but alas, no one could.
Then one day in the usually peaceful hamlet of Durango, Colo., nestled in the San Juan Mountains, there was a decisive chili cook-off called “Once Upon a Snowdown.” Seventeen judges and hoards of hungry peasants armed with cups and plastic spoons and fueled with beer stormed the fairgrounds because there was no castle.
“Enough is enough!” the crowd roared.
It was true – there was more than enough bad red chili to feed the unwashed masses. And there was no vegetarian chili, which made the judges rejoice and shout, “Good!”
But the green chili, it was, by far, the fairest chili in the land. So it went fast.
Event organizer Greg Yucha estimated a crowd of 3,000 supported the popular chili cook-off and tasting, which kicked off at noon Saturday. By 2 p.m., when the winners were announced and more than $2,000 in donated cash and prizes from the local business community was distributed, more than $5,000 had been raised.
“That money will all go toward next year’s Snowdown celebration,” Yucha said.
Sandy and Ron Williams, of Farmington, carried off prizes in all categories.
“I don’t know why we had such a sweep, but we sure had fun,” Sandy Williams said.
Williams, and her husband, Ron, got hooked on chili cook-offs about five years ago in a chili-cooking contest sponsored by Farmington’s Chamber of Commerce.
Since then, they have entered about three chili cook-offs per year, including sanctioned events in Colorado and New Mexico.
The unofficial king and queen of the contest, the Williamses won the third place People’s Choice award for green chili and second place for red. From the judges, they received second place in the green chili category and shared first and third place awards for their red.
A refreshing, tomato-based salsa again won the judges’ first place award for the second consecutive year, Williams said.
“It’s a traditional, fresh recipe that we throw in the blender. It always turns out well. The secret is adding a little bit of tequila,” she said, crediting the tip to a customer at the Farmington bank where she worked.
Williams, who accepted the armful of awards, calls herself the “sous chef” of the two-person team.
“My husband is the real cook. We have fun at these events cooking together,” Williams said. “We’re always making a pot of chili when we camp... When the crowd is off for the day on horseback, Ron hangs back. He always has dinner ready. He’s the camp cook.”
Williams credits their success in part to the ingredients her husband chooses.
“We use the freshest of Hatch green chiles and Chimayo reds,” Williams said.
This year, the couple added lean, ground buffalo to their red recipe.
One of the secrets for good green chili is browning the pork until it is almost caramelized, Williams said. That seals in the juices and makes for a greater depth of flavor.
“We also add tomatillos and cilantro to our green, which gives it a touch of citrus, almost vinegary feel,” she said. “We offset that with a hearty chicken base.”
First place judges’ choice for green chili went to Charles Rigby of Durango. It was Rigby’s second successive year to walk away with the top honor in the green chili category.
Winning “is a crap shoot at best,” Rigby said.
His green chili recipe was similar to last year’s, he said, but with a few slight differences that included starting with a flour and butter roux to improve the thickness and texture.
“Getting green chili to thicken is a little tough, so I changed my cooking method a little,” Rigby said.
Rigby does not use pork. The amped-up flavor comes from hearty chicken thighs.
“I also use fresh cilantro and fresh oregano,” he said.
For Durangoan Jimmer Moore, the chili cook-off is a creative, family affair.
Moore entered two salsas – a traditional, showcasing tomatoes and “a few tomatillos to give it a citrus twang,” and a festive kiwi and pomegranate fruit salsa that was a tasty departure from the majority offered at the Saturday event.
Moore credits the resourcefulness of his wife, Melody, who gathered a summer’s bounty of leftover kiwis. His sons, 16-year-old twins Robert and Westly, then searched the Internet for a good fruit salsa recipe.
Moore tweaked the recipe to create a balanced blend of fruit and veggies that earned recognition from some of the judges.
“You eat with your eyes first,” Melody Moore said of the colorful salsa of leftover fruit.
A total of 24 red or green chilis and 12 salsas were entered into the contest. Ingredients, textures and combinations varied considerably, prompting some judges to comment about the wide range of recipes.
“I like my chili to have a hearty consistency,” cook-off judge Sue Bucher said. “Hearty is what you want on a cold, wintry day ... If you want watery, eat soup.”
Judge Jerry Schaerer, who helped calculate the points in each category, noted how close the point totals were among the winners.
“I like it when the ingredients are well-integrated and when no one ingredient overpowers,” he said, when asked about his preferences.
So where did the judges agree?
All declared the green chilis the overall winners over the reds.
And that’s no fairy tale.