If you’re going to judge a chili contest, it helps to have a ringer show you the ropes.
Lucky for me, longtime North Fork chef and Times Review cooking columnist John Ross was one of my fellow judges at Spirit’s Promise Horse Rescue Program’s inaugural chili cook-off on Saturday.
The event was to benefit the nonprofit’s effort to provide equine therapy to veterans. Guests paid $20 and got to taste 13 different varieties of chili made by veterans and law enforcement organizations as well as supporters of Spirit’s Promise.
Faced with a baker’s dozen of meat combinations — those made with proteins ranging from venison to chorizo to veal to turkey to your standard ground beef — it’s easy to get overwhelmed. You may find yourself succumbing to palate fatigue or forgetting entirely whose recipe you just tasted. My anxiety over the task was not helped by the fact that, inexplicably, I chose to wear a white sweater to the event.
But if you are ever in a position to discern the best chili, be it Texas-style or made with Argentine sausage and chimichurri sauce, here is a simple rubric suggested by Mr. Ross to find a winner: rate by taste, texture and appearance. Give each entry a score from 1 to 10 in each category and tally the three ratings for the final score.
Although I consider myself an amateur arbiter of taste at best, I didn’t hesitate when asked to support this admirable North Fork organization last week.
The Baiting Hollow ranch provides a home for horses that are abused, unwanted or too old to work and gives them a new life as therapy horses.
At the Sound Avenue property, founder Marissa Striano refers to the 26 horses as healers and teachers. The four-acre property is also home to donkeys, goats and chickens. It is open for tours on weekends and by appointment during the week.
The nonprofit works with eight local veterans organizations to help returning vets cope with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. For one, horses are non-judgmental beings, and learning to restrain an animal that weighs about a ton can restore a traumatized person’s sense of control.
“We love to give back,” said Lindsay Ekizian, president of the Spirit’s Promise board and the event’s organizer. “We love working with the community. We feel the veterans deserve the utmost respect.”
As in most charitable endeavors, Ms. Ekizian noted that staffers and volunteers at her organization get plenty back in return. The organization also works with Autism Speaks, Aid for the Developmentally Disabled and other groups.
“The connection they make with the horses when they are able to let their guard down? It’s incredible,” she said.
Now back to the chili.
Using Mr. Ross’ guidelines, the judges, who also included veteran advocate Steve Castleton, easily chose the top finishers. But the hardest part was sending the other worthy contestants home empty-handed.
“We had a great display of culinary skill and passion,” Mr. Ross, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran himself, told the crowd of more than 100 gathered in the Baiting Hollow horse rescue operation’s event barn. “Everybody should be number one in a way. They were all delicious.”
The clear winner was Mark Freeman, a home cook from Patchogue, and his mixture of ground beef, ground pork, veal and chorizo. (Pro tip: A variety of meat makes for an excellent appearance.) Mr. Freeman represented the Louisiana law enforcement organization Back the Blue of Baton Rouge.
Some of Mr. Freeman’s secrets included blanching fresh plum tomatoes instead of using canned tomatoes and opting for real garlic and onions over their powdered forms.
The added effort paid off.
An unexpected consequence of all those slow cookers filled with chili? More leftovers than the chili-stuffed guests and cooks could handle. So organizers decided to donate the remaining food to United Veterans Beacon House in Riverhead, an organization that provides shelter to homeless veterans.
True to the mission of Spirit’s Promise, it was a total win-win for all involved.
To learn more about that mission and other events, visit spiritspromiserescue.org.
Top photo: The author at Spirit’s Promise Horse Rescue Program’s first chili cook-off Saturday at the Baiting Hollow ranch. (Credit: John Ross)