Big Red Chili Head: World champion wears cookoff title with pride

mtharp@mercedsunstar.comOctober 11, 2011 

By MIKE THARP mtharp@mercedsunstar.com

It's all in the chilies.

To win first place in a national chili cook-off, Merced resident John Jepson relied, as always, on the basic ingredient — the chili peppers that give the finished product its special taste.

He recently won the 2011 World's Championship Chili Cook-Off in Manchester, N.H., beating more than 130 other entrants. The International Chili Society-sanctioned cook-off judges chili in three categories: red (traditional red chili), chili verde (green chili) and salsa. Jepson's red chili category earned him $25,000.

"The secret is in the chili powder," says Jepson, a Modesto native. "Chili pepper is what gives it the flavor."

He keeps pods and powder in his freezer all winter, testing and tasting. "It's like a wine," he says of the chilies. "Every year is different."

Anybody can make hot chili, Jepson says, but not many can make flavorful chili. He and his wife, Dora, who is his main helper, have trekked to Hatch, N.M., where some of the biggest chili farmers live and where thousands descend for a Labor Day cook-off, for peppers.

He's included deer, buffalo, rattlesnake and rhino meat in his chili over the years, but now uses tri-tip almost exclusively. He cuts it in ½-inch cubes "so you're not getting a big mouthful of meat." And that also gives him an edge, he thinks, over cooks back East who can't access tri-tip.

Jepson started cooking chili in the early 1980s with his brother. His hobby has taken him to Hawaii, Colorado, Wyoming, Mexico and many other places. He qualified for the New Hampshire cook-off by winning a regional contest in Red Bluff in April.

In Winton, he's been planning director of the Central Valley Opportunity Center for 29 years — "about as long as I've been making chili."

Most of his friends have come from his hobby, which keeps him busy all winter. His hobby also makes his son happy.

Says Jepson, "He gets to eat the leftovers."

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John Jepson's Chili

Prep Time: 3 hours

This recipe is from John Jepson of Merced.

Serves: 6 to 8

3 pounds lean tri-tip, cut in 1/4-inch cubes, rinsed

1 1/2 cups chicken broth

1 cup beef broth

2 1/2 tablespoons hot New Mexico chili powder, divided use

2 chicken bullion cubes

6 ounces tomato sauce, divided use

3 tablespoons medium-hot New Mexico chili powder

4 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 1/2 tablespoons onion powder

2 teaspoons salt, divided use

3 tablespoons mild California chili powder

1 tablespoon cumin

2 teaspoons cornstarch

Cayenne, to taste

Set Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pan on medium-high heat and batch fry the tri-tip until light gray.

Once browned, add to the pot the 1 1/2 cups chicken broth, 1 cup beef broth, 2 tablespoons hot New Mexico chili powder, two chicken bullion cubes and 4 ounces tomato sauce and bring to a full simmer. Reduce heat and let cook for two hours or until meat is tender.

Add to the pot 3 tablespoons medium-hot New Mexico chili powder, 4 tablespoons chili powder, 1 tablespoon garlic powder, 1 1/2 tablespoons onion powder, 1 teaspoon salt and 2 ounces tomato sauce. Simmer on low for 30 minutes.

Now add to the pot 3 tablespoons mild California chili powder, 1/2 tablespoon hot New Mexico chili powder, 1 tablespoon cumin, 2 teaspoons cornstarch and 1 teaspoon salt. Continue to simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. Adjust to taste with cayenne, cumin and salt. Adjust thickness with chicken broth.

•  •  •

Corn bread

Chili calls for corn bread. This recipe is from "A New Turn in the South," by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, $35).

Serves: 8

2 cups white cornmeal

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon each powder and baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 cup whole milk

3/4 cup buttermilk

1 large egg

1/4 cup bacon fat

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a large bowl, mix together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, mix together the milk, buttermilk and egg. Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture and stir well to combine. Heat a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat and add the bacon fat. When the fat is hot (not smoking), add it to the batter and stir. Pour the batter into the cast-iron skillet and place in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the corn bread from the oven and let it cool slightly in the skillet, 15 to 20 minutes. Turn onto cutting board. Cool completely, then cut into wedges.

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