Halloween recipe variations

On Monday we had our 5th annual chili cook-off at work. It’s a Halloween tradition! It’s also one of my favorite days of the year (maybe second to the annual holiday potluck) and I’m happy to say that even though it was a lot of work it turned out really well. Due to being on the Nutrisystem diet since Labor Day I didn’t get a chance to make any test batches of chili before the cook-off. What a shame! So on Sunday night I simply combined a couple of my favorite old recipes, crossed my fingers, and hoped for a decent outcome. I figured mixing and matching successful recipes couldn’t go wrong! In order to please several non-carnivores at work I promised to make something that was vegetarian friendly. I started with my vegetarian chili recipe, but substituted the spices from my Cincinnati style chili that I made for last year’s cook-off. To my surprise it was absolutely delicious, and actually came in fourth place out of 16 chilis in the popular vote. So in the spirit of Halloween, making a Frankenstein’s monster-style unholy mashup using pieces from different chili recipes can result in something better than the sum of its parts!

Speaking of unholy mashups, the pumpkin bread I made for the chili cook-off got a similar treatment. I originally planned to make a sheet cake, and I even bought some new Halloween sprinkles to decorate it, but some of my co-workers requested pumpkin bread instead. On the plus side it’s easier to throw together, and I already had a can of pumpkin puree in my cupboard so that’s one less ingredient I had to purchase! But which of my favorite recipes to use? The one I posted in September was the best pumpkin bread I’ve ever tasted, but when I tried something different a couple of weeks later I got even better feedback from the taste testers. What a conundrum! In the end I used the recipe from September (mostly so I could avoid buying buttermilk which I never managed to use all of before it spoils), but with a couple of key changes. First of all, I substituted half of the white sugar for light brown sugar for a richer flavor. But more importantly I used a different spice combination:

2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp salt

The result was absolutely incredible! Not only did my co-workers gobble it up, but I loved it too. I’ll have to remember that for next year. The moral of today’s story is that experimental cooking can sometimes turn out even better than you could possibly imagine. So be brave and try something new! I am going to try and keep that in mind with the rest of my holiday baking. ‘Tis the season to be bold!

Second Halloween weekend

The second weekend of Halloween celebrations actually included Halloween, but it started a few days before. On Wednesday the 28th I made my batch of chili for the cook-off at work on Friday. Not only would the chili taste better after spending some time in the fridge, but I had signed up to bring a cake to the cook-off as well and I didn’t want to have to scramble to make both items Thursday night. (I posted this year’s chili cook-off recipe over the weekend if you’re interested.) On Thursday the 29th I started setting up for the annual chili cook-off at work the next day. One of my co-workers helped me put festive tablecloths on all of the tables so that we wouldn’t make as much of a mess. Also, we had to procure some extra power strips so that all of the Crockpots could be plugged in to keep the chili warm. We had a record thirteen entries this year so we actually reserved a second conference room just to accommodate that many Crockpots. Then when I got home that night I whipped up my favorite chocolate sheet cake after I got home from work. I added some Halloween sprinkles to match the occasion because otherwise it would have been just a boring (but delicious) brown cake. Friday the 30th was the chili cook-off which is always a really busy day for me. Every year I think, “I’ll be able to get some work done before lunch.” But that never happens. Between organizing all of the items everyone brings in, fielding questions from participants, and fending off hungry vultures before the cook-off actually starts, I’m always swamped. And after lunch I’m exhausted! But it’s worth it.

By the time the weekend rolled around I desperately wanted a break, but I had a lot of events planned. On Halloween morning I drove to Laguna Niguel for the Grab the Swag 10K (my second of three Halloween-themed races). According to my car it was only 52 deg when I got there so I was excited to run in some pleasant weather for a change! The race was in Laguna Niguel Regional Park and it was mostly on dirty paths. My poor running shoes got really dirty, but I enjoyed the race. When I got home I turned on the Rugby World Cup finals that I DVRed that morning. It was New Zealand vs. Australia and I was rooting for the All Blacks, of course. And they won! That was fun to watch. Then at 12:30 the Florida vs. Georgia game came on. This season has been a bit of a surprise for Gator fans. We didn’t expect much, but the results have been much better than anyone predicted. Besides a loss to LSU (by only a touchdown) a couple of weeks earlier, every other game has been a win. Go Gators! I was pretty nervous watching them play Georgia because the Bulldogs were very highly ranked at the beginning of the season. But it turns out that they are underperforming as much as the Gators are exceeding expectations this year. Despite the Florida quarterback not being that great (Our first string QB was suspended for a year after he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Oops.), the Gators won 27-3. That was really exciting. There are two more conference games this year so the SEC East championship is in sight. Let’s hope they can keep it up! I have to admit that I spent the rest of Halloween being pretty lazy. I was invited to go trick or treating with some friends and their kids that night, but I was just too exhausted by the time dusk rolled around. So instead I stayed on my couch and watched “The Simpsons” Treehouse of Horror episodes, Wholloween (scary “Doctor Who” episodes), and “Game of Thrones.” An enjoyable holiday evening.

On Sunday November 1st I had another race. Ever since October started my brain somehow thinks that two days in a weekend equals two chances to run races. I am completely nuts. When I first found out about the Dinosaur Dash in Tustin the day after Halloween I thought it was a great idea. They had a 5K and 10K, and I figured a 5K would be enjoyable after the 10K on Halloween. However, after doing some more research I discovered that the 10K started at 7:15 AM and the 5K started at 8:30 AM. Then I remembered that Daylight Savings Time started overnight and that meant the sun would be coming up around 6 AM rather than 7 AM. The 7:15 AM 10K was going to be much more pleasant so I registered for it instead. Two 10Ks in one weekend. Didn’t I tell you I was nuts? I’m glad I did it, though. Due to a variety of factors (weather, work, holidays, etc.) I haven’t been running much during the week so these weekend races are helping me maintain some semblance of an exercise routine. Getting 12.4 miles of running in over the weekend was definitely beneficial. I will dedicate a post to my myriad of fall races soon. Let’s just say there are a lot of them. The rest of November 1st was spent doing things around the house. I made a lasagna to feed my co-workers on Tuesday (more on that later), roasted vegetables for my lunches, and did as many chores as possible in preparation for my Disney World vacation this week. I should have gone to work to make up a few of the hours I’m going to miss while I’m gone, but that didn’t happen. I was lazy instead. I needed the rest for more crazy days to come!

Cincinnati style chili (2015 chili cook-off recipe)

“Between the chili cook-off and doing some actual work, I was exhausted when I left in the afternoon! But it was worth it to see all of my co-workers so happy. Sometimes it feels like we don’t get enough recognition for all of the amazing things we do, so something as simple as a chili cook-off really lifts our spirits.”
11/01/14 webpage post

On Friday we had our annual chili cook-off at work. It’s one of my favorite days of the year. Good food, happy co-workers, and Halloween decorations. What could be better? It’s always so much fun. I think I said it best last year when I mentioned that we don’t feel like we get a lot of credit for all of our accomplishments. We really need morale events like the yearly chili cook-off to keep from burning out. It doesn’t cost our program anything and everyone loves it. The participants are always so grateful that we have it, and it’s a fantastic way to celebrate Halloween at work. This year I did something a little bit different with my cook-off entry and made it inspired by of Cincinnati chili. Usually Cincinnati chili is served over spaghetti, but I skipped that part because it didn’t really make sense for a buffet-style meal (or for folks cutting carbs). Instead I simply threw in some of the typical Cincinnati chili spices – cinnamon, allspice, and cocoa powder. It was delicious! I had to make a couple of batches to get the amounts of all the spices just right, but I think this recipe is a winner. I didn’t win the chili cook-off (that honor always goes to one of the spicier chilis), but I still loved the unique flavor. It’s just different enough from my traditional chili for me to call this a new recipe!

INGREDIENTS:
1 1/2 lb lean ground beef (preferably grass-fed)
1 medium sweet onion, diced
1 medium bell pepper, diced
2 Tbsp chili powder
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp oregano
1 1/2 tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 Tbsp cocoa powder
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 cans (14.5 oz each) diced tomatoes
2 cans (8 oz each) tomato sauce
1 can (15 oz) reduced sodium black beans, drained and rinsed (optional)
1 can (15 oz) reduced sodium red kidney beans, drained and rinsed (optional)

DIRECTIONS:
In a small bowl, combine the spices (chili powder, cumin, paprika, oregano, allspice, cinnamon, salt, garlic powder, and black pepper) and cocoa powder and set aside. This will save you time and trouble later. In a large pot (I use my aptly-named 5 qt chili pot that I love) cook the ground beef, onion, and bell pepper until the meat is no longer pink. Add the bowl of spice mix from earlier and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, diced tomatoes, and tomato sauce and stir to combine. If you are adding beans you can throw them in now too. (I left the beans out of my chili cook-off batch so you can skip them if you want.) Bring the chili too a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer. Put the lid on the pot, but leave it propped open a bit so steam can escape. Cook for at least an hour, stirring about every 15 minutes. Enjoy!

Based on Half Baked Harvest’s Healthier One Pot Cincinnati Chicken Chili.