A chilihead's credentials come in a bowl of red


THERE ARE, according to Bruce Pinnell, about four mistakes folks commonly make when they cook chili at home. First, they don't use the correct cuts of meat. Second, they cook in the wrong kind of pan. Third, they are too conservative with the chili pepper and too liberal with the tomato sauce. And finally, if they choose to have beans with their chili -- an ingredient of considerable debate among chili aficionados -- they cook the beans and meat in the same pot.

Pinnell told me this recently as we spooned down some delicious "bowls of red" in Turtle Bay restaurant in Hunt Valley.

By day Pinnell is a corporate computer guy, vice president in charge of technological services at PHH Corp., the Hunt Valley corporate service outfit that is in the process of being acquired by HFS Inc., a New Jersey conglomerate. But after-hours, Pinnell is a chilihead, a longtime contestant in chili-cooking contests and the "chief executive pepper" of Big Bruce's Gunpowder Foods, a small business he set up to sell chili-making kits and peppery spices throughout the United States.

As we ate lunch I looked at a trophy -- a silver chili pepper encased in clear plastic -- that Pinnell recently picked up when his chili mix won first place in a national competition for commercial mixes -- the Fiery Food Challenge sponsored by Chile Pepper magazine of Fort Worth, Texas.

Five years ago, Pinnell, who was born in West Point, N.Y., and now lives in Fallston, was declared the best male chili cook in the state of Texas, beating some 540 other cooks at a cook-off in San Marcos. Winning a Texas chili contest is like winning a Maryland crab-cake contest. It is the stuff serious bragging rights are made of.

But for me, Pinnell's most impressive credential was the bowl of chili sitting on the table in front of me. It was chili that Pinnell had made with Turtle Bay's chef, Paul Beaulieu. Chef Beaulieu uses Pinnell's seasonings to make the chili that the restaurant serves at $5 a bowl. But sometimes, to Pinnell's chagrin, the chef adds a few more spices to the mix.

The bowl I tasted, however, was pure Pinnell-style. It was a mixture of tender bits of beef with peppery spices that came together in pleasant harmony. It was a chili that made my mouth both mildly hot and wildly happy.

I wanted to know how I could make this stuff at home. As I spooned his chili down, I listened to Pinnell list the common chili-cooking mistakes and tell how I could avoid them. First, he said, don't use hamburger as the meat in your chili. Hamburger is too fatty. The best cut of meat for chili, he said, is one called "mock tender." But mock tender is hard to find, he added. So he suggests getting either top round, bottom round or sirloin tip -- cuts that are easier to find and perfectly acceptable for chili making.

Have the butcher trim the fat off these cuts, he said, and grind them using the "chili grind" plate, a setting on the meat grinder that area butchers are well-acquainted with.

Next, he said, you should never use a frying pan to cook the meat. Frying pans, he said, are too wide, and cook unevenly. Moreover, all the aroma and flavors escape from the pan, making your house smell good but your meat taste lousy.

The ideal meat-cooking pot, he said, is narrow, coated and has a tight lid. This pot is no wider than a stove-top burner. When Pinnell cooks chili at home, he uses a narrow, coated aluminum pot, with the lid on. The pot has an 8-quart capacity, but he makes 1 1/2 quarts of chili in it, he said.

Third, he said, you should be liberal with the chili pepper and frugal with the tomato sauce. A shaker of chili pepper, he noted, is different from a shaker of chili powder. The chili pepper shaker contains only dried chili peppers. These are the kind of peppers that pack flavor, not heat. A shaker of chili powder, on the other hand, also contains spices -- cumin, garlic, oregano.

For every pound of meat in his chili, Pinnell uses 1 tablespoon of chili pepper and 2 tablespoons of chili powder. As for tomato sauce, Pinnell recommends one 8-ounce can of sauce for every 2-3 pounds of meat.

Finally, there is the matter of beans. Chili snobs may sniff at the mere mention of beans, Pinnell said, but there are plenty of folks who believe beans and chili make a happy couple. The trick to beans, he said, is cooking them in a separate pot. Cooking the beans in the meat pot ruins the gravy, makes the meat a mushy texture, and doesn't do anything for beans, he said. Cooking the beans and meat separately -- and letting them come together at the table -- results, Pinnell said, in a more tasteful union.

Lunch and the chili-making seminar were over. We walked outside in the brisk springtime weather. Pinnell mentioned that "the chili year" -- a string of outdoor, weekend, chili-making contests -- was about to begin. There is a contest April 27 in Churchville; the Maryland state championships June 14 in Aberdeen; and an Aug. 16 cook-off set for Cumberland, Pinnell said.

Being a computer enthusiast as well as a chili enthusiast, Pinnell gave me the Web-site address for the Maryland chapter of the Chili Appreciation Society International, which has information on area chili contests -- www.bigbruce.com/casi_md. Pinnell also gave me the address for his own Web site -- www.bigbruce.com -- which was designed by his daughter, Courtney. There, he said, people can surf for news and recipes about chili and its fixin's.

I am not going to go near those Web sites. Instead of surfing for chili, I prefer to spoon it down.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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