Home-grown peppers important ingredient in Harvest Festival chili cook-off at The Expo

Few foods capture the popular imagination and the taste buds of Americans like chili.

This was evidenced Saturday when hundreds of hungry Southern Oregon residents lined up to sample a smorgasbord of different chilies conjured up by professional chefs and hobbyists alike.

"There's just something about chili," said Alan Vezzani, who made his way to each chili station Saturday afternoon. "It has so many flavors and there as so many things you can do with it."

The chili cook-off marked the second day of the Jackson County Harvest Festival at The Expo. The event continues today at 10 a.m. and runs to 5 p.m.

The festival's centerpiece is a large beer garden held in the Expo center that features hundreds of beers from across the Pacific Northwest.

And nothing pairs quite so well with chili as a good craft brew, Eric Koell said.

Koell, of Ashland, is a chef at Lark's in the Ashland Springs Hotel. He spooned out pounds of his grass-fed beef chili in hopes of taking the $250 top prize and the honor of being named the people's champion.

Koell used Deschutes' Black Butte Porter and enough peppers to give the concoction a bite, but not enough heat to cause serious mouth injury.

"A good chili has both heat and flavor," Koell said. "If you have too much heat, you can lose the flavor."

But what's the secret of a good chili? "A lot of love," Koell said. "Love is an ingredient."

Curtis North, of Central Point, put an interesting spin on his chili verde, which took on a white hue, separating it from the traditional red color your mother made.

"I'm using pork and senorita peppers that came from my garden," North said.

Meanwhile, Amanda Crisel, of Eagle Point, treated everyone to her London broil-based chili. Like most of the contestants, she used peppers grown from her own garden.

"The fresh peppers are important," she said. "You get that fresh flavor and the bite from them."

Crisel used Fresno chiles straight from the garden to give the chili its heat.

"You don't want to use too many of the Fresnos," she said.

The contest rules stipulated that the chili be made at the site, meaning contestants had to begin preparing their pots at the Expo around 6 a.m.

The hard work paid off for the barbecue outfit Smoke & Mirrors, which took home first prize.

For a list of the breweries participating in the festival and a schedule of today's events, visit www.attheexpo.com.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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