Need chili for a crowd? Perhaps you are thinking about chili for your Superbowl party? My friend Jeff has you covered. Now, I’ve had some big parties in my time. And without restaurant experience or equipment, I’ve made food for crowds. But not on the scale of my friends Jeff Wagner and Nancy Leopold. They have pulled off a chili party for hundreds every New Year’s Day for the past 33 years. So naturally, I had to learn from the masters.
While you may not need as much chili as Jeff makes each year, the basic recipe is a great base. Leave it simmering on the stove, for guests to dip into as they watch football, chat, or simply enjoy being part of the party scene.
Wags and Nance (as their friends call them) serve 3 types of chili: regular, hot, and vegetarian. Some of us like to mix the regular and the hot, creating our own level of spicy heat, topped off with crumbled tortilla chips, shredded cheese, and/or onions. Because Jeff has noticed that the vegetarian version is becoming more popular every year, he accommodates the crowd’s preferences. However, don’t get him started on the relative merits of the original, beef-and salt pork version as compared to the vegetarian one.
The desserts are as traditional as the chili, Nancy’s brownies and her famous apple chocolate chip cake. If you want something else, you’ll find a few appetizers and the odd carrot or celery stick, but this party is not the place to find variety or newfangled dishes. The hosts and guests delight in the knowledge that you know what you’ll get – and you’ll get as much of it as you like.
As an invitee, I’ve always found the open house chili party to be a delightful, low-key way to start off the New Year. People wander in, grab a beer or bottled water, and dig into one or more of the enormous vats of chili on the stove or in the slow cooker standing nearby.
Nancy is the executive director of CollegeTracks, a local nonprofit, and Jeff is a partner in Wagner Kaulius Communications. Their networks and friendships bring together a diverse and congenial crowd. When the tradition started in 1981 there were 40 people and it has gone on every year since then (except for the year when Wags and Nance caught the flu), with crowds up to 300 in the mid-1990’s. Now the numbers have settled down a bit, to 175-225 depending on whether New Year’s Day falls on a weekday or the weekend.
It’s fine to check the progress of a football or to get into a political discussion during the open house – as long as one has in hand a cup of chili or is on the way to the stove for a refill. Guests serve themselves chili in 10-ounce paper hot cups. While that keeps portion sizes small, none of us is shy about going back for seconds – or thirds.
Jeff and Nancy are an amazing couple. Both have stores of energy and good humor that serve them well during the party preparation. Jeff does all the chili prep himself. As the only nice Jewish guy I know who once drove the big rigs (after college for a couple of years), Jeff doesn’t mind seeming quirky and maybe even revels in it. He wears the same crazy shirt at the party every year and will flash his tattoo winking as he rolls up his sleeve.
In one fell swoop on December 30th, Jeff shops for the 200+ pounds of chili ingredients, typically at 3 stores: Costco, Target and a local grocery. I know 200+ pounds made me gasp too. But we’re talking about chili for a crowd.
The next day, he cooks the chili using his 4-burner home stove, apportioning it as he goes into in 7 pots, 6 “regular” with meat and 1 vegetarian. In past years it has taken upwards of 7 hours, but he figured out how to cut the cooking time down to 5 hours this year.
Jeff’s chili cooking music is eclectic. It includes 1960’s and 70’s favorites, show tunes, Christmas music, acapella, Diana Krall, Pharrell’s “Happy” and the songs from the Disney hit “Frozen.” I can’t figure out that last one at all, but I love the image of Jeff twirling and stirring to it.
While the proportions might be daunting, Jeff’s chili recipe is basically simple. And I can testify that it’s delicious, whether you like it pretty mild, super spicy or somewhere in between.
Wags’ Famous New Year’s Day Chili for a Crowd
Servings – for 225 people (over 200 pounds of chili)
- 1 cup canola or similar oil and 1 stick butter for sautéing the onions and garlic
- 15 huge onions, chopped (He buys them at Costco)
- 30 ounces jar minced garlic
- 2 pounds of salt pork, shredded in the food processor
- 74 pounds of ground beef
- 35 pounds of canned kidney beans
- 52 pounds of diced tomatoes
- 20 pounds of crushed tomatoes
- 3 containers of Crazy Jane’s mixed-up salt
- 21 ounces of chili powder
- Korean-style red pepper powder
- 3 large cans corn – for veggie/kosher only
- 3 large packages slaw mix – for veggie/kosher only
Toppings – 3 large bags tortilla chips crushed (Wags insists on Nacho Cheese Dorito chips. His wife gasps at the mere thought of them), 6 pounds of shredded Mexican mix cheese, 4 large onions chopped in the food processor, and Tabasco sauce for the truly brave or crazy
- Food processor
- Large strong wooden spoons for stirring
- 2 extra long handle Ladles
- 7 HUGE Pots (6 for meat chili and 1 for vegetarian)
- Cutting board and knife (for peeling onions)
- Medium size sauté pan for salt pork and a metal spatula or spoon
- Extra bowls or pots for holding cooked onions, garlic, and chopped meat
Meat Chili Preparation
- Chop the onions in the food processor, then pulverize the salt pork in the processor until it is in the tiniest possible pieces. Larger pieces of salt pork work too, but this way it mostly dissolves evenly into the chili mixture.
- Set the salt pork in the pan under a low heat on one of the back burners. Cook it slowly for about 2 hours, stirring or turning the pieces occasionally.
- Cook the chopped onions, garlic, and ground beef separately from each other. This is the most time consuming part of the preparation. Sauté the onions in the pre-heated oil and melted butter. Do it in 2 cycles in 2 pots, approximately 15 minutes per batch in each pot, until the onions are well softened and begin to become transparent. Set all the cooked onions aside in bowl. Sautée the garlic for about 10 minutes on low and set aside in a separate bowl. Cook the ground beef until all redness disappears, drain out the extra water and fat, and set it aside. (Dispose of the drained liquid properly – don’t throw it down your sink!)
- After the salt pork is thoroughly cooked, stir it into the cooked ground beef, and distribute that mixture evenly among 6 of the large pots.
- Distribute the cooked chopped onions, sautéed garlic, tomatoes, beans, chili powder, and salt evenly among all 7 pots and stir the mixture in each pot until all the ingredients are well combined. If you do this with a long handled spoon, it takes a long time. The mixture is cool to the touch and Wags uses his (washed and quite large) hands. While that might sound a bit bizarre, I always mix meatloaf with my hands, a time-honored method. (Note that the 7th pot, for the veggie/kosher chili, has no meat or salt pork.)
- Bring the mixture in each pot to a boil and simmer it for 10 minutes. Then refrigerate the pots of chili overnight. If it’s cold enough, you can even leave them in an unheated garage or screened–in porch. (Wags says all tomato-based foods taste better the next day!) If leaving them in a garage or porch, make sure all the pots are well secured from critters. Wags duct-tapes his lids to the pots, wraps the pots in plastic, and sprays the area with ammonia to prevent any escaping odor that could attract varmints.
Veggie/Kosher Chili Preparation
- Follow the same steps as for the meat version, EXCEPT substitute the corn and slaw mix for the ground beef and salt pork, and simmer the mixture for 20 minutes, instead of 10.
Serving Chili to the Crowd
If your stove is “normal” sized, i.e. only big enough to hold 2 large pots, Wags’ ingenious serving method will help. He leaves 2 pots simmering on the stovetop, designated as “WARM” and “HOT” (referring to spicy). Then he puts 1 of the remaining pots in the oven at 250, and holds the other 3 meat pots in a nearby room. As the stovetop pots are depleted, he adds chili from the pot in the oven, the “Hot” pot gets renewed hot seasoning, and pots from nearby room rotate into the oven, and so on.
He uses a huge electric slowcooker for the veggie/kosher chili on the countertop next to the stove, leaving the veggie/kosher version on low. Toppings go in bowls with spoons nearby. Note:
If any chili is leftover (a big “if”), Jeff freezes it in labeled containers.
On Thursday: Nancy’s apple chocolate-chip cake