A little rain and cooler temperatures couldn't keep Charleston from hosting a hot time at the 46th Annual World's Championship Chili Cookoff this past weekend at Magic Island.
Every time a representative from the International Chili Society thanked event sponsors, it was the city of Charleston that received the biggest applause - from organizers, cooks and the chili-sampling public.
Before announcing awards at the end of opening day Friday, the event's chief judge praised the riverfront venue and said the folks here couldn't have done a better job planning and hosting this year's soiree.
"This was the easiest first day we've ever had," Steve Porter announced, "and we've been doing this for many, many years."
Hey, Charleston, yay you!
Although I've always enjoyed cooking and judging in the traditional red and green chili categories, the weekend's highlight for me was being part of a group that sampled and selected the first-ever world champion in the International Chili Society's new "homestyle" competition.
In sanctioned red and green chili contests, winners are selected based on perfectly cubed meat and vegetables cooked in a precise blend of spices with no beans or filler allowed. As you might expect, the resulting bowls are all fairly similar in look and taste, which makes judging a difficult (and often tedious) task.
Not so for homestyle!
On the same judging table, I sampled a rich, heavily broth-flavored green chili, another completely different spicy green chili, a really nice white chili with peppers and corn, even a red chili that had an addictively unique front sweetness followed by a subtle back heat.
All of them were really good, but REALLY different. Love that.
Every couple of months, I offer a roundup of my latest and greatest food finds - products that have either just been rolled out or will soon be available in local stores.
But I got burned earlier this summer after singing the praises of Mionetto il Spritz, a bottled version of the classic Italian aperitif known as a Spritz that was about to make its debut in the United States, including at stores here.
A premium frizzante wine (meaning it has fewer bubbles than Champagne) blended with fresh citrus and herbs, il Spritz is so sensational that I encouraged everyone to go out and try some. Problem is, it still hasn't shown up on local shelves.
But when it does, get you some.
Another product I discovered last year, however, has recently increased distribution locally.
Blue Diamond Nut-Thins - irresistibly unique, crunchy, toasted-nut crackers - are a much healthier snack alternative. These gluten-free babies pack only 3.5 grams of fat (none of it saturated) with no cholesterol, lower sodium and only 1 gram of sugar per serving.
And you get a whopping 16 delicious crackers in a serving!
Previously available only at Whole Foods and some organic markets, you can now find Nut-Thins pretty easily at most grocery stores. I've recently seen them at Kroger and even remodeled Rite-Aid "wellness stores" on Bridge Road, the West Side and in South Charleston.
Available in flavors like Almond Cheddar Cheese, Almond Ranch, Almond Nut & Rice, Almond Smokehouse, Pecan Nut & Rice and Hazelnut Nut & Rice, these are good enough to munch straight from the box.
But if you'd like to find a few interesting ways to enjoy them, I've included recipes this week for Smokehouse Almond Hummus, Nutty Tapenod, Sweet and Salty Chocolate Almond Cups and, just in time for Thanksgiving, Apple Pecan Cracker Stuffing.
Some of these creations also feature Blue Diamond's new line of Baked Nut-Chips (available in Sea Salt, Nacho and Sour Cream & Chive), which were recently honored in Clean Eating Magazine's "Foodie Awards."
Contact writer Steven Keith at dailymailfood...@aol.com or 304-348-1721. You can also follow him on Facebook and Pinterest as "DailyMail FoodGuy," on Twitter as "DMFoodGuy" or read his blog at http://blogs.dailymail.com/foodguy/.
Apple pecan cracker stuffing
1 (4.25 -oz.) box Blue Diamond Pecan Nut-Thins
2 Tbsp. butter
3/4 cup peeled, chopped green apple
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1 1/2 Tbsp. maple syrup
1/2 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary or 1/2 tsp. dried