The McGary Chili Challenge – An attack on European harmony?

Three chili chicken with limeThere’s an old story about a farmer from Texas visiting Ireland. When he got to his three storey hotel, he tipped back his ten gallon hat and remarked that in Texas they had hotels that reached the sky. He went on a bus tour of Connemara and when he saw the mountains, he said that the mountains in Texas were at least ten times bigger. Just outside Lisdoonvarna, the tour bus broke down and the Texan had to walk into town. On the way, he met a farmer leaning on a gate. They fell into conversation. The proud Texan asked the local how big was his farm. The Connemara man pointed his briar stick to a tree in the mid distance and said “If you go to that tree and turn left, walk until you come to the river, turn left again and walk until you come to that ditch then walk back here, that’s my farm. And, fierce proud of it I am.” The Texan stood back in amazement and said “Paddy, back in Texas, I could get into my truck after breakfast, drive all day until sundown and still not reach the end of my spread.”

With a twinkle in his eye, the Connemara man replied “Sure, didn’t we had a truck like that, but we had to get rid of it.”

Up until very recently, that’s how I might have viewed all Texans. Big, brash and so full of their own Texan bigness to care much about the rest of the world. That is until I came across Richard McGary on his REM Cooks blog. Richard has a great sense of humour, he can cook too. He also has a sense of fun. So, when an unexpected package arrived from Dallas-Fort Worth, containing a range of dried and pickled chilis I was slightly taken aback. The package contained some pretty exotic stuff from that part of the world.

My mystery parcel. How could I have known they would be dispersed across Europe?

My mystery parcel. How could I have known they would be dispersed across Europe?

There were 7 different dried chilis: New Mexico Sandia (mild, hot, and XX-hot), Pasilla Negro, Guajillo, Ancho, and Chipotle. There were also three jars with other fire-breathing delights made by Richard. These were; pickled chipotles, pickled jalapeños and a dangerous looking ancho chili rub.

The package came with a letter that contained a specific challenge. “Now I know you love to cook and try different things, so, if you are up to it, I have a challenge for you with this basket full of ingredients. You MUST use a MINIMUM of 5 of the items in the basket to prepare 1 entrée with any protein or veggie of your choosing. As an FYI, I have prepared a similar basket for Stefan with a similar challenge.”

Of course, I had no choice but to take up the challenge. Stefan over at Stefan Gourmet in Amsterdam is a very accomplished cook with far greater skills than me. We had the pleasure of staying and dining with Stefan and Kees earlier this year. Relations between our respective households are excellent. At least they were until the McGary package arrived. At first, I was flattered and thankful for the food parcel from America.

However, I found myself wondering;

“What will Stefan do?”
“How many different chilis will he use in his?”
“What if he uses more than me, will I be letting Ireland down?”
“I can’t let Ireland down, not in front of the Americans. Not in front of the Dutch.” 

Was this the McGary plan all along? Has he been trying to drive a chili shaped wedge into the heart of our European culinary activity. I couldn’t allow this to happen. I had to try to beat the Texan at his own game. I had to cook a Tex-Mex feast that would silence any Texan talk of cooking greatness. So my response to the McGary Chili Challenge is to cook Three Chili Chicken with Lime, Chili Corn Bread and Jalapeno Guacamole served with Two Chili Mango and Lime Lassi. That’s seven chilis in the entrée, if one counts the lassi as part thereof. That should keep Ireland’s end up. I had better split this up into sections. First, the Three Chili Chicken with Lime.

Three chili chicken with lime

A pretty simple ingredients shot. The cactus only to add a touch of Texan class!

For this I used;

  • 1 free range chicken
  • 2 red onions
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 3 limes 
  • New Mexico Sandia (hot)
  • 1 Ancho
  • 1 Chipotle
  • A small amount of olive oil

First thing I did was to soak the chilis in hot water for an hour. While this was going on, I spatchcocked the chicken. I have another post written on this but it will have to wait while the combined European defence to the McGary Chili Challenge is mounted.

Spatchcocked chicken

Spatchcocking (if there is such a word) the chicken. A better set of shots in a later post, I promise.

Then I drained the chilis.

I went for a combination of smokiness, heat and flavour. I had no idea what I was doing.

I went for a combination of smokiness, heat and flavour. I really had no idea what I was doing.

Then I chopped the chilis.

Three chilis

Of course, I chopped them up before adding to the blender.

These were added to the blender along with the garlic, onions, juice of a lime and some olive oil to form a paste.

Three chilis and onion

Three chilis and red onion have a dash of olive oil added.

After blending, the most wonderful colourful paste was formed.

Glorious colour from the chilis. But, would the heat remove the top of my head?

Glorious colour from the chilis. But, would the heat remove the top of my head?

I then added the zest of a lime and rubbed the mixture all over the chicken. This was then left to marinade for a few hours.

Call me a big girl's blouse if you wish but the gloves were essential.

Call me a big girl’s blouse if you wish but the gloves were essential.

The barbecue (gas) was heated and then turned down to minimum temperature. I gave the chicken about 20 minutes a side.

Three chili chicken

I can’t post aromas here. If I could, you would be drooling.

Then the juice of two limes is squeezed over the bird.

The juice of two limes is squeezed over the chicken just before taking it off the barbecue.

The juice of two limes is squeezed over the chicken just before taking it off the barbecue.

Then I let it rest for 10 minutes.

Doesn't it look delicious? The aromas were fantastic.

Doesn’t it look delicious? The aromas were fantastic.

While the chicken was marinading, I prepared the Chili Corn Bread.

Corn bread

All the ingredients bar the butter. Again, the cactus for style only.

The corn bread was pretty straightforward to make. The ingredients list is as follows;

  • 375 grammes of flour
  • 220 grammes of cornmeal or Polenta flour as we call it in Europe
  • 3 teaspoons of baking powder
  • 110 grammes of sugar
  • 475 ml of milk
  • 2 free range eggs
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 100 grammes of melted butter
  • As much or as little pickled chipotle as you dare or wish.

All the dry ingredients were sieved.

I thought this was too artistic a shot to leave out.

I thought this was too artistic a shot to leave out.

The remaining ingredients bar the chili were thrown in.

This got mixed for a few minutes until combined and smooth.

This got mixed for a few minutes until combined and smooth.

The chili was chopped. I went light on the chipotle.

The chipotle was chopped quite small. It did not look too dangerous.

The chipotle was chopped quite small. It did not look too dangerous.

Then it was stirred in.

The chipotle is stirred in to the corn bread mixture.

The chipotle is stirred in to the corn bread mixture.

The mixture was poured into cake tins.

Lovely looking corn bread mixture ready to bake.

Lovely looking corn bread mixture ready to bake.

Then it baked in the oven for 20 minutes at 200º C.

As the saying goes, corn bread doesn't get much better than this.

As the saying goes, corn bread doesn’t get much better than this.

The end result was a pretty impressive looking bread. I have never cooked this or anything like it before. Time for the ‘first slice’ shot.

The cornbread held up it's end fo things in this Tex Mex extravaganza.

The cornbread held up its end of things in this Tex Mex extravaganza.

Next, I got on with the Jalapeno Guacamole. Three avocados gave up their nuts for this dish to happen.

Extracting the nut from the avocado with a knife. Very satisfying.

Extracting the nut from the avocado with a knife. Very satisfying.

The flesh of the avocado was spooned into a bowl. The chili was choped. Again, I went a little light on the chili, not wanting to overdo things.

Lovely looking (and tasting) chili.

Lovely looking (and tasting) chili.

This was mixed with a little sea salt to give a very tasty guacamole.

Surprisingly cooling, despite the chili.

Surprisingly cooling, despite the chili.

Time to move on to the drinks – Two Chili, Mango and Lime Lassi.Mango and lime lassiI forgot to include the yoghurt in the picture above. I used about a quarter litre. This was a very simple thing to put together. First I soaked the chilis in hot water for an hour and got on with extracting the flesh from four mangos.

The mango flesh is particularly suitable for smoothie type drinks.

The mango flesh is particularly suitable for smoothie type drinks.

Then I squeezed the excess water from the chilis.

New Mexico Sandia Hot and Pasilla Negro seemed like a good combination.

New Mexico Sandia Hot and Pasilla Negro seemed like a good combination.

Time for a chopped chili shot.

New Mexico Sandia Hot and Pasilla Negro chopped and ready to go into the blender.

New Mexico Sandia Hot and Pasilla Negro chopped and ready to go into the blender.

The mango, lime juice, chilis and yoghurt went into the blender and was blended on high for about five minutes.

Ready to blend. There were some pretty extreme flavours in there.

Ready to blend. There were some pretty extreme flavours in there.

Then it was placed in the freezer for half an hour and poured into four tall glasses.

The final pouring shot of the post. Once again, I am surprised by the high colour.

The final pouring shot of the post. Once again, I am surprised by the high colour.

With the lassi completed, there was nothing to do but to assemble the diners and serve. I know we went completely over the top with the Tex-Mex table dressing. I hope Richard is not offended. But, a bit of stereotyping can be good fun every now and then.

My personal feast. A completely new taste sensation for me.

My personal feast. A completely new taste sensation for me.

Thanks to Richard, we have experienced a taste extravaganza. The chicken was beyond delicious. The corn bread was excellent though I would use more chili in the next one. The guacamole was about perfect. The lassi was toothsome but a bit too hot. Next time, I will use a little less chili.

I have risen to the McGary Chili Chalenge. I have complied with the conditions. We have had a fantastic fun, entertaining and adventurous meal. Hopefully, this is the first of many using these fine and surprisingly subtle ingredients. Thank you Richard. No matter what Stefan did (see it here please), we have had a great, big Texas time. Europe remains a harmonious culinary place. If anybody else wants to set us some similar chalenges, we’re game!

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Latest comments
  • I see you decided not to use the photo of the chicken’s spine proudly displaying its dismembered-self… probably for the best 😛 ’twas a lovely meal, my dear father! Thanks 😀

    • That’s for a later post. Don’t give the game away on me!

  • It’s late evening here and I have just had the best time first on Stefan’s post and now yours . . .am not a ‘chilehead’ but having 7-8 plants in my herbarium does prove I actually use them! What a fantastic challenge and two such interesting results! Thank you! I DO actually have a favourite but, sleepy gal or not, won’t put any open votes on the table!! Oh, absolutely love your cornbread and your darling daughter’s answers . . . here’s to trying to copy you two 😀 !

    • Thanks Eha,
      When we visited Stefan in Amsterdam, we got to experience his first rate cooking. I know that I can’t compete on quality so I need the props to keep things in balance. The cornbread wad pretty excellent, if I say so myself.

      • 😉 !!!

  • Bravo Conor! What a spread, what a table and delicious recipes! You have met the challenge and should be inducted into the Irish branch of the Texan Culinary Hall of fame. Your post was funny too 🙂

    • Thanks Rosemary, the bit of humour is important to disguise my lack of the finer culinary skills.

  • Wow! That looks so good – I didn’t need the aromas to get me drooling, I’m still salivating as I type. And another post that got me laughing too – not bad on a day when one of my hens has just keeled over and died and I’m rowing with a ‘phone company about a duff handset!!

    • Thanks Linda, we had great fun with the challenge.

  • Beautiful pictures and a great idea for a challenge! Who wants to send me a box of goodies?!

    • Apart from Richard, the only people who threaten me with ‘goodies’ usually tie too high a price to their benevolence. Such is blogging life.

  • Reblogged this on My Meals are on Wheels.

  • Crazy Texans got practically no mountains at all! But they do wear big hats. Welcome to the American southwest! Looks tasty…

    • I thought everything was bigger in Texas! Live and learn.

      • That’s what they like you to think. But everything’s REALLY bigger in California. 😉

        • And actually, the Alaskans laugh at all of us.

  • Man … I’m thinking ‘Ring of Fire’ for days after 🙂

    • Thankfully not and really fantastic breadth and depth of flavours.

  • What a brilliant idea! Time to break out the Kinky Friedman CDs 😉

  • Conor – great job on the challenge. Your stories are always a pleasure to read and bring a smile to my face from across the pond! And of course, your recipes look and sound amazing! Best, Danny

    • Danny, you are too kind. Thanks for the twitter shout too.

  • How lucky you are to receive such a treat! Holy Toledo, or perhaps I should say Holy Texas, that spread, especially your chicken, looks absolutely incredible!! Wow Connor!

    • Thanks Lidia. I just hope I can impress somebody in Texas (anybody in Texas that is).

  • This is a great post! Love that blogging bridges the miles between us all. You used those chilies in so many great ways. Now I am going to pop over to Stefan’s page and see his post. 🙂

    • Do Anna, his is definitely more refined than mine. But then again, he is more refined than me, for sure.

  • everything sounds delicious and I love your table setting 🙂 Richard should have sent some nice “American” cilantro as I think it would have been a nice addition to the meal 😉

    • I have a follow up post that does not use any of the hot stuff but does use coriander. It goes into the spatchcocking in a bit more gory detail. That is for another day.

  • This might be one of my favorite posts from you. It’s so cool how this challenge has crossed the world. A true testament to how cooking/food brings people together. Also, the meal looks fantastic, so that doesn’t hurt either.

    • It was great fun from the time the parcel arrived to the time we ate every last bit of it. A really nice thing to do by Richard.

  • I sooooooooooooooooooooooo wanna move to your neighborhood 🙂 I wanna watch how you hold the camera and create those awfully beautiful magic in the kitchen ! How I wish to meet my favorite Iron Chef 🙂

  • You are a master. You put a fantastic spread together with some very “foreign” flavors. I can only imagine how fun this must of been experimenting and having such great results. This is, in my opinion, a perfect post. I wish I could have been at your table when you all sat down and starting tasting. (or at least a fly on the wall)

    • It was some of the best cooking fun we have had. I hope Richard is not offended by the Mexican hat and the miniature cacti.

      • I’ve got some of the south in me and I’m sure he got a kick out of it!

  • How exciting to receive such an amazing parcel ( + the challenge note). You have definitely done it justice. Did the jarred jalapeno peppers taste much different to the shop bought ones?
    ( and a random question: ever thought of joining Irish Master Chef? Reasons? I am curious because I like to apply for it )

    • The peppers were of vastly superior flavour and quality. I have never tasted as good.
      On the Master Chef end of things, I think I prefer to do my sweating and cursing in private.

  • Wow! You are now official an Ire-Mex!!! Love the table setting! I had no idea when I read that Richard was sending you both chile peppers that he meant that he was literally sending them to you!!!! The chicken and the guacamole both look incredible. And where in the world did you get the cactus and the sombrero??!!!!!!! Still laughing

    • Thanks Mimi. The pink hat adds a real touch of class!

  • wow what a feast, it’s mouthwatering just looking at it. Masterchef!

  • Hi Conor, I agree it’s nice to see our different approaches. Funny that we did synchronize the posting time but not the number of chiles, and ended up with the same number after all 🙂 I don’t think of this as a competition, but you sure win in terms of photography as well as props! 😉

    • The props are important to divert attention…

  • Great post, as always, Conor. Baby & I laughed and laughed this morning reading it. We both loved the Corona with the Sombrero and the cacti. Priceless!!!!! We also enjoyed reading what you did with the chiles. It looks and sounds wonderful although Baby Lady said it needed a little more heat. 😮 Loved that you fixed the cornbread with the pickled chipotles, a combination I personally love. You get a little tang, a bite of heat, and a touch of smoke from the chipotle coupled with the sweetness of the corn. Love it, love it, love it. Everything else looked wonderful, as well, and I’m glad you had a fun time. Kudos to you!!

    • Thanks Richard. If Baby Lady had tried the lassi, she would not have been wanting more heat. They were pretty fiery. I was reflecting on what went on. First there was excitement when the parcel arrived and we opened it. Then there was mirth when I read the letter and the challenge. This was followed by a period of confusion and befuddlement as I tried to work out what I could do, knowing that I was up against a top chef in a very public forum. Then there was the excitement of learning the new foods, followed by the sheer pleasure of cooking a lovely meal for family and friends.
      For all of that, thank you

      • You are more than welcome. Knowing these were new to you I was curious how you would use them. It’s always fun to see what people do with the unfamiliar. You more than withstood the challenge from across the pond and your post with Stefan’s made our day. We are the ones who should be thanking the two of you. And BTW – there ARE mountains in West Texas and they are HUGE. We don’t care what those sissies from California say. 😉

        • I should say that is very big of you. But, as you’re in Texas, everything is big!

  • Awesome post, I loved the challenge and everything you made looks really tasty although I am not much of a chilli girl myself so have a feeling the lassi may have done me in 🙂

    • Thank you. In truth, the lassi nearly did us all in.

  • love the humor with a great bit of food mixed in. ) beth

    • Thanks Beth, Richard has brought the best (and worst) out in me.

  • Well, I declare! (Southern vernacular.)

    • I’ll take that in a positive, Gone with the Wind, kind of way Michelle.

  • This was a great challenge, Conor, and you both excelled. That chicken looks fantastic and you’ve now used a larger variety of chilies than I ever have. 🙂

    • Thanks John, perhaps Richard should have included Chicago on the mailing list!

      • No, thanks. You guys are way out of my league. I very much prefer to watch and applaud from afar.

  • This is a fantastic post Conor!!! We bloggers should do more of these types of challenges. Very cool (huge cred to Richard for dreaming it up!). Everything looks incredible in your menu… but I’m especially impressed by that beautifully fluffy cornbread!! I’m not sure that I would have been able to take that much chilli but huge respect for your massive chilli tolerance. I enjoyed reading Stefan’s post also. Amazing creativity between you intercontinental gentlemen!

    • Thanks Laura, It was the best fun I have had with the blog to date.

  • The ingredients shot is quite amazing – the onions and chillis look they have a sheen like a varnish – very good! As for Americans – they’re better because they told me (because they are my bosses).

  • Yee haw! This is a fantastic post, Conor! As someone who grew up in Texas (I’m not a Texan – there’s a difference), I can confirm the big and brashness of its people. But you’ve shown them that you don’t have to be big or brash (or heck, even a Texan) to appreciate and do amazing things with chili peppers. I love this three-course meal so much, along with the Corona, cactus and Tex-Mex spread. I’m tipping my invisible ten-gallon hat to you.

    • Thanks Tommy, great fun was had. As you say, Yee Haw!

  • Effing love it. That chilli paste looks like it could warm a small Scandinavian community!

  • Bravo!!! I hope you can hear my applause from all across the other side of the world. What a fantastical feast of chillies and (though I too received a fabulous hit of those hot chillies, I’ve sadly yet to cook with them.) I must do so and very soon.

    Love the idea of a mango chilli lassi, alas it’s winter here so I’ll have to wait 6 months or so!

    • Thanks Alice. Richard explained the packing mix-up. Hence your name appears in one of the photos. Very funny indeed.

      • I did have a little chuckle when I saw my name. I must step up my cooking game and soon. Though because I’m in the middle of exams for butchery, etc, ironically there’s little cooking involved at home right now!

  • Great post. With a brother in Texas I’ve become quite a fan of southwestern peppers and local chili. You deserve a round of applause for the devil-may-care attitude with which you chop and incorporate those peppers. I’m glad for your sake he didn’t send you any habaneros. Ken
    P.S. We’re going to be showing spatchcocking details next week too! Must be something in the air.

    • It’s barbecue season just starting here. That must be it.

  • Holy guacamole!!! You DIDN’T take the seeds out of the peppers!?! I tremble before the searing spice quotient but aside from that, this is a Tour de Force….beautiful post… win!

  • Conor, you have certainly made Ireland proud and I am very interested in your corn bread recipe. What a feast!

    • Thanks for that. Do give it a go as it is very easy and tasty.

  • Incredible! I can practically taste it through your photos. Absolutely a treat worth indulging for!

    • Thanks, the pictures were fun to take. The food delicious and with a depth of flavour I did not expect.

  • Congratulations on a challenge well done. Being born and raised in Texas, I can say you would impress most citizens of that state with your meal. 🙂

    • Karen, like with everything else Texan, you have a big heart.
      Thank you.

      • I appreciate your lovely thought…thank you.

  • How do I get an invite to dinner? WOW! 🙂

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