Top Cook: Chili cook-off king shares his winning recipe

His chili has taken home the People's Choice Award five years in a row in Dewey Beach, Del. It pairs well with her rice pudding.
His chili has taken home the People's Choice Award five years in a row in Dewey Beach, Del. It pairs well with her rice pudding. (C.F. SANCHEZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: June 20, 2014

EVERY APRIL for the past five years, Bob Abel has entered the Dewey Beach Chili Cook-off in Delaware. And every year, the Secane, Delaware County, resident has taken home the People's Choice Award.

It's a heated competition. Abel says the spice extends to the quips and jabs that cooks share over their bubbling pots. "We butt heads, but underneath it all there's a lot of camaraderie. We really love doing this and look forward to it."

The Chili Cook-off is a family affair, too. His son, Brian, and daughter-in-law, Lisa, encouraged him to enter the first time with an adaptation of his father's recipe. And Bob's team includes Lisa and his wife, Debbie. Brian is the chief taster.

The judges all seem to like the way the spice in Bob Abel's chili is subtle at first, then gives a kick. He said adding something sweet, like maple syrup or strawberry jam, tames the heat to create that delayed spice reaction.

"Both my parents cooked, but when I was 10 I started making breakfast with my father," Abel recalled. "I would stand next to him and watch what he did. Now I do that with my 11-year-old grandson."

The first year he competed, Abel researched online and wound up combining 10 recipes, plus his dad's, to create his own.

"I'm the kind of cook who makes adjustments as I go along, but you have to be aware," said Abel. "One year my son thought there was too much cumin in the chili. I told him to relax - after it sits overnight it will be fine. And it was."

Abel is also known for his roast pork and beef stew. The pork pairs well with his wife's potato salad, which has a touch of bacon grease in it. She also makes a well-loved rice pudding from a recipe a colleague gave her years ago. It had been passed down from a South Carolina grandmother.

The Abels' kitchen doesn't need many gadgets, but Bob Abel couldn't live without the institutional-size pot he uses for his contest chili.

Debbie Abel has been making her rice pudding in the same nonstick pot for 20 years. Although he rarely uses a cookbook, both Abels sometimes refer to the 30-year-old Betty Crocker cookbook they received as a wedding present.

"Cooking is just fun for me. I'm a house painter, and there are times of the year that are slow, so I run to the store and start cooking," Bob Abel said.

The Abels plan to seek their sixth People's Choice Award at the Dewey Beach chili contest next spring. The event combines a garage sale and the contest. It's held in early April to welcome summer residents as they return to open their beach houses.

Abel's original recipe makes many gallons. This version will still leave you with lots to freeze - and use on your grilled hot dogs and nachos this summer.


1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 large onion, diced

1 each red and green sweet peppers, seeded, membrane removed and diced

3 to 5 serrano peppers, seeded, membrane removed and diced

1 pound ground beef

1/2 pound hot sausage (tube package)

1 1/4 ounce chili starter pack*

1 tablespoon cumin

15-ounce can red kidney beans, drained

1/2 15-ounce can white kidney beans, drained

16-ounce can baked beans

15-ounce can stewed tomatoes, cut up, with juice

15-ounce can tomato sauce

2 tablespoons maple syrup, or more to taste

Heat oil in a large saute pan. Add onion and peppers and cook until tender. Set aside in a large pot.

Brown beef and sausage together in the pan. Drain and add to the pot, along with the chili starter mix and cumin. Cook over medium heat until incorporated.

Add the beans, stewed tomatoes and tomato sauce and bring to a slow boil. Lower heat to simmer and cook for at least two hours, stirring often. If necessary, add a little water or broth.

Add syrup, stir and allow to sit on the stove for one hour. If it's too spicy, add more syrup.

Serve with chopped scallions, cheddar cheese and sour cream. Makes 2 quarts.

*Make your own chili seasoning blend with chili powder, garlic powder, seasoned salt and pepper.

Debbie Abel says the beauty of this rice pudding recipe is its ease and versatility. Use a little less rice for a thinner pudding, add more sugar if you like it sweeter, or play with the spice mixture.


3/4 cup long-grain rice (not Minute Rice)

1 cup plus a little extra salted water

1 quart whole milk

4 tablespoons butter

3 eggs

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup raisins (optional)

Cinnamon to taste

In a large pot pour rice into boiling salted water and stir. Cover the pot tightly, reduce heat to medium and cook for five minutes. Check to make sure water is not boiled out. Stir and continue cooking for two minutes more. Rice will be undercooked.

Add milk slowly along with butter. Cook on stove, covered, for about one hour on low heat, stirring occasionally to keep rice from sticking or the milk from boiling over.

While rice cooks, beat eggs, sugar and vanilla in small bowl and set aside.

Rice is finished when it is soft and looks like cooked cereal. Allow rice to stand for a bit to cool.

Slowly add a little rice to the egg mixture to temper it, then fold into rice. Add cinnamon and raisins if desired. Refrigerate until thoroughly cold.

If pudding is thick after it is refrigerated, just add a little milk.

Serve in desert dishes topped with whipped cream. Makes 6 half-cup servings

On the third Thursday monthly, "Top Cooks" spotlights a home-cooking whiz and one of their recipes. To nominate a cook, email or write: Top Cooks, Philadelphia Daily News, 801 Market St., Suite 300, Philadelphia, PA 19107. Include your name and a daytime phone number.

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