Who’s got the best Chili?

When a local group, The Windham Community Garden, put together a benefit ‘Great Chili Challenge’ to raise funds for their cause, I knew we had to enter. I volunteer with another community group, the Windham Raymond Wellness Council, which strives to encourage families and kids to make healthy food choices through promoting 5210 Let’s Go! and similar efforts with support from the Lakes Region Healthy Maine Partnership.

So, back to the contest… this Great Chili Challenge seemed like a perfect way to promote our efforts, support another worthwhile community group and have some fun! Coming from Guiding Stars Licensing Company, I knew we had the perfect resource – a great variety of delicious and nutritious recipes on our Guiding Stars website where we had several chili recipes to choose from, including a 3-star vegetarian option. I chose to go with a version that we had tried recently for a party with some friends. I entered the Cowboy Beef and Black Bean Chili – a 1-Star, good nutritious choice. I printed the recipe from the web and bought all the supplies from my local Hannaford store in Windham. Most of the ingredients had Guiding Stars on the shelf tag, so I knew this was going to be not only good but nutritious too.

The credit rightfully goes to my expert chef, my wife, Kim. I’m not much of a cook, but she allowed me to serve as her ‘sub sous-chef’! (I opened the cans and chopped some peppers.) By late Friday evening, our kitchen smelled delicious, and by Saturday noon we were ready to go! It’s a fairly simple chili to make, using very lean ground beef, black beans, yellow and jalapeño peppers, a great mix of spices, and topped off with dark beer and beef broth for added flavor.

The competition was intense. There were a dozen entrants including some very popular restaurants, a local health food market, several of Windham’s best home chefs, and even a few award-winning ‘secret-recipe’ chili experts from out-of-town.

The room was abuzz with activity and the blended scents of some really good chilies. Some of the entrants had very elaborate decorations for their display booths. Ours by contrast was rather modest. The panel of five judges was made up of state and local politicians, town leaders, and an Executive Chef from the University of Southern Maine. They were very secretive and judged each entry on taste, smell, visual appeal and overall appearance. Each visitor also had several votes to choose their favorite for a people’s choice award.

As the event wound down and the snow mounted, the winners were announced. To my surprise, our Windham Raymond Wellness Council’s 1-Star Cowboy Chili won FIRST PRIZE! And on top of that, one of the judges told me later that the judges’ vote for 1st place was unanimous! The winner of both the runner up and the people’s choice award was a competitor from Scarborough, ‘Chili Time’, who had previously won several other contests.

Jim McBride 1st prize Windham Community Garden Great Chili Challenge
Jim McBride 1st prize Windham Community Garden Great Chili Challenge

Obviously, I had no expectations about winning the contest. I know several of the other entrants, and have enjoyed their delicious chilies over the years. So I was flabbergasted to win first prize! Several of my friends who competed are still in shock; although the competition was friendly, it was competition nonetheless!

Overall this was a really fun experience, and a great way to showcase our program while supporting a worthwhile cause. For winning the contest, we got a nice engraved plaque and great bragging rights in the community until next year.

Here’s the award winning chili recipe. Enjoy a delicious dish that receives 1-Star (good nutrition) and offers an excellent source of fiber and protein, packed with vitamins and minerals too. It has a good kick, but is not too hot – a real winner for sure!

Cowboy Beef & Black Bean Chili

Print this recipe | Get the full nutrition facts

If you haven’t tried putting beer in your chili then you are in for a treat! Our own Jim McBride won a chili cookoff with this recipe–read more about the intense competition that led to this star-earning chili earning mad props with the gardening set.

Servings: 8 (505 g )

Prep Time: 45 min.

Cook Time: 2 hours


  • 2 lbs. ground beef (95% lean)
  • 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1½ cups onions, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp. garlic, minced
  • 2 yellow bell peppers, chopped
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded, finely chopped
  • ¼ cup chili powder
  • 1 Tbsp. cumin
  • 1 tsp. oregano
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • ⅛ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1 (28 oz.) can crushed tomatoes, undrained
  • 1 (14½ oz.) can chili diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1 (14½ oz.) can low sodium beef broth
  • 12 oz. dark beer
  • ⅓ cup tomato paste
  • 2 (15 oz.) cans low sodium black beans, rinsed and drained

Optional Garnishes*:

  • Fresh cilantro, chopped


  1. Brown ground beef in stockpot over medium heat (8-10 minutes). Remove from stockpot with slotted spoon. Set aside. Pour off drippings.
  2. Heat oil in same stockpot over medium heat until shimmering. Add onions and garlic; cook until onions are tender (3-5 minutes). Add bell peppers and jalapeño and cook until tender (4-5 minutes).
  3. Return beef to stockpot. Add chili powder, cumin, oregano, thyme and cayenne; cook and stir until toasted (2-3 minutes).
  4. Stir in crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, broth, beer, and tomato paste; bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 45 minutes. Uncover stockpot and continue simmering until thickened (30-40 minutes).
  6. Stir in beans; cook until beans are heated through (5-10 minutes). Garnish with cilantro, if desired.

*Optional garnishes have not been included in the rating of this recipe.

Jim McBride is the Director of Operations for Guiding Stars Licensing Company. Jim is one of the founding members of the Guiding Stars program. His 24 years of investment analysis, sales budgeting and business information experience at Hannaford Supermarkets were essential in bringing the program to life. Jim designed the nutrition database and leads the data collection efforts to ensure that all product ratings are accurate. As an active outdoor enthusiast, Jim knows the importance of staying healthy with nutritious foods, but credits his family with keeping him young.