It’s hard to beat a good corn chip loaded with as much salsa as it can possibly hold.
Nobody knows that better than Jeremy Hugus. His salsa has been the people’s choice at the world-famous Chugwater Chili Cookoff seven times with the most recent Saturday at the 37th annual event.
Hugus said his recipe may have been a bit of beginner’s luck.
“I was traveling down to Denver for depositions in a case back in 2010-11,” he said. “And I saw big billboard for a Chugwater Chili Cookoff. And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember seeing the ads on TV when I was a little kid.’”
That nostalgia hooked him. He entered the cookout in 2011, entering a red chili, a green chili, the bike race and a salsa that he dreamed up just for the occasion.
Just The Right Amount Of Fruit
The first year Hugus entered the cookoff, he and his team, Cowboy Country Criminal Defense and Platte River Injury Law, got rave reviews for his salsa. But he ran out too quickly. Consequently, his salsa didn’t win the people’s choice award that year, or the next.
“So now we make about 10 gallons every year,” Hugus told Cowboy State Daily. “Because I was not going to not win just because I ran out of salsa.”
His salsa includes a few unexpected ingredients. There are mangoes hiding in the fresh tomato mix, as well as just a hint of mint.
“So, my idea was like, I don’t like a lot of fruity sauces because they’re too sweet,” he said. “But I wanted to make one that had a good fruit flavor, like good mango flavor, but also, like, nice heat.”
Hugus chooses two kinds of chilies for his salsa, one the hot habanero. Habanero has those fruity undertones that marry extremely well with mint and mango. The salsa starts with quick heat up front, and then a slow burn later after the bite has already gone down.
The mint really accentuates the overall effect, particularly when accompanied by a salty corn chip.
“(The mint’s) not overpowering,” Hugus said. “And we have a lot of people who really like it.”
So many, in fact, that Hugus was offering jars of extra fresh-made salsa to chili lovers on the spot. It was selling just as fast as the dreamy little funnel cakes with Thin Mint cookie crumbles.
Scaling up his salsa recipe for the masses takes precision with proportions, Hugus said, but is also something of an art.
“I’ve tweaked this over the years, but honestly it’s pretty much the same,” he added. “The produce changes a little bit, sometimes it’s hotter than others, so I leave a little bit of room for a margin to make adjustments at the last minute.”
That means just what you think. A bit of taste-testing with a salty chip for a scoop.
So far, Hugus’ fan-favorite salsa is only available to the public one day of the year. Trying it takes a pilgrimage with the rest of 3,000-some chili fans from around the world — and sometimes a pretty long wait in line for a turn at one chip and a scoop of salsa.
But it’s worth it. It’s mind-blowingly good for a salsa born on the fly in a home kitchen, with just the love of spice in mind.
“People always ask if we’re selling this,” Hugus said. “I’m not selling it commercially. Not yet, anyway. Maybe I’ll get there someday.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.