We’re carnivores when it comes to chili. But when my husband announced that he had volunteered to put together a vegetarian chili for an event and asked for my help, I figured that if he could move out of his comfort zone chili-wise, so could I. Our efforts yielded a chili that is so tasty that neither of us missed the meat. I realize that’s not the way true vegetarians would describe a culinary triumph, but that’s the truth from my/our perspective.
The best part of this vegetarian chili is that the flavor is incredibly complex. Sure it’s spicy, but it’s also sweet and smoky, with hints of chipotle. The series of separate steps for cooking the vegetables may seem like a pain, but they’re worth it in the end.
Chili powders are not all the same and which one you use makes a difference. I used a combination of store-bought chili powder (a mixture of various chilies, herbs, and spices) and pure ancho chili powder. If you have an “artisan” chili powder mix (yes, I realize that’s an oxymoron), all the better. I removed most of the seeds from the canned chipotle chiles in adobo because they amp up the heat, but leave them in if you’re a brave soul when it comes to the Scoville scale.
This recipe makes a boatload of chili; I used a 9½ quart enameled cast iron pot. If you don’t such a big pot, make a half batch or divide the chili between small 2 pots. And don’t be scared off by the cost of the ingredients. You can save money by using dried beans, cooking them before adding to the chili of course or buying the tomatoes and beans in bulk, freezing what you don’t need for this recipe. Even without cost-cutting, the total cost is $2.50 per serving with lots of toppings. When was the last time you bought a huge, fabulous bowl of chili for that?
I won’t get into the age-old tussle between those who like their chili over rice and those who prefer it over spaghetti, not to mention those purists who go for chili “alone in a bowl”, with a side of cornbread or chips and guacamole. Suffice it to say, that you should serve (and eat) this vegetarian chili whichever way you like it – maybe even with a shot or two of hot sauce. Like my friend Jeff, the chili master counsels, I am a firm believer that chili improves if you let it cool and mellow for at least several hours if not overnight. So leave yourself adequate time if you’re making this chili for Game Day/Super Bowl XLIX next Sunday. On the other hand, if it’s a snowy day and you want chili for dinner, go ahead; it’s awesome even without the wait.
Servings – 12+ Cost – $30 (including toppings & rice/spaghetti) Adapted from Leite’s Culinaria
- ½ cup (8 tablespoons) olive oil
- 2 large/3 small sweet potatoes (approximately 1 ½ pounds), peeled and cut into 1-1½-inch cubes
- 1 pound small/medium portabella or white mushrooms, quartered
- 2 ribs celery, diced
- 2 large sweet onions, chopped
- 3 bell peppers, chopped (any combination of red, yellow & orange)
- 3 medium zucchini, diced
- 3 cloves garlic
- Stems from 1 bunch of cilantro (leaves reserved for garnish)
- One 7-ounce can mild green chiles
- 2 or 3 canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, chopped (remove seeds to limit the heat)
- 1 tablespoon of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped or grated
- 2 cups vegetable stock
- Three 15-ounce cans of diced tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted
- Two 15-ounce cans kidney beans, rinsed and drained
- One 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
- One 15-ounce can pinto beans, rinsed and drained
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 2 tablespoons ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 bottle dark Mexican beer (Negra Modelo works well)
- Optional – rice or spaghetti
- Tortilla chips
- Leaves from 1 bunch fresh cilantro
- 8 ounces sour cream
- 1 cup shredded cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese
- Cutting board
- Vegetable peeler
- Small baking sheet (for the sweet potatoes)
- Large pot
- Measuring spoons
- Measuring cup for liquids
- Small food processor or blender
- Large wooden spoon
- Small spoon (for peeling fresh ginger)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Put the cubed sweet potatoes and 2 tablespoons of oil in a plastic bag and coat the cubes. Then toss onto a baking sheet and roast until just tender, about 15-20 minutes. Set them aside on the pan.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of the remaining olive oil in a large pot over medium heat until shimmering. Add the mushrooms and cook on medium-high heat. Leave them undisturbed for 1 minute, then turn them occasionally until they are browned, about 3-5 minutes. Don’t crowd them and cook them in 2 batches if there isn’t enough space to lay them in one layer. (After they “sweat”, the mushrooms will shrink.) Once they are browned, remove them to a bowl.
- Heat 1½ more tablespoons of oil, add half of the onion/pepper/celery, sautéing them until they start to caramelize, about 8 minutes. Remove to a bowl. Repeat, adding another 1½ tablespoons of oil and the second half of those vegetables. Remove to the same bowl.
- Add 1 more tablespoon of oil to the now-empty pot and when it is hot, add the zucchini and sauté until it becomes tender, about 5 minutes. When they are done, add the rest of the (now cooked) vegetables back into the pot with the zucchini, as well as the canned tomatoes.
- In the meantime, combine the garlic cloves, cilantro stems, green chiles, chipotle chiles, and ginger in a small food processor and process until minced. Add ½ cup of the stock and pulse to combine. If you don’t have a small food processor, use an immersion or regular blender, adding a few tablespoons of the stock to the other ingredients before combining them, then adding the rest or simply finely dice the ingredients and stir them with the stock.
- Add the chile mixture to the pot, stir, and bring vegetables and sauce to a simmer. Add the beans, salt, chili powder, cumin, oregano, beer, and the rest of the vegetable stock (1½ cups), and simmer the chili uncovered, stirring frequently, until it thickens and the vegetables soften, about 30 minutes.
Serve with rice or spaghetti if desired and toppings on the side.
If you want to use dried beans instead of canned, here is a great resource from Serious Eats that provides rough conversions of canned-to-dry and vice versa and a Los Angeles Times article about the best way to cook dried beans (hint – don’t soak them!)