When a writer cooks: vegetarian chili.

If this is your first visit to my page, this isn’t a food blog. Though you’ll find posts from the past on videogames, I usually write about writing. This post, however, isn’t about writing. Probably.

Being a writer isn’t all research and word counts. We gotta eat, too. So today I’m making vegetarian chili. But first, a story.

chili_07Back when I had a job, the staff occasionally held what they called “Soup Fest.” People brought in soups and whatnot for a potluck-type lunch thing. It was one of those things that broke up the soul-crushing monotony of an office job. One year for Soup Fest I made a batch of vegetarian chili and brought it in. People loved it, and a few asked me for the recipe, but there was no recipe. “That’s not how I cook,” I told them. They didn’t like that.

Recently, I made another batch of chili, and this time I decided to document it and take some pictures. Maybe some people from my old job will see it. It’s a simple dish, but it is a bit time-consuming. I like to set my laptop up in the kitchen and do some work while things are cooking and they don’t need my immediate attention. It’s always good when you can sneak in a few hundred words while you’re doing other stuff.

If you wanna make this, you’ll need to work out your own timing and schedule so things are ready when you need them. I have no idea how I accomplished this. Magic, probably. Read through the whole thing and make a plan. Or just wing it.

Some chili purists will insist that isn’t actually a “chili” since, as a rule, chili is made with meat. They might prefer I call this a “chili-like soup product” or something. But the classification of a thing really isn’t all that important, is it? I mean, if you’re in the mood for chili, this is probably gonna satisfy. No need to be pedantic. It’s chili, and it’s delicious.

It starts with a vegetable stock, which I like to make myself. It’s better that way. I use vegetables that I cut into chunks and store in my freezer for just such occasions. It’s a mix of onions, carrots, celery, and mushrooms.

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It might not look like much, but it’s plenty for a batch of chili. It all goes in a big pot of water and gets simmered for a few hours. My method is derived from the procedure shown in the chicken stock episode of ‘Good Eats’ where Alton Brown makes, um, chicken stock. Never be afraid to seek wisdom from the masters.

So let that simmer for a while, and ponder this article about why onions make your cry. Because that’s next.

I’ve got four onions, which I dice kinda small. Don’t cut yourself. Learn some knife skills. If it seems like too much (or too little) onion, you can use less (or more), whatever you like.

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To build the chili, I use a dutch oven, but you can use whatever big pot you have on hand. No need to rush out and buy new tools. Use what you have.

A few tablespoons of vegetable oil go in, followed by the onions and a few heavy pinches of salt. Watch your heat. Don’t burn the onions. Burnt onions are nasty. All you wanna do is cook some of the excess water out of the onions. You’ll see it pool up in the bottom of the pot and boil away.

chili_04Next, I add a can of tomato paste. I’ve heard some people say that tomatoes (and tomato products) have no place in chili. It’s another one of those rules. But I like tomato paste and it goes well with this chili, so to hell with the rule. Every rule in the kitchen (and pretty much everywhere else) is just a guideline anyway.

The tomato paste goes in, and the heat goes up. I like to cook the paste a bit, get some color into it, which adds a lot of flavor. You always wanna try to build flavor as you go. The final dish may be a sum of its parts, but each of those parts has to be high-quality. So take your time and do it right. Keep stirring and don’t burn it.

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Next comes the chili powder. For this, I once again turn to the master and use Alton Brown’s chili powder from the ‘Good Eats’ episode where he makes, um, chili. This is so much better than store-bought. I mean, holy shit. It’s a lesson in never taking shortcuts. Do it right. Making the chili powder involves toasting dried chiles and cumin seeds in a pan. I do this outside on a camp stove. It can be volatile.

Add the chili powder to the onions and stir. I probably used around four tablespoons this time. Once it hits the heat, it might give off some irritating fumes. This is normal. Cook it for a minute or so, then add some minced garlic. Don’t burn the garlic. It just needs a few seconds to bloom.

Now for the stock. I strain out the vegatables using a collander, than strain it again through a fine-mesh strainer. This goes into the pot, and I make sure to scrape up anything that may be stuck to the bottom.

Let’s talk beans, another ingredient that doesn’t belong in “real” chili (those purists sure are annoying). I never pre-soak my beans. Never. And guess what? They turn out great. That’s what works for me, and you should find what works for you. There are plenty of ways to do everything in the kitchen.

I sort the beans, picking out the stones or whatever might be in with the beans that aren’t beans. Then I rinse them, throw them in a pot, cover with a few inches of water, and simmer them for about an hour (I do this in advance, of course). Then they get drained and added to the chili pot. I used kidney beans this time. Sometimes I use Great Northerns.

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And now, the peppers. For this batch, I used three big green bell peppers, a few poblanos, and a bunch of jalapeños. The bell pepper gets chopped into big pieces, and the chiles get diced into tiny pieces (I always wear gloves when I work with chile peppers). I remove most of the seeds and veins from the chiles to temper the hotness. You expect a chili to have some spiciness, but I think it sucks when a dish is only about the spiciness. It needs to be balanced with the other flavors.

The peppers go into the chili pot (I’ve prepared these earlier, and they go in with the beans after the broth). I’ve also got some leftover chipotle chiles, the kind that are canned with adobo sauce. So a couple of chipotles, chopped fine, go into the pot along with a few spoonfuls of adobo sauce.

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Okay, so I’ve nearly overfilled the pot again. That’s okay. I’ll let it cook down a bit before I put the lid on. And I’ll be careful when I stir it. I just cleaned the stove, after all.

So that’s everything. All it needs now is to simmer for a while until the beans are done. Oh, and at that point, I check if it needs salt.

And there we go. Vegetarian chili. It’s cheap, it’s delicious, and it freezes well. Yes, it’s a fair bit of work, but good things usually are. And yes, maybe not everyone will like it, and there will be some people who will criticize my technique or my choice of ingredients. But others, including me, will love it. And that makes it all worthwhile.


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