Friday, February 11, 2011

Classic Vegetarian Chili

I learned to cook from both of my parents. My mom is a beautiful baker—she's got the cold hands for pastry that I lack—and her cookies, scones, biscuits, and apple crisp are to die for. My dad's more into meat and potatoes: I drool over his chicken Marsala and whipped potatoes. While he makes incredible honey-garlic ribs, juicy steaks, and the fluffiest pancakes, his chili is what I think most of as his signature dish. Dad’s chili is thick enough to stand a spoon up in, chock full of beans and ground beef, and headily warm without being tongue-numbingly spicy. It’s the kind of food that makes you glad it’s winter and you’re cosily wrapped up in flannel and wool socks. 

My chili and Dad’s are almost exactly the same, but I’ve tweaked the recipe to dial down the meat, emphasize the beans, and amp up the colour. He uses canned beans, whereas I usually take the extra step of soaking dried beans and simmering them with a bay leaf for extra flavour. Dad uses lean ground beef, browned along with the onions, but I usually use textured vegetable protein (TVP) crumbles, which even meat-loving Sonia couldn’t tell weren’t meat the first time she tried it. TVP soaks up all of the good tomatoey, cuminy flavours and has a nice bit of chewiness about it like ground beef. If you’re not into meat substitutes, add a third kind of bean, or some red lentils that will meld into the sauce. I also like to set out small bowls of a few garnishes for extra flavour, texture, and colour—a dollop of thick and tangy Greek yogurt, a sprinkle of pungent green onion, and a few shreds of old cheddar cheese. I’m not a cilantro fan, but I bet it would be good here too. Everyone in my family likes varying degrees of spice, so I always set out more chili powder and a couple of kinds of hot sauce so they can customize.

The other great thing about Dad’s recipe is that it works on nights that you’ve got no time, and on nights that you’ve got a couple of hours to mind a pot on the stove. I’ve included instructions to make this in the slow-cooker—a working girl’s best friend if ever there was one—or on the stovetop, so you can have a bowl of stick-to-your-ribs chili anytime you want. It tastes even better the next day, and it makes killer nachos. 


1 cup dried red kidney beans, or other beans of your choice
1 cup dried white kidney beans, or other beans of your choice
A bay leaf
2 medium yellow onions, diced
2 tsp olive oil
1 can San Marzano tomatoes, snipped with kitchen scissors in the can or lightly crushed with your hands as you add to the pot
1 ½ cups TVP, soaked in 1 ¼ cups boiling water
2-3 tbsp (or to taste) Mexican chili powder, as fresh as you can get it
½ lb white or cremini mushrooms, quartered
Salt and pepper to taste

0% Greek yogurt (I use the Liberte brand)
Shredded old cheddar cheese
Thinly sliced green onions, white and green parts
Extra chili powder, regular hot sauce, or chipotle hot sauce


Soak the beans in cool water overnight, or for at least 5 hours.

Drain. Place in a large pot, cover with water, add the bay leaf and simmer for 45-60 minutes, or until tender. Add salt during the last 15 minutes of cooking. Drain, discard the bay leaf, and set aside.

Meanwhile, sauté the onions in the olive oil until tender and translucent, about 8 minutes.

Slower cooker directions: Combine the onions, beans, tomatoes, TVP, and chili powder in the slow cooker. Leave on the low setting while you’re at work or doing other things, 6-8 hours. When you get home, add the mushrooms, and let cook for another 30 minutes while you relax, set the table, and prep the garnishes. Taste and season, adding more chili powder if you want to freshen up the spice flavours.

Stovetop directions: Combine the onions, beans, tomatoes, TVP, and chili powder in a large pot. Add ½ cup of water that you’ve swilled out the tomato can with. Simmer, uncovered, over low heat for 2 hours or until thick. Add the mushrooms during the last 30 minutes of cooking. Taste and season.

Garnish with toppings of your choice. My family always serves this with a loaf of crusty bread and butter for dunking—there’s something about the combination of the creamy butter and the spicy tomato flavour that’s killer. I’m still working on that fool-proof whole-wheat bread recipe, I promise, and I’ll be ready to share it soon.


  1. When you say 'Mexican chili powder', do you have any suggestions?

    I remember reading Corey Mintz say that he uses a combination of three of them: ancho and... um, two others.

    I use canned chipotle peppers but I always feel like it's missing that secret 'depth' or whatever. So I'm just wondering if there's a type of chili powder that's best.

    Oh, also: great photo!

  2. Argh! I've got to get this fixed so that I actually get notifications when people comment. Making me mad.

    As for chili powder, I've been using one labelled "Mexican chili powder" from the spice shop in Kensington, and it's delicious. I can't remember either what Corey suggests, but the premixed stuff for me is the smell of home.