Friday, January 6, 2012

Let's Lunch: Low-Concept Vegetarian Chili

(This is a slightly modified repost of an earlier piece)

Anyone who has ever shared a meal with me knows I’m relentlessly curious about strange food – the weirder the dish, the more I want to try it. “This looks like something YOU would order!”  has become family shorthand for any crazy menu item featuring odd organ meats or unexpected  uses of flavorings (vanilla-flavored appetizers or cilantro-flavored desserts, anyone?)  At home, my husband knows better than to expect any dish, except for a few treasured standards, to ever taste the same way twice. All others are subject to change and revision without notice. 

Because of my passion for culinary experimentation (a.k.a., pulling random objects from the fridge and making stuff up as I go along), the dishes I come up with during my cooking frenzies tend to be high-concept and, I like to believe, subversive: Crunchy pig ears! Curried popcorn! Sugary quesadilla-like objects!

Okay, maybe “high concept” is too generous a term. “Utterly random and in need of justification” may be more accurate. Still, some of my most random accidental creations are the ones I think of most fondly. 

But on really busy nights, the comfortable, immutable standards – grilled cheese sandwiches, fried eggs on toast – come to the rescue. Alternately, I’d throw together a pared-down, quickie version of something I’d normally do a lot, lot better. On such nights, the only guiding concept behind my cooking is “lowered expectations.”

A Wednesday evening in November – Thanksgiving Eve – was such a night. The strange part was that my experiment in non-experimentation went amazingly well.

Thanksgiving Eve (is that even a real term?) is the one day of the year when Americans are officially excused from even trying to make dinner – apparently, it’s one of the biggest nights of the year for Domino’s Pizza. For me, it was also a rush day at work – a huge, last-minute, emergency project kept me glued to my computer from about nine in the morning until 8:30 that night. When I hit the SEND button for the last time that evening and finally wiped my hands of the project, I realized I had not eaten anything since breakfast but a taro-flavored mochi ball (don’t ask) and a pear. I was famished, and my husband even more so.

I had previously planned to make vegetarian chili – I had all the ingredients, and it would be a good, low-fat counterpart to all the splurge-y stuff we’d be eating in the next few days. But I hadn’t counted on that project taking so long. Whatever. I really felt like eating chili, so I just plowed ahead. No time for anything experimental or fancy or original. Just basic, pared-down, fast-as-possible chili, or something like it.

In the interest of speed, I poured a thin layer of canola oil into a heavy saucepan and set it to heat as I prepped the veggies. (Back in cooking school, we were taught to have our mise en place – prepped ingredients and equipment – fully prepared and ready to go before we even contemplated approaching the stove, but at home I’ve found that interspersing prep and cooking is even faster, if you plan things right.) 
N.B. -- these photos weren't taken Thanksgiving Eve; we were too spaced out to even think of it. And in any case, I had no idea if the recipe would work, and to be honest, didn't really care. Rather, Glenn got these shots last night when I re-created the dish and calibrated all the measurements for public consumption.

While the oil heated, I chopped up some onion and bell pepper, which seemed like common-sense things to put in chili, then tossed them into the saucepan with the hot oil, a bit of dried oregano, and some cumin seed. (I added the seeds because I couldn’t find my bottle of ground cumin – now I’m glad it went missing; the seeds add a pop and vibrancy that the ground stuff doesn’t.)

 Then I chopped half a large tomato, a clove of garlic, and half a large jalapeno pepper. I tossed these into the saucepan along with my go-to secret ingredient: a chopped chipotle en adobo, or pickled chipotle chile: these chiles add a terrific hit of sweetness, spice, and smokiness to everything, and even better, keep well for long periods in the refrigerator.

All this had taken about 15 minutes, tops. Then I opened and drained a can of red beans, poured them into the veggie mix, lowered the heat, and let it simmer until the tomatoes and other veggies had cooked down. While this was happening, I poured beers for my husband and me and put together some tasty garnishes for the chili: a cut-up avocado, some chopped onion, a bit of grated cheddar. 

My original plan that morning had been to make cornbread to go with our dinner, but there was no way that was going to happen now – my brain was too fried and I was just too tired. So I got a loaf of bread from the fridge, cut a few slices, and put them on the table with the chile garnishes. Hey, it’s not much, but it’s better than Domino’s!

Now it was just after 9:00. Yes! A nice pot of homemade chili for two in just half an hour! Now THIS was a conceptual coup.

And darn if it didn’t taste really nice – bright, spicy, not too heavy, and quite pretty with the colorful garnishes strewn over the top. It turned out so well I decided I’d make it again, without any tweaks.
Of course, every experience of discovery brings with it useful lessons for the future, and here is the lesson of my nearly-no-concept chili: Sometimes brainless, half-assed efforts pay off  big time. Thank goodness for the universe’s small favors.

2 tablespoons canola or other neutral cooking oil
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
¾ cup chopped onion, plus extra for garnish
½ teaspoons cumin seed
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
1 clove garlic, minced
½ large jalapeno pepper, minced (optional – omit if you’re heat-averse)
1 cup chopped tomato (fresh or canned)
1 chopped chipotle en adobe
1 (14-ounce) can red or kidney beans
Salt to taste
Shredded cheddar cheese, for garnish
1 chopped or sliced ripe avocado, for garnish

1. Heat oil in a heavy saucepan over medium high heat. Add onions, bell pepper, cumin, and oregano and cook until vegetables are wilted, about three minutes.

2. Add garlic and jalapeno to the saucepan, cook until they soften and release their fragrance, about 2 minutes.

3. Add tomatoes, chipotle, and beans to the saucepan. Lower the heat, stir, cover, and allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have dissolved and the vegetables are soft. Taste and add salt if needed (it probably won’t need any). Serve with garnishes.

This is part of the monthly #LetsLunch series -- this month's theme is chili! Stay tuned for links to other contributions to the series; it's going to be great!


  1. Great idea! And the best cooking is the random cooking of pulling stuff out of the fridge and seeing what you can come up with. I haven't quite dominated it, but I'm awed by those who can!!

  2. Felicia, love the play-by-play on the creation of this meal. BTW I have had savory vanilla entrees, cilantro garnished ice cream and always stock taro mocha-- what's so weird about that? :)

  3. Jenn--Yes, serendipity makes for tasty meals!

    Linda - We're not weird,everyone else is!

  4. Gorgeous photos, and it sounds delicious. I know what you mean about needing to streamline and cutback during the non-party holiday times. I'm cooking and eating simpler because there will be days when I eat mainly brie cheese and cookies.

  5. Grace--Brie and cookies...I can relate, that sounds like my holiday diet as well!

  6. This chili looks really good and we're having chile weather here in Michigan!

  7. Culinary Collage--Thanks! Stay warm and healthy!

  8. Sounds great! And, I have to say, I'm glad you didn't include pig's ears in this one. Not my favorite thing!

  9. nah, nothing subversive here! Looks good! I once made my husband eat duck tongue at a little eatery in San francisco. you shoulda joined us!

  10. Felicia, I love the idea of sizzling cumin seeds. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who preps and cooks at the same time - I think it saves time, too!

  11. Maybe low concept, but high creativity and style! Love this -- I cook the same way and lucky if I remember to write down what I used.

  12. Cheryl--Hmm, haven't done pigs' ear chili yet!
    GeoKaren--Your husband is a great sport! Lucky you!
    Lucy--Thanks! I think a lot of proficient cooks secretly prep and cook simultaneously.
    Cathy--Thanks for coming by! I don't think to write down most of my everyday experiments, but this one seemed worthy of the effort!

  13. I love cooking based on what I have in the fridge/pantry and just by feel. Now, I need to make a habit of writing stuff down ... Thanks for sharing!

  14. Isn't it nice when you come up with a simple recipe that tastes like it's been cooking for hours. Beautiful!

  15. Pat and Jeanette--It's funny how the simplest things are sometimes the best!