Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Art and Science of Vegetarian Chili

Keeping cooked beans in the fridge has turned out to be our best move yet for making weeknights easier and keeping our grocery bill reasonable, and teaching Henry the quick-brining method of soaking beans (read about it here) has turned out to be my best move yet in our cooking lessons - turns out, it appeals to the scientist in my son. I've personally never cared about why onions turn out better when I sauté them with a pinch of salt, I just appreciate that they do, but Henry is 13, he wants to know why, and I can see that including a little science in our cooking lessons will go far in keeping his interest.

This quick vegetarian chili might not look like a science project* but it's a little more sophisticated than meets the eye, with intensified richness from the caramelized tomato paste, improved texture and flavor from using two kinds of beans, boosted umami from the mushrooms (read about umami here - I think the absence of umami is why vegetarian chili is often meh), and of course there's that pinch of salt added in with the onions. (I looked it up: the salt pulls moisture out of the onion so it cooks faster and tastes sweeter. It's because of osmotic pressure. That's right. Osmotic pressure.)

Vegetarian Chili
Serves 6-8

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
pinch salt
2 red bell peppers, diced
1/2 lb mushrooms, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, diced small (optional)
2 stalks celery, diced (optional)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon oregano
1.5 teaspoons cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne OR, for delicious smokiness, 1-2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, diced
7 cups cooked beans - for best results use a mixture of black beans and white beans- if you don't have cooked beans on hand, use canned, it's fine (4 drained cans)
1 16-ounce can chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup water
optional garnish: green onions, cilantro, sour cream, cheese, diced tomato, etc.

Warm olive oil in large pot, add onion and small pinch of salt, and cook 5 or so minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently.

Add bell pepper, mushrooms, garlic, and optional carrots and celery. Stir well and cook for 10 minutes.

Add tomato paste and stir 3-4 minutes until paste turns dark red. Don't skip this - caramelizing the tomato paste majorly boosts the flavor of this chili.

Stir in chili powder, oregano, cumin, cayenne or chipotle peppers, and stir 1 minute.

Add beans, tomatoes and their juices, salt, pepper, and water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer 15 minutes. Check and stir frequently, and add more water if it gets too thick.

Taste and adjust seasoning.

*Speaking of what this chili looks like - I want to disclose that this is not our photo, we just haven't had time to take pictures this week and I couldn't stand to do a post without a picture!