As far as I’m concerned, football season was over on January 6 when my Auburn Tigers played (and sadly lost) for the national championship, but we here in northern New Jersey are hosting another big football game this weekend. Like I said in this gumbo post a couple of years ago, I usually pick a team based on the city with the most interesting food, but this year, I can’t dispute that chili is one of the most iconic Super Bowl party foods. I love rich spicy chili con carne, but this year I’m making my just-as-rich but less heavy vegetable bean chili.
To me, a key in making any dish interesting is thinking a lot about texture. Either a single consistent texture (smooth and creamy for example) or a thoughtful combination of contrasting textures make a dish as much as flavor makes a dish. This challenge has been even more apparent to me when cooking vegetarian dishes without the ability to fall back on the chewy resistance of meat. Finding the right mix of contrasting textures without straying too far from the classic flavors of a bean chili was my challenge- and I really love what I finally came up with; the sweet pop of a corn kernel between your teeth, the silky collapse of eggplant over the tongue, the creamy interior of beans yielding into smooth spicy chili gravy- these take what can be a mushy stew from utilitarian to sensorily engaging and delicious.
I’ve been working on this chili for a long time and in fact, wasn’t able to decide which chili method I preferred. I’ve done the dry toasting and then grinding to chili powder method and the soak, blend and sieve chili method (the same that I do for chili salsa) and while both were a great way to get that rich chili baseline I want in chili, the trade-off of smooth, skinless chili texture that comes with the extra step of sieving wasn’t absolutely compelling. And I know a lot of people will want the ability to make this with a (very fresh and flavorful I hope) ground chili powder, so I wrote this recipe up with those instructions. I encourage you to try the soaking method- it’s such a great way to make smooth enchilada sauce, chili salsas, and chili based soups and is really worth learning the technique.
Vegetable Bean Chili
makes 3-4 quarts
1/2 pound dried red kidney beans
½ pound dried pink or pinto beans
water to cook beans (about 6 cups)
5 dried ancho chiles, stems and seeds removed
4 dried pasilla chiles, stems and seeds removed
4 dried Serrano chiles, stemmed (or fewer, depending on your heat tolerance)
or about ¼ -1/3 cup total of ground chile powders
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1 Tablespoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 chipotle in adobo
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, deseeded and minced (optional)
1 cup corn kernels (optional)
2 Asian eggplants, cubed
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 28 ounce can diced tomatoes
Sea salt to taste
Rinse the dried beans. Cover them with at least 4 cups of water in a saucepan. Cook them, either by first doing a quick soak, an overnight soak,( or if the dried beans are pretty fresh, without pre-soaking) for about an hour until tender. Keep them well covered with water; this liquid will be the broth for the chili.
In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast all of the dried chiles in a single layer, pressing them against the hot surface with a spoon or spatula until they become soft and fragrant. After allowing them to cool, blend them all in a spice grinder or coffee grinder until they are a fine powder.
Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a stockpot over medium heat. Sweat the diced onion with a pinch of salt until they begin to soften; add the eggplant, garlic and peppers and another pinch of salt. Once the vegetables are soft, sprinkle the oregano, cumin and pepper into the pot and stir into the vegetables. Once they have become fragrant, push everything to the edges of the pan and add a couple more tablespoons of oil. Pour the chile powder into the oil and stir, “frying” the powder in the oil until it becomes fragrant. Stir everything so the spices are incorporated into the vegetables, scraping any that stick off the bottom of the pot. Mix in the tomatoes (including the liquid from the can) and corn kernels and then pour in the beans and their cooking liquid; stir and bring to a simmer.
Taste for salt; I added a tablespoon (at least- more like a small palmful) of sea salt since the beans were unsalted. Simmer everything together low for 30 minutes before serving, or better yet, let it sit overnight, reheat and serve the next day.