Are you yelling at me already today, seeing the title of this post? Are you yelling and shaking your fist, saying things like, “There are certain truths in this world. Peanut butter and jelly go together in sandwiches. Steak is best at medium rare. AND YOU ALWAYS PUT MEAT IN YOUR CHILI.”
Look, I hear you. I definitely hear you. Nothing fills the belly and warms the soul than a hearty bowl of ground beef chili on a cold winter’s day. But what about the days we’re having right now? Right now I wake up to crisp mornings in the high 60s. I get excited, slip on my fuzzy slippers, and bundle myself into a long cardigan, ready to wrap my hands around a hot cup of coffee, Folgers-style. That delusion lasts until midday, when the temperature outside creeps up to the mid-80s. Suddenly, I’m dealing with obscene amounts of foot sweat, and my cozy cardigan is a puddle around my desk chair. I really want fall to come, but, as my daughter Meimei so frequently says when in one of her whining fits, it’s not letting me! (She says that all the time to address a variety of frustrating situations ranging from tearing toilet paper from the roll to separating Legos. As her mom, I love her to pieces, but hearing her screech that phrase is like nails on a chalkboard sometimes.)
That’s why I’m advocating vegetarian chili today. I’m staunchly advocating it, in fact. It’s just enough heartiness to make you feel like you’re participating in cool fall weather, but without the heaviness of regular chili to load you down. I paired mine with skillet cornbread. If there’s a new truth out there, it should be that vegetarian chili and skillet cornbread are meant to be together.
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As with any soup or stew, building layers of flavor in a vegetarian chili is key. To maximize built-in flavor, I always add my spices while I’m sauteing my onions, in the earliest phases of making chili (or any stew, really). I learned this trick from the Indian cooking classes I took while living in Malaysia. I learned that all Indian cooks pretty much start building flavor by sauteeing onions and spices together in hot oil, such that the flavors in the spices become earthier, deeper and more complex (for more on that, click here).
The other major departure from my chili (besides the fact that every single Texan reading this blog post must be dying right now from the lack of meat) is the addition of chickpeas to my version of vegetarian chili, mainly because my kids are ridiculously huge fans of chickpeas and so it was what I had on hand. However, traditionalists might want to stick with kidney beans or pinto beans.
As for my cornbread, I used to make mine slightly sweetened, with just a hint of sugar and canned creamed corn. I still love that version. It’s slightly cake-y and moist and all sorts of wonderful, especially when slathered with softened salted butter and raw honey. But, like a good leather handbag, I believe that there are different types of cornbread for different occasions. For chili, I omit the sugar and make a crumbly version. I like the contrast of a fall-apart cornbread that flakes easily for mixing into chili. But that’s just me. Maybe you’re more of a burgundy-leather-and-olive- trench-coat type of cornbread eater. Either way, baking your cornbread in a cast-iron skillet is practically a must. The heat from a cast iron skillet, especially when slathered with bacon fat, produces an excellent, perfectly golden cornbread with just the right amount of crustiness.
On the night I made this chili and cornbread, the evening was on the high side of warm and fairly muggy. We gathered around the dinner table in t-shirts and shorts, our foreheads glistening with sweat as we worked our way through our steaming bowls. It may not be fall yet, but by golly, I’m going to will it to be.
- For the cornbread:
- 1 cup milk
- 1⁄4 cup unsalted butter, melted, plus more for greasing the pan.
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 1⁄4 cups yellow cornmeal
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
- For the chili:
- 3 medium zucchini, chopped
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 medium sweet red pepper, chopped
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 cans (28 ounces each) crushed tomatoes
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 can (15 ounces) chickpeas/garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 can (15 ounces) black beans, rinsed and drained
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 squares semi-sweet chocolate (approximately 1 ounce) or 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
- 1 avocado, chopped
- ½ cup cilantro, finely minced
- 3 green onions, finely minced
- optional: 1 cup shredded cheese
- Get the cornbread in the oven. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 10" cast-iron skillet or 8x8 square baking pan and slide into the oven while oven is preheating and you are preparing the cornbread batter. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. Mix the butter, milk and egg together in a separate medium-sized bowl. Gently combine the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Pour the batter into the slightly heated pan, then slide into the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool slightly.
- While the cornbread is baking, heat a large, heavy Dutch oven over medium heat. Add olive oil and heat until shimmering, then add onions, chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper and saute gently, stirring frequently to incorporate the spices and onions. Cook for 2-4 minutes until the onions are slightly softened and starting to become translucent. Add the garlic and stir for 1 minute, then add sweet pepper, zucchini and carrots and saute for 2-3 minutes more, stirring to make sure that vegetables are thoroughly coated with spices.
- Turn up the heat to medium-high and add tomatoes, tomato paste, beans, bay leaf and chocolate (or sugar, if using). Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low. Simmer chili for 15-20 minutes until tomatoes are softened and flavors are incorporated. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Cut cornbread into pie-shaped wedges. Serve chili with cornbread, avocado, cilantro, green onion, sour cream and shredded cheese on the side.