I had been asked for the Vegan Chili recipe I used for my Fifth Annual Thunder Over Louisville Party. I realized that my chili recipe at this point is more of a thought process than an actual recipe and as I was writing it I realized its a bit more of a ramble than, say, tweet-sized, so now it is a blog post.
My chili recipe in general comes from years of making it with available ingredients and tweaking it as I discover new options or find things of interest to experiment with. I honestly don’t think it is “much” of a recipe, not just because it isn’t written down, but also because it started decades ago as just following the directions on store-bought seasoning packets and at least in my head hasn’t wandered too far from that basic formula.
As the biggest brother in the family, I’d sometimes have to cook simple things for lunch for my siblings and I. I cooked lots of things over years, especially good old American staples like Kraft Mac & Cheese, boiled hot dogs, Campbell’s soup cans, etc. Probably the thing that was closest to an actual recipe meal for many years for me was to cook a pot of chili and a pot of spaghetti to serve the chili on.
The ingredients list in my head is: Meat, Spices, Tomatoes, and Beans. That’s a pretty obvious deconstruction of the entire concept of chili right there. It’s also nice in that it is roughly the order you find ingredients in a typical grocery store layout and also the order in which I cook things; hurray for convenient mnemonics.
This is the category I’ve probably experimented with the most over the years and is also obviously the big key to change to make the recipe vegan friendly. My vegan “meat” choice right now is the simple colorful combination of all the bell pepper colors, a red onion, and mushrooms. I tend to wander the produce section for interesting looking things. Cooking for myself the stores these days tend to have pre-chopped bell pepper medleys. I like getting a mixture of mushroom types and the basic balance these days is about two-thirds “average” mushrooms and a third portobello mushrooms. For chili, I don’t feel like bothering with much beyond produce and don’t think you need any of the “meat substitutes”.
I drizzle a thin layer of olive oil on the bottom of my pot, throw all the meat ingredients in. Average mushrooms snap in interesting ways when whole pieces are thrown into the pot and briefly prodded with your spoon; portobello mushrooms I chop up. Bring it up to a small simmer.
I still start with store-brand packet of chili seasoning. Strangely the cheapest, most “value” store-brand packet has the least preservatives and simplest ingredients in a good balance for a base flavor. It’s lazy, but it’s a familiar base level and after all these years I’m comfortable with it. This is also why I don’t really consider my recipe all that special beyond a simple one.
In addition to the chili packet, I tend to add other spices from my spice cabinet in a general sort of improv based on what I’m feeling and what I have in the spice cabinet. I’m a big fan of the Bourbon Barrel Smoked Paprika and add it to many foods, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I add a dash to my chili. Other things include a dash of ground mustard, some dried fire roasted tomatoes I have, more chili powder.
I dump the spices directly on the “meat”, stirring and rubbing it all over the produce. Let it all simmer together, the mushrooms to absorb some of the spices and the onions to caramelize a bit. I tend to leave the chili powder out and add a dash roughly every time I go to stir the pot, more or less depending on how strong everything smells.
The must-have is a big can of diced tomatoes. I’m fascinated by the growing number of types of “diced tomatoes &” options on the shelves these days and improv my way to whichever ones sound interesting and are available to purchase. Most commonly there’s a diced tomatoes & green chilies option and I will grab a can of that. For Thunder I felt like adding to that also a can of diced tomatoes & cilantro with lime.
I add the tomatoes into the pot just as it feels like the onions are caramelized enough and the rest of meat seems way too “dry”.
Bean shopping for me is also a bit of a can roulette based on mood and interest. More so because the different textures of different beans also helps keep the vegan chili interesting. My base here is Brooks chili beans, typically two-thirds medium and one-third hot. Beyond that it really is just about every bean I feel like adding; black beans, white northern beans, pinto beans.
I throw the beans all in directly after the tomatoes. Then I mostly leave everything on high until it boils, stirring every so often (and adding an extra dash of chili powder as I feel it). Once it boils, reduce heat back to medium or a simmer and give it a bit extra time for good measure.
Louisville is a cultural border town between many food wars and cultures, so I feel free to pick and choose as I see fit. “True Texas style”, I know would stop at the above (and still object to some of it, I imagine). Of the more “Northern” accoutrements, my current feelings:
An extra starch still seems like a good idea to make chili feel like a complete meal. These days I prefer macaroni, but spaghetti is an old friend here.
Crackers are useful for bonus salt management and extra crunch. I tend towards oyster crackers, but won’t say no to Frito’s here.
Everyone loves dairy, but dairy just can’t make the cut in vegan chili. Still sometimes I want a good shredded cheese or sour cream, but I’m trying to skip those these days.
I’m of the opinion these days that chili should not be sweetened.