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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The BEST vegetarian chili

Pictured with biscuits
I'm no stranger to vegetarian cooking.  I routinely incorporate vegetarian and vegan meals into our dinner rotations...in fact, one of my kids will only reliably eat vegetables when accompanied by tofu (or hidden in a smoothie, in which I have also used tofu).  I have a long-standing history of sneaking vegetarian proteins into meals without telling my soy-phobic audience (bad Daughter-In-Law, bad!)  I have happily tried cooking with nearly every meat substitute and vegetarian protein readily available at my grocery store, everything from tofu and tempeh to Fakin' and Garden Burgers and (oddest of all IMHO) Texturized Vegetable Protein.

But I do not like vegetarian chili.

I have tried many a recipe...the ones that use frozen-then-thawed shredded tofu as a meat substitute, the ones that use TVP, the ones that refuse to even try to sub anything in for the meat and go all-out with beans and vegetables.  They all lack something, well, *meaty*.  The texture, the depth of flavor, the way the tomatoes and spices of the chili play together...it just doesn't quite work as well without meat.

And then I saw the recent Cook's Illustrated issue (December 2012).  I adore Cook's Illustrated.  Geeky and science-y and culinarily outstanding all at once.  They have dedicated most of a 2-page spread to explaining why their newly developed Best Vegetarian Chili Recipe Ever works, but the important part is...it does work.  It makes the thing that meat does to chili happen but without the meat.  It also makes a vat of chili, which naturally makes it an ideal make-ahead sort of affair.

It's a good thing it makes so much (and that you can freeze some for another day) because, like everything Cook's Illustrated does, there are a lot of little steps that lead you to the perfection they offer.  Aggravating, but absolutely necessary.  The one step you could probably skip is toasted and grinding your own dry chile pods.  In fact, they suggest substituting 1/4 cup ancho chile powder for the at-home roasted-ground chiles if you don't want to do that step.  But everything else...grinding dry shiitake mushrooms, toasting and grinding walnuts, cooking a blend of dried beans from scratch...necessary.

They recommend a mixture of earthy beans (pintos, kidney, black beans) and creamy beans (navy, great northern).  I used navy and pintos in equal parts.  I also used 2 pasilla peppers and 2 sandia peppers (instead of ancho and New Mexico) because those are the dry peppers I have in my pantry, but next time I'll just use chile powder.

CI recommends cooking the chili in the oven to avoid having to stir the beans.  I think it just makes it take longer and produces a thinner chili than I like, so I'll be doing it on the stovetop from now on.

The recipe below is rewritten to streamline the steps and make the ingredient list make more sense to me LOL  I *hate* it when the ingredients are listed in a different order than you use them, so I've regrouped them into clusters that get added/handled all at once.  I also think this makes a LOT more than the 6-8 servings CI suggests, hence the range of servings.

Cook's Illustrated Vegetarian Chili
Makes 6-12 servings

1 lb. dry beans (combination of earthy and creamy is best)
1/2 cup walnuts
1/4 cup ancho chile powder (or 4 dry mild chiles)
1/2 oz. dry shiitake mushrooms
4 tsp dry oregano
1 tbsp ground cumin
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3 large onions, chopped
1 tsp salt
7 cups water
1 28 oz can diced tomatoes, drained and juice reserved
3 tbsp tomato paste
1 jalapeno, coarsely chopped
6 garlic cloves
3 tbsp soy sauce
2/3 cup medium grind bulgur
For serving: chopped cilantro, cheese, sour cream (optional)

Soak beans overnight or cover them with water, bring to a boil, remove from heat, cover and let stand 1 hour.  Drain and set aside.

Toast walnuts in a saute pan over medium heat until lightly browned.  Be careful not to burn them!  Toast chiles as well if using whole dry chiles.  Set aside.

Grind mushrooms, chile powder (or whole chiles), oregano and cumin in a food processor into a fine powder (a mini processor works best, but a big one will work).  Set aside.

Heat oil in a large heavy pot (I used a 8-qt pot) over medium-high.  Add onions and salt.  Saute 8-10 minutes, until browned.  Lower heat and add chile-mushroom spice mixture.  Stir to incorporate.  Add beans and water.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low to simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a food processor (don't bother washing if you used it for the mushroom-spice mix), grind walnuts finely.  Add drained tomatoes, tomato paste, jalapeno, garlic and soy sauce and blend well.  Pour into a bowl and add reserved tomato juice.

After 45 minutes, add walnut-tomato mixture and bulgur.  Simmer an additional 45-60 minutes, until beans are cooked.  Stir well and let stand for 20 minutes before serving with optional toppings. Pin It

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