"Greatest Meal Ever": Vegetarian Chili

One of the only things I enjoy more than a good meal or recipe is a good story. I found both in this past month's Saveur, which included 25 mini essays of famous people in food and writing describing their "greatest meals ever." It's a superb issue with a lot of wonderful stories, but for me, a few favorites quickly emerged. The first one, "Open House," by Gabrielle Hamilton, is about a Sunday lunch that Hamilton planned à la those held by her Italian mother-in-law. She had a menu ready, guests were invited, "Except that somehow my husband and I fell into one of those massive, lacerating, deep and dark martial blowouts that you never forget for as long as you live." A recipe comes attached to each essay and this one looks truly amazing: Brown Butter pasta topped with pine nuts and fried eggs. It's on my to-do list, but until then, check it out and read the essay here.

The other essay, "Fire in my Belly," by Suketu Mehta was one of those that the moment I finished reading, I needed to discuss. This discussion was quickly followed by an urge to make the dish that the story hinges on, an extremely spicy, vegetarian chili. [Extreme sidebar information: I didn't see the recipe or even a photograph of the dish on the essay's adjacent page, and without this, my little millennial/short-attention-spanned brain skipped the next logical steps and immediately Googled the author, found his website, and sent him an email saying something like: "I loved your essay! Where can I find the recipe?" Mr. Mehta was kind enough to reply with a nice message and a link to the Saveur site where it had been conspicuously sitting all along. I also then found it in the magazine a few pages back. My bad, but goes to show you how crazy/cool/weird the Internet can be. No?]

Though only one magazine-page long, this mini essay spends almost the entire first half setting up the author's affinity for chiles, spicy food, and in particular, his vegetarian chili, which he makes with the spiciest chile on planet urf, the naga jolokia. Do you know about the Scoville scale? It's basically how us humans measure the spiciness of chili peppers. Mehta explains: "A jalapeño has about 8,000 [Scoville units], a habanero, half a million. The naga jolokia, meanwhile, explodes with over a million Scoville units." You must read the story yourself to know what I'm talking about when I say that Mehta's vegetarian chili sounds frighteningly spicy, as in, this chili could hurt you in a very harmful way.

Saveur's version:
Photo: Todd Coleman
our version:

So what did I do? I completely wussed out. Even though I love spicy food, the story made me believe I couldn't handle this chile's level of spiciness. This combined with Saveur's tips on Taming the Heat in Chiles caused me to use three habaneros instead of the naga scaryokias. But guess what? All of this taming and fear of chiles led to one major letdown. My chili was hardly spicy at all.
It was, however, super flavorful. These dried chipotles and lone ancho chile really added a nice depth of flavor.
Speaking of depth of flavor, you keep adding things to this chili, almost as if in layers, which made for a really satisfying if not a bit labor-intensive cooking experience.
And while this may not have been my greatest meal ever, as far as vegetarian chili's go, this one definitely ranks up there with the greatest. However, next time, I'll be sure to stay strong and try the naga jolokia or at the very very least, use extra habaneros sliced in half. The three above were simply cut open, and with a pot of chili this big, it's just not enough heat, particularly when you are expecting to Scoville yourself to death.

Vegetarian Chili via Saveur
12 oz. dried dark kidney beans, soaked overnight
12 oz. dried pinto beans, soaked overnight
Kosher salt, to taste
1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
12 cloves garlic, minced
3 dried chipotle chiles
2 bay leaves
2 large white onions, chopped
1 dried ancho chile
8 oz. button mushrooms, quartered
6 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 1⁄2 cups canned hominy, drained
1⁄2 cup tomato paste
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. ground cumin
8 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
3–6 naga jolokia or habanero chiles, 

slit lengthwise down one side
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Sour cream, minced cilantro, 

and minced red onion

1. Put kidney beans and pinto beans into a large pot and cover with 3" water; bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans are tender, about 1 hour. Season with salt; set pot aside.

2. Heat oil in a 6-qt. pot over medium-high heat. Add garlic, chipotle chiles, bay leaves, onions, and ancho chile and cook, stirring often, until onions are golden, 12–15 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 8 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring, until they release their juices, about 5 minutes. Stir in reserved beans and their cooking liquid, along with hominy, tomato paste, vinegar, thyme, oregano, cumin, sun-dried tomatoes, and habaneros and season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until chili thickens and flavors meld, about 1 hour. Serve chili topped with sour cream, cilantro, and red onions.
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Matthew said...

It should also be noted that this chili made the entire house smell AMAZING! We need to make this again (spicier) asap.

jeana sohn said...

mmmmmm... i can smell it.
i'll try this without cilantro...

Ana Degenaar said...

Jeez! That looks amazing! I need to give it a try! You rock!

amelia said...

jeana: & maybe with some Korean dried chili flakes?? ;)

Ana: thank you!!

Matt: hi.

Rachel said...

Will have to try this. I make a veg chili similar to this with zucchini, too, which is a nice addition. also, thank you for the lesson on chiles. my husband is a raging chile-phile and we know about scoville units, but i've never heard of those jolokey whatever they are. Did you find them somewhere? I've never even seen them... and we have a pretty decent chile selection out here.
As for the spice, perhaps you will find that it will build over time in the leftovers.

Sunday Taylor said...

I want to make this chili, it looks so good. Also will buy this issue of "Saveur," such a good magazine. Thanks for trying out the recipe for all of us!

Mary Anne said...

hey, vegetarian chili has been at the top of my cooking to-do list! i might have to try his one, but must discuss chilis with you further. i'm even scared of habaneros....

Heather Taylor said...

Looks really divine and dare I say cozy. But sadly, I fear that I would wuss out too! I like spicy but I've never found the pleasure in really really spicy. As opposed to Ale who really only likes to eating if he is profusely sweating.

The Nervous Cook said...

I'm a new reader of Bon Appetempt, and I love it already -- and how did you know I needed a great new vegetarian chili recipe to try?! This must be kismet!

Mark and Marsha said...

We're going to make his and her batches -- his will be full on spice and hers will be wimpy. I guess we can't sneak any meat in to his.

Megan Taylor said...

I need to make this asap - sans cilantro, of course ;)

amelia said...

rachel: hi!! the naga jolokia's are apparently pretty hard to find here in the states. Click on that Taming the Chiles link for more info. ;)

nervous cook: welcome to bon appetempt & thanks!!

megan: you have completed the Taylor Comment Trifecta!! ;) none of you like cilantro, huh??

Heather Taylor said...

Re. the cilantro issue: Sunday Taylor is fine with it. Sissy and I are most definitely NOT fine with it.

Merissa said...

I've made vegetarian chili a bunch of times, but somehow I went about a year and a half without making it! This post came at the perfect time, as I was gearing up to make it again, but couldn't find my notes. So I'm starting all over with this recipe. I'm not sure I bought the right peppers, but I'm hopeful. Thanks so much for sharing! This article series is captivating

Peny@embroidery digitising said...

Looks so delicious, yet can't figure out if I will really like it cause I don't really like chili. :(