To a Texan, the idea of a meat-free chilli may seem as nonsensical as a vegetarian ragù bolognese would to an Italian – purists won’t even allow their beef to be contaminated with beans, let alone replaced by it. Just like bolognese, however, chilli is treated with less respect outside its homeland – the quick weekday suppers on which many of us grew up – full of mince, tinned tomatoes and kidney beans – are easy to adapt to a plant-based diet. But is it possible to replicate the real thing, with its complex spicing and unapologetically meaty, savoury flavour, without the meat?
(My first port of call is the International Chili Society, which puts me in touch with Henry Stephens, the most recent winner of the vegetarian category of its annual competition. He very kindly sends me his recipe, which turns out to be a white chilli, a spin-off generally made with chicken, and that contains cauliflower, corn and copious amounts of dairy. Here I’m looking for what might be termed “a bowl of red”, but it’s good to know there are other possibilities out there, when ingredients such as queso blanco might be more widely available.)
If not meat, then what?
The simplest replacement for the meat, which plays such a central part in traditional chilli, is, of course, something like the soya mince used by Marie Laforêt in her Vegan Bible. It’s not an ingredient I’ve cooked with before, and I’m pleasantly surprised by the results – once rehydrated and simmered in a richly flavoured sauce, I imagine most people wouldn’t notice the difference, though as we’re on lockdown, I’m unable to check (it doesn’t, however, fool the dog).
The Guardian’s own Anna Jones uses lentils and quinoa, both of which give her chilli good body, and aduki beans. In fact, everyone sticks in beans of some sort: kidney for Laforêt, Serious Eats’ J Kenji López-Alt and chef Michel Nischan, whose beanfest also includes pinto and black varieties, while López-Alt also roughly crushes chickpeas to add textural contrast, and Nischan, who developed his recipe for country music star Willie Nelson’s wife (the Nelsons apparently called it “the best f***ing chili we’ve ever tasted”), thickens it with posole, or dried nixtamalised corn, soaked overnight, which is a great idea, if you can find it here.
Interestingly, though most of these recipes are slow cooked, which means there’s plenty of time for softening the beans, only my friend Wendy Tien, a judge and keen home cook from Wisconsin (not peak chilli country, admittedly, but a damned sight closer than here) recommends the dried kind (just about any sort is fine, in her opinion). López-Alt concedes that they can be bland, but says, “canned beans are a sure thing. They’re never over or undercooked, they’re never bloated or busted. They are lacking in the flavour department, but with a good simmer in a very flavourful liquid, you can easily make up for this.” He does note, however, that, thanks to the acidic tomatoes common in vegetable chilli, beans soften particularly slowly, which allows them to absorb flavour without turning to mush – not that I mind a few of them breaking down to help thicken the sauce.
I like the earthy flavour of black beans and the sweeter, fluffier notes of kidney beans, but use whatever you prefer, or can find. Not only are dried beans a lot cheaper than tinned, but if you’re going to slow-cook the chilli anyway, you may as well go the whole hog and soak some beans first. That said, if you really don’t have time, or can’t be bothered, swap the amount below for two 400g tins and cook the chilli until the gravy has reduced to your satisfaction.
If traditional chillies avoid meat, they’re positively allergic to the idea of vegetables, apart from obvious aromatics such as onions. Fortunately, as we’ve already scared all of them off at the first mention of soya mince, there’s no need to worry about such nonsense; vegetables can add both nutrition and, perhaps more importantly, contrasting textures and flavours. Laforêt and Nischan both chuck in diced carrot, and the latter adds parsnips and poblano peppers for good measure, too, Jones goes for big chunks of sweet potato and roasted red peppers, Tien fresh peppers of any colour, and Laforêt adds a tin of sweetcorn to underline that institutional catering vibe. Because I’d like to keep this as close to the traditional recipe as possible, I’m just adding a green pepper, because I think the slightly bitter herbaceousness works well with Tex-Mex flavours, but if you hate the things, feel free to use another colour, or indeed stick in any other vegetables you fancy – Jones’s sweet potato is a particular hit.
As López-Alt notes, “great chili has to start with great chilies”, and this applies whether you’re making it with brisket or black beans, so it rules out the European recipes that depend on cayenne pepper or paprika for their heat. It may sound obvious, but chillies are a fruit, and just as pointed green peppers you get in kebabs taste different from sweet red Italian ones, they come in a wide spectrum of flavours. Most generic chilli powders are just about heat, which is why more complex recipes call for specific varieties, usually sold whole, which are toasted to bring out their flavour before grinding. Smoky chipotles are popular, whether dried, in a paste or in a tangy adobo sauce – the last can easily be found online.
Tien and López-Alt both aim for a balance of flavours and heats, using a mixture of sweet chillies such as costeno, New Mexico and choricero, fruity ancho, mulatto, negro, guajillo or pasillas, and hot ones such as arbol or cascabel, giving their vegetarian chillies a well-rounded warmth, rather than a fiery heat. I’ve tried not to be too prescriptive below; bear in mind that bigger supermarkets now sell a few Mexican varieties, which you can play around with, but you’ll probably still need to plan ahead and buy online – they last for ages. Nischan notes that “the key to this recipe is cooking the chile peppers Mexican-style – toasting, blooming, rehydrating and pureeing”, a step also embraced by López-Alt to get the most flavour out of them, and well worth the slight faff for the payoff in flavour.
Of course, chillies aren’t the only spice involved; almost everyone includes what I think of as the classic Mexican pairing of cumin and coriander, while Mexican oregano, a member of the verbena family, with a more citrussy, sweeter flavour, is also popular. Those who don’t use chilli are likely to add paprika instead, but unless you can’t find chipotle in any form, this is unnecessary – if so, however, the smoked kind might come in useful.
Aromatics and umami
Onions are a must (Jones uses spring onions for speed, but that’s something that need not trouble us here given we have beans to cook), and garlic is also popular, both in fresh and powdered form. I find garlic powder overpowering, so I’m going to stick to finely chopped cloves. Laforet and Nischan also add sugar, and the latter vinegar, too – this is entirely a matter of taste, so if you think it needs a little dark sugar or a splash of acidity, go ahead.
The thing you can’t get from beans, of course, is the savoury flavour of red meat – the recipes offer various replacements, from soy sauce to nutritional yeast, but the simplest, and best in my opinion, is López-Alt’s Marmite, though haters could go for soy sauce instead.
The quicker chilli recipes tend to rely on tinned tomatoes as their liquid, but for slower-cooked versions, more is needed if it’s not to become a spicy tomato stew. Laforêt adds vegetable stock, but something with a bit more oomph is required – López-Alt whizzes up his chillies with water, and Tien recommends beer, but I’m going for coffee, whose dark, bitter flavour I also used in my beef chilli, having stolen the idea from Jamie Oliver.
It’s common to thicken the sauce with some masa, or fine nixtamalised cornmeal of the kind used to make tortillas. I like this, particularly with beans, because it gives a consistency closer to the meat version, though if you don’t have masa, you could use cornflour or fine ordinary cornmeal instead. López-Alt finishes it with a slug of bourbon or vodka on the basis that “certain aromas are carried well with steam, while others are, in fact, carried better via vaporised alcohol”, but having tasted it before and afterwards, my tastebuds aren’t sensitive enough to notice the difference, so I’d suggest saving the shot for pudding.
López-Alt is right that the chilli tastes even better reheated the next day. He serves it with coriander, chopped onions and spring onions, avocado, lime wedges and corn tortillas, while Nischan leaves out the tortillas and avocado and adds cheese and soured cream. Jones makes a punchy coriander-and-lime drizzle, while Tien, who routinely finds my pairing of beef chilli with rice faintly hilarious, admits this version does need a starchy pairing if it’s not to be heavy, admitting, “I like it with spaghetti”. Well, she is in the Midwest. I’ll be honest, I enjoyed all the pairings – and cornbread or tortilla chips would also be very welcome, so take your pick. You could even have it on a jacket potato or some chips, but that’s a step too far even for me.
Perfect vegetarian chilli
Prep 20 min, plus overnight soaking
Cook 2+ hrs, depending on beans
250g dried beans of your choice – I like black and kidney
1 small hot chilli (eg, arbol or cascabel)
4 fruity chillies (eg, ancho, mulatto or pasilla, or a mixture thereof)
1 chipotle or 1 tbsp smoked paprika
2 tbsp oil
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 green pepper, seeded and fairly finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp Mexican oregano (or marjarom or verbena, or normal oregano, in which case use a little less)
1 tbsp Marmite
1 x 400g tin tomatoes
1 tbsp masa harina or cornflour
Soak the beans in plenty of cold water for at least eight hours.
Boil the kettle. Remove the stalks and seeds from the dried chillies, then toast them in a hot, dry frying pan, turning regularly, until blackened all over. Put in a small heatproof bowl, add enough boiling water just to cover, leave to soak and soften for five minutes, then whizz to a puree.
Heat the oil in a large lidded casserole dish over a medium heat, then fry the onion and pepper until soft. Add the garlic, fry for another minute, then add the dry spices and oregano, and fry until aromatic, stirring so it doesn’t catch and burn.
Stir in the chilli paste, Marmite, tomatoes, coffee and drained beans, bring up to a simmer, then turn down the heat, cover the pan and leave to cook gently until the beans are tender and the sauce has thickened to your liking – how long this takes will depend on the type, size and age of your beans (mine took four hours, but they were ancient). If at any point the contents of the pot look at risk of being too dry, add water, as necessary.
Stir in the masa, bring to a simmer, season to taste and serve or, ideally, leave overnight and reheat gently.
• Vegetarian chilli: let’s not get into whether this is an oxymoron, but what’s the secret to a great version, and what do you like to eat chilli of any stripe with?
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/apr/29/felicity-cloake-perfect-vegetarian-chilli-recipe