One of our long-time staple recipes at home is our vegan chili recipe. We’ve written it up in this space many times now—first in early 2009, then again when I ALMOST made it onto the Today Show with the recipe—adjusting the particulars of the chili as our tastes changed and (we hope) became more refined.
These days, we cook the chili in largely the same way we always have, giving us the flavor we’ve loved over the years, but we now prepare it to be gluten-free and far more plant-based than it used to be, shooing seitan out of the spotlight and ushering in fresh shiitake mushrooms instead. Though we’re losing some protein, we’re veering closer to a whole foods diet with the meal and the mushrooms’ earthy flavor and meaty texture make for a natural star in this chili.
Besides that, we’ve made a few other changes, like subbing poblano peppers for green bells, adding a subtle Ethiopian flare with a dash of the delectable spice mixture berbere, upping the garliciness, omitting sweet Vidalias and bringing in more savory ones instead, and employing dry beans over canned ones to bring down the sodium content and give you a better firmness and overall robustness in the chili. Let’s go!
Smokey Jo’s Chili (Gluten-Free Version)
• 2 Large Yellow or Brown Onions, finely diced
• 2 Large Poblano Peppers, de-seeded + finely diced
• 9 Cloves of Garlic, smashed, peeled, and chopped into small chunks
• 4 tbsp Olive Oil
• 3-6 Chipotle Peppers, depending on how spicy you like things, chopped (these can be found canned in a lot of stores now and dried in specialty shops)
• 1 lb Fresh Shiitake Mushroom Caps + Stems, finely chopped
• 1 cup, Dry Red Kidney Beans (we like light, but dark are good too)
• 1/3 cup, Gluten-Free Soy Sauce (we like San-J’s low-sodium Tamari)
• 1 tbsp, Agave
• 28 oz can Crushed Tomatoes (we used to use Sclafani without exception, but those are harder to find on the Left Coast, so we now mainly just look for any high-quality brand that lists only tomatoes in their ingredients—no additives, salt, or sugar)
• 14.5 oz can Diced Tomatoes (you can go with whatevs, but we like using flame roasted ones)
• 3 tbsp Chili Powder
• 1 tbsp Natural Hickory Smoke Flavor
• 1 tbsp Ground Black Pepper
• 1 tbsp Smoked Paprika
• 2 tbsp Berbere (available at fine spice stores, Ethiopian specialty stores, and most Indian markets too)
• 2 Bay Leaves
• pinch Cinnamon (ideally freshly grated)
• Salt (to taste)
So, first, you need to soak the beans overnight, ideally. This makes cooking easier and gives them a better texture overall. If not possible, you can do a quick soak method, but we’d recommend the overnight soak. Oh, and don’t forget to first sort the beans—for real, they can sometimes have tiny rocks in them that have escaped the sorting process in production. But then simply drain after soaking, fill a large (8 quart or so) pot with new water, bring them to a boil, and then lower to a simmer and cover. They should be done in an hour or so, with times depending on bean size and your elevation. Science, man. It’s a good idea to just check them regularly, adding water as needed and removing from heat once the beans taste good and have a nice, slightly firmer than canned beans texture.
In the meantime, dice the onions into small, roughly 1/2-inch pieces or smaller and chop the peeled, smashed garlic into small chunks. Throw onions into a cast iron skillet with warmed olive oil and cook over medium-low heat until the onions start to become translucent and brown at the edges a little (about ten minutes). Don’t let them blacken though. Now throw your garlic in and cook for about five minutes, after which time it should be giving off a nice, pungent, savory smell.
For the mushrooms, we usually de-cap them, slicing the caps into small pieces and setting the stems aside to cut separately once we’re done with the caps. The two parts of the mushroom tend to have very different textures—the caps, being soft + spongy; the stems, tough + meaty. Both lend well to the texture of the finished chili, they’re just easier to first separate before chopping. Once ready, throw in with the cooking onions and garlic and sauté for ten minutes or so, allow the flavors to mingle and the mushroom to cook down and brown a bit. Add the hickory smoke, quickly stir and cover so the mixture absorbs the smoke taste, cooking for about five minutes. Uncover again and stir, scraping the mixture from the bottom of the pan if need. Cover and cook for another five minutes, again, allowing the mushroom to cook down and brown.
While that’s all going on, in a small bowl, whisk together with a fork the soy sauce and agave and then add to the mushroom-onion-garlic mixture along with your diced chipotle peppers. With the peppers, you can always add more later if you like, so maybe a good idea to add a fewer up front and then taste to test the heat of the mixture to try to gauge how that’ll affect the spiciness of the finished chili. Essentially, what you’re doing right now is creating the concentrated base for the chili, so flavors should be slightly more intense than what you’d want in the finished product, but not crazy-hot. Unless you like crazy-hot.
Simmer for another five minutes, covered, adding a bit of water or vegetable broth if the mixture starts to dry out or sticks too much. Add diced poblano peppers, again about 1/2-inch pieces or smaller, cooking covered for five minutes or until the peppers become deep green, but not too dark or too soft. It’s a good to test the raw poblanos after de-seeding and cutting them up. Depending on the size + age of the pepper and the season, they can vary greatly in spiciness. Again, maybe a good idea to add slowly and test the heat of the mixture as you go.
Once your beans are finished cooking in the large pot, gauge how much liquid is left. A little bean stock is a nice flavor enhancer for the finished chili, but you don’t want them to be too watery or you’ll spend a lot of time cooking off that extra liquid. Once you’re feeling good about it though, throw in your diced + crushed tomatoes.
Carefully toss your skillet mixture into the large pot with the beans and tomatoes, add your spices (chili powder, black pepper, smoked paprika, berbere, bay leaves, and cinnamon), gently stir, and cover, cooking over low heat.
A few quick notes on the spices: First, berbere, while a great flavor, isn’t 100% necessary if you can’t find it. It’s a wonderful mixture—giving you a sweet, smokey, exotic edge—but you can easily substitute it with a little more smoke paprika (which is actually an ingredient in some people’s versions of berbere). If you eat a lot of Ethiopian food, it’s that taste of that one red lentil dish that everyone loves, for reference. Then bay leaves—we recently discovered fresh bay leaves at the farmers’ market and some spice retailers selling bright green, relatively fresh ones in grocery stores for not much more that their older, run-of-the-mill, dried-out brown counterparts—highly recommended. It’s like another flavor altogether. Finally, if at all possible, we totally recommend buying a fine spice grater and hand-grating cinnamon in this recipe and any other. You’ll never look back.
Back to the chili—bring everything to a low simmer and give it a careful taste (make sure it’s not too hot). Need more heat? Add spices as you see fit or reserved chopped chipotle peppers? Add salt to taste and then simmer covered on low for one hour, stirring every so often to make sure it’s circulating and the bottom isn’t burning at all. Serve and enjoy. Freeze leftovers for a nice, quick meal of chili boats, chili dogs, vegan chili cheese fries, or chili anything, really.