Making Chili: Get Creative and Make It Your Own

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Vegetarian Chili | PK WayVeggies, beans, protein, and even whole grains can all be added to chili in combinations of your choosing to get creative and make it your own.

Especially satisfying in cold winter weather, it’s the perfect weekend cooking project. Learning how to make chili is a worthwhile endeavor indeed, and I hope it becomes as much a staple of your cold-weather cuisine as it is mine. Just start with a few basic ingredients and staple spices and you’re good to go. Like making tomato sauce in the summer, making chili in the winter is a great activity. It’s also a one-pot meal that can be ready in under an hour.

Do cook up a big batch to ensure you have plenty of leftovers for both fridge and freezer.

Making Chili: One Pot, Five Easy Steps

Pretty much all hearty stews start with the same basic food groups, right?  What gives a dish its distinct flavors – whether French, Mexican, Thai, or whatever – is all about the spices.  That said, some cuisines are easier than others to morph, like starting with tomato sauce (Italian) and making it into chili (Mexican/Southwest).  Why am I starting here? Two reasons.  First, one of my readers asked me for a hearty stew recipe because she was getting sick of making tomato sauce, which is understandable.  Second, once you master the basics, you’ll see how you can change a leftover into something altogether different, something I do frequently to keep things interesting. (One of my recent successes started with leftover butternut squash soup, which then became the base for a Vietnamese red coconut curry soup with rice noodles. Crazy good.)  You may not be there yet, but if you’ve figured out tomato sauce, a whole world has opened up to you, including—to name but three examples—puttanesca, tomato soup, and today’s focus, chili. While you needn’t begin with Italian tomato sauce, and I generally don’t (see recipe below), if you have some leftover in the fridge or feel like cutting some corners by beginning with store-bought pasta sauce, you can absolutely use that as a base for a fabulous chili. That’s because it has many of the same basic ingredients and the chili powder and cumin will dominate the Italian seasonings.

Vegetarian Chili

1. Chop and Sauté Veggies.  As with many soups, a critical ingredient to chili is onions; yellow (Spanish) or white work best. They are a pretty critical ingredient in chili, but if you hate onions leave them out.  It’s your chili, after all.  After that, in my view it is totally up to you what you add in terms of veggies. And, as you become more skilled, you’ll learn to mix it up by season and availability so that not every chili tastes the same. My basic recipe for veggie chili includes onions, green and red peppers, carrots, and celery. That said, last week I was trying to scrounge together a quick Thursday night dinner based upon “availability,” i.e., what was in my kitchen, which in this case was: 1.5 c of leftover tomato sauce, 1 bottle of veggie juice, 1 zucchini, 1 summer squash, 1/2 green pepper, and frozen corn. Use whatever suits your fancy and chop in whatever size you like. (Frozen chopped veggies work, too.) Sometimes I like big, chunky chili, and other times I like my veggies a smaller chop so they’re similar size to the beans (and can comfortably top chili dogs). Totally up to you! Whatever you’re using, prep it up and sauté in a large pot in a few tablespoons of olive oil with 1/2 tsp salt at medium-high heat. After the veggies begin to soften (5 minutes or so), add 4-5 cloves of crushed or chopped garlic and stir for a minute.  Feel free to include poblano and/or hot chili peppers if you like; do wear plastic gloves when handing hot peppers. (No, I’m not kidding. I still have a story to tell about my flaming hot finger tips one unfortunate day making tortilla soup.)

2. Add protein of choice. Here’s the next opportunity for creativity, and remember to mix it up each time you make chili. First, I want to make it clear that a pure veggie chili is perfectly acceptable. That said, adding some protein adds texture and nutrients and creates a more filling, nutritional balanced meal.  I think any type of bean works wonderfully well in chili, so use what you like.  Cooking healthy, delicious meals that you’re going to eat and keep making requires including the ingredients you love, right? So make it your own – I can’t say that enough. I enjoy all kinds of beans, especially black beans, but I also commonly use pinto beans, kidney beans, white beans and, on occasion, garbanzos. It’s cheapest, healthiest, and best for the environment if you buy them in bulk and prepare them yourself (a topic for another time), but using no-sodium canned is fine. TVP (texturized veggie protein) provides a texture similar to ground beef as does, amazingly, bulgur (cracked wheat). Other additions here might include various animal products.  I’ll let you consult the wondrous interweb for such matters, but I strongly encourage you to try a veggie and bean version first because you might not miss the meat, and the more plant-based your diet is, the healthier you (and the planet) willl be.

3. Add spices. The key spices used to make chili are chili powder (duh!) and cumin.  Additional spices include oregano, basil, and crushed red pepper; some people also like to use garlic or onion powder. I’m not sure how big a pot you are making, but I’d recommend starting with 2 tbsp each cumin and chili power, 1/2 tsp each oregano and basil, and 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper or cayenne if using.  As well, give a few good grinds of fresh black pepper from your mill. You’ll further adjust the seasonings later in the process, and that’s when you’ll add salt if needed. Don’t add more salt now, because you can often omit it in recipes with big spices, like chili.

4.Add tomato products. So far all you have is some Mexican-spiced veggies that should be smelling divine. Now we need to add some tomato products for flavor and body, as this is a traditional tomato-based chili. I fully encourage you to play around to see what you like, because some people like their chili thick, some thin, some with tomato chunks, some not, etc etc. You get the idea. The basic tomato products you’ll include will be some variant of the following: crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, tomato or vegetable juice, and tomato paste. Experiment and have fun! As long as you have tomato paste and tomato juice on hand to add thickness or thin out, respectively, you will be completely fine, I assure you. I usually start with a couple of (large) cans of diced tomatoes, because I love tomato chunks in my chili, along with 1 (large) can of crushed tomatoes and/or a few cups of vegetable juice.  If you don’t feel like dealing with all these tomato product staples just yet, feel fee to use store-bought pasta sauce as a starter (or leftover homemade sauce, as I did in this particular case). Do remember, however, that store-bought products are major sources of sodium in the diet and some have a lot of other stuff you don’t need (preservatives, sugar, weird ingredients; read the label). It’s easier and more nutritious to use salt-free canned tomatoes that you can season as you like.  Also note that while it’s perfectly lovely to use fresh tomatoes in this recipe and even homemade vegetable juice, I tend not to do so in the winter. The winter farmers’ market can only work so many miracles, after all; there’s a time and place for canned tomato products in my world (like in my winter tomato sauce) and I’m grateful for them.

5. Simmer and Enjoy. Everything’s in there now, so take a taste to see how things are coming together and adjust the seasonings accordingly. I often find myself adding more cumin and black pepper. As well, we’ve barely added any sodium at all yet so if things are tasting too bland add some more salt, 1/4 tsp at a time. Other ingredients you might consider adding to adjust the flavors to your liking include honey or agave nectar (~1 tbsp), red wine or beer (1/4 c), Worcestershire sauce (1 tbsp), lemon or lime juice (2 tbsp), or tabasco; all of these generally adjust the acidity, sweetness, and heat of the chili. Finally, bring it up to a boil then turn down to low to let it simmer. If this is a basic veggie and bean chili, simmering for 20-30 minutes will do just fine; stir and taste occasionally and make sure your veggies aren’t turning to mush.

Let’s Get Cooking (and Eating):  Recipe Links and Serving Suggestions

I don’t use recipes for making chili anymore other than what I’ve provided above.  That said, a recipe from the Frog Commissary Cookbook, which I’ve used for years, can be found here (half-way down the page). And I probably need not tell you how to adorn your steaming hot bowl of homemade chili. Sour cream, scallions, cheddar or jack cheese, strips of tortilla chips, a dollop of corn salsa, diced avocado, chopped onions, a sprinkle of  cilantro … the sky’s the limit! Serving it over brown rice is always an option, too.  Whatever your fancy, enjoy, and let me know how it works out for you.

Chili and Fixings | PK Way


Dr. P.K. Newby is a nutrition scientist, speaker, and author with expertise in all things food, farm to fork, whether preventing obesity and other chronic diseases through diet or teaching planet-conscious eating. As a health expert and food personality, she brings together her passions for food, cooking, science, and sustainability to educate and inspire, helping people eat their way towards better health, one delectable bite at a time. Healthy Hedonism (TM) is her philosophy: Because healthy food shouldn’t suck.

Copyright © 2011-2020 P.K. Newby. All Rights Reserved.

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