Recipe: Vegan Chili

This recipe owes thanks to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's book The Food Lab for the framework for creating a chili base. As well as a segment with Justin Warner on The Splendid Table for the idea of using pecans in a vegan chili (plus he shares my love of adding ground dried mushrooms to everything). This recipe was written up for my Super Bowl food blog post on Fredericksburg Parent & Family Magazine's website.

Sweet and Smoky Vegan Chili

This chili is sweet and smoky but with a good chipotle kick. A great winter warmer and vegan option for potluck. Make at least 24 hours before eating. 


Smokey Chili Base (makes 2-2.5 cups):

  • 3 dried chipotle chiles
  • 4 dried morita chiles 
  • 3 dried arbol chiles
  • 1 tablespoon annatto/achiote seeds
  • 1 tablespoon whole corriander seeds
  • 2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
  • 1 cup crimini/baby bella mushrooms, rinsed and quartered
  • 2 cups boiling water
  1.  Steep the annatto seeds in the boiling water, using  a glass 2 cup measuring cup if available. Cover and let sit for at least 30 minutes while prepping the rest of the chili base.
  2.  Tear or cut all of the dried chilies into smaller pieces. Wear power-free latex/vinyl gloves if you are not used to working with chilies, after drying the oils can be even more potent, also wash hands/arms and nearby surfaces well afterwards. 
  3. Place torn chilies, corriander and cumin seeds in a dry skillet. Toast over medium heat, stirring often until fragrant. The cumin seeds will start to darken first, so keep an eye on them and remove skillet from heat before they burn. 3-5 minutes
  4. Place contents of the skillet in a blender.
  5. Return skillet to the stove and add mushrooms. Roast in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes or on the burner over medium high heat if you do not have an oven-safe skillet. Do not stir, they will start to stick and caramelize, that is okay. 
  6.  Turn off the stove/remove skillet from oven. Add the hot water and up to  half of the annatto seeds (they will stick to the bottom of a glass vessel so this will not be difficult) to the skillet. Scrape with a wooden or silicone spoon to un-stick the mushrooms AND all of the caramelized "gunk". Add everything from the skillet to the blender. 
  7. Blend this all together. It may take awhile, add hot water by the tablespoon if it is having trouble coming together.
  8. Make some chili or store for a later date!


Sweet & Smokey Vegan Chili (serves 6 as a main course, double if using for a large party):

  • 1 cup smokey chili base
  • 3 small sweet potatoes, in 1/2 inch dice, do NOT peel
  • 1/2 pound dry beans (pinto, kidney, cranberry or similar size) soaked overnight
  • 1 cup pecans, halved
  • 1 onion, diced 
  • 1/2 ounces of dried shiitake mushrooms *OPTIONAL, requires a spice/coffee grinder 
  • 28 ounce can pureed/strained tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil (unrefined and cold pressed) or olive/canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup or 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce or worchestershire sauce
  • pepper and salt to taste 
  1.   Saute onion in oil at the bottom of a large pot over medium low heat. Stir occasionally until translucent. Add chili base and stir to incorporate. Then stir in maple syrup and soy sauce. Continue to saute for 3-5 minutes more.  
  2. If using dried mushrooms. break them into bits then grind them to a powder using a dedicated spice grinder or well cleaned coffee grinder.
  3. Add sweet potatoes, beans, pecans, and mushroom powder to the pot. Stir until they are entirely coated with the onion/chili base mixture.
  4. Add the tomatoes. Fill the can halfway with water making sure to scrape all of the tomato-ness from the sides and bottom of the can and add that to the pot as well.
  5. Turn heat to high and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat to low and simmer for a half hour or until the beans and sweet potatoes are tender.
  6. Taste, add salt or pepper as desired. If you would like it to be thicker add a couple tablespoons of fine ground corn meal and bring back up near a boil for a couple of minutes. 
  7. Cool completely, then put in the refrigerator overnight or up to 4 days.



Things that make this recipe work:

  • Creating your own chili base is more flavorful and less grainy than using dried spices. Especially if you do not replace your spices regularly.
  • Sweet potatoes and pecans add a complexity of texture similar to meats in traditional chilies.
  • Leaving the peel on the sweet potatoes plus using soy sauce and mushrooms add umami flavor through a variety of glutamic acids that are also found in meats. Tomato puree also has some glutamic acids.
  • Leaving the mixture to sit overnight or longer lets the different flavors interact and meld  into a single "chili" flavor as well as permeate further into the beans, sweet potatoes and pecans.
  • Corn meal can act as a thickening agent if the initial result is looser than your preferences for chili.