At the age of 10 I crafted my first culinary creation with my neighbor John; it was called the cheese melt. It was a piece of white bread with some yellow stuff pretending to be butter and a single slice of cheddar cheese on top placed in the microwave for 17 seconds. More time than that the cheese scorched, less than that and the goo factor was not acceptable. It was best when eaten molten hot, folded in half. It only took seconds to eat it because you had to race the cheese before it poured out of the ends and burned an unsuspecting body part or the cat.
During high school I was able to master more conventional and appetizing dishes such as pesto sauce and baked salmon. But the early college years brought a new method of cooking that can only be described as the dump, stir and wait culinary school. This involved the development of (groan, how predictable) stir fry! Mine featured chick peas and cabbage and a variety of dried spices, like mustard powder. I cringe.
The first college years also brought the equally predictable vegetarian chili. Working in tandem again, I developed this recipe with my friend Suzy in her college apartment. It was not a burning desire to eat chili that gave way to this recipe but rather it was actually a scam to get another, of age student, to bring the wine. The box of wine. We figured we could master chili quickly and easily. I had never made or had chili aside from the Stouffer’s boil-in-bag kind. I don’t know if Suzy had either but she is from New Mexico which gave us some credibility. We must have had some basic recipe to get us started, but I couldn’t tell you from where. The internet was not for use by the general public and I can’t imagine we had many cookbooks. I can only guess that Suzy’s mom got us started or I found something at the school library.
After college was over, after the requisite traipse through European youth hostels, and before my job in Texas started I was in post collegiate limbo. I was employed at both a consignment shop and a bookstore. I lived with my childhood friend, Mattie, in her childhood home in Waverly. I was always surrounded by my friends. We were always laughing. We entertained ourselves with trips to the reservoir for skinny dipping (peer pressure) in the middle of the night, making our own mad-libs about each other, creating dioramas, playing pool, watching the X-Files and writing sardonic essays about the state of our fellow barflies. On one of those perfect fall days I was making the chili. A blimp was circling outside and my friend Tim was reading articles (yes the real articles) aloud from a Playboy that had somehow made its way into our home.
‘You need cinnamon in there.’ I looked at him to see if he was joking. ‘No, seriously, you need cinnamon in there, for the beans.’
‘Yup. I do it all the time. Seriously, just a little.’
And there it was; the secret ingredient, it had been hiding in a granola bar all this time.
I'd like to say the recipe has remained virtually unchanged with the exception of the cinnamon in the 20 years since Suzy and I set out to score a box of Franzia but I'm pretty sure it has evolved with me. I think I have it exactly where I want it now. I’ll add some bragging rights: this chili won second place in a chili competition that did not, at the time, have a vegetarian category.
Thanks Timmy, I still owe you a wok for the stir fry gone awry.
Vegetarian Chili - Serves a bunch (8-12)
2 14 oz. cans dark kidney beans
1 14 oz. can black beans
2 28 oz. can peeled tomatoes (I cut them in to smaller bits in the can with kitchen scissors)
2 green bell peppers (chopped in to 1” chunks)
1 red or yellow bell pepper (chopped in to 1” chunks, the total amount of all peppers should be about 4 cups chopped)
2 large or 3 medium Spanish onions (4-4.5 cups chopped in to 1/2” chunks)
8 garlic cloves (2 tablespoons minced)
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne
1.5 teaspoons cumin
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
Drain and rinse the beans. I had a rather heated discussion with Jim about rinsing the beans recently, and he reluctantly admitted that rinsing the beans cut down on the negative after effects of his chili in a surprisingly wonderful way. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large pot. Add the onions and saute until they just start to think about becoming translucent. Add in the garlic and saute for another 3-5 minutes. Add in the peppers and continue to cook for another 5-7 minutes. They want to be al dente. Add in the chili powder and paprika and saute for another minute. Then add in the tomatoes and bring to a slight simmer. Add in the beans and the remaining spices. Simmer for about 1-15 minutes. The vegetables still want to have some texture and crispness to them. Serve with whichever chili condiments float your boat.