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Vegetarian Chili

IT SOUNDS SCARY BUT IT’S REALLY DELICIOUS (AND EVERYONE WILL EAT IT)

We love chili made with beef. We love it with pork. We even like this dish with turkey. But it’s hard to get excited about vegetarian chili. The latter feels like something you make because you have to, not because you want to. Vegetarian chili usually relies on beans and chunky vegetables for heartiness—but in truth that heartiness is an illusion. Neither ingredient offers a real replacement for the flavor, texture, and unctuous richness of meat.

It doesn’t help matters that vegetarian chili is typically made with canned beans and lackluster chili powder. Most recipe writers rush the process thinking that extra time isn’t going to yield a better result. But does vegetarian chili have to be so bad? And wouldn’t a bit more effort yield better results? Our goal was to build a version as savory and deeply satisfying as any meat chili—one that even meat lovers would make on its own merits, not just for vegetarian friends.

With that in mind, we started our recipe with dried beans. As beans cook, they shed flavor and starch that would no doubt help us build a better chili. Homemade chili powder was the next stop. We use this when making beef chili, so why not do something similar here? Our real revelation, however, was to lose the chunky vegetables. No zucchini, potatoes, corn, or eggplant. This isn’t vegetable stew. It’s chili.

In the end, two unlikely ingredients—bulgur and walnuts—add the richness and chewy texture this dish needs to be great. Don’t tell guests this is vegetarian chili. Just put out the usual accompaniments (lime wedges, sour cream, avocado, chopped onion, and cheese) and tell them this is your best chili. One taste and everyone will agree.

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS

Brine the Beans

The combination of nutty cannellini and meaty pintos deliver complexity to this chili. And use dried, please. Rather than an overnight soak, we opt for a quick brine, bringing the beans to a boil in a pot of salted water and then letting them sit, covered, for an hour. The brine ensures soft, creamy well-seasoned beans.

DIY Chili Powder

Toast the chiles (we like mild, sweet ancho and earthy New Mexican) to bring out their flavor. When grinding the chiles, we include peppery oregano as well as dried shiitake mushrooms. The latter are rich in nucleotides, flavor-boosting compounds that impart a rich, meaty flavor to foods—in other words, umami.

Time the Tomatoes

Tomatoes are a given in this chili. We puree a can of diced tomatoes in a food processor with garlic and jalapeños to kick up the heat. To punch up the tomato flavor, we add umami-rich tomato paste and soy sauce.

The Power of Walnuts

For chili with savory depth, we turn to toasted and ground walnuts. They contain lots of flavor-boosting glutamates. In addition, the fat from the nuts offers richness and the tannins in the skins contribute a slightly bitter note that keeps the flavors in this chili in balance.

A Great Grain

Bulgur gives chili the same thick, rich texture as meat. When you pull the chili from the oven, you’ll notice a slick of fat on top. No problem. Give the chili a vigorous stir and let it rest for 20 minutes. Stirring releases starches from the bulgur and beans, allowing the sauce to stabilize around the fat droplets and preventing them from separating out again. This chili is so thick you can stand a spoon in it.

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Wait to add the tomatoes so the beans soften properly and finish with plenty of cilantro.

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Best Vegetarian Chili

SERVES 6 TO 8

RECIPE DETAILS

Timeline

  • 1¼ hours to brine beans (prepare chile powder, grind walnuts, and puree tomatoes with other ingredients while beans are brining)
  • 10 minutes to sauté ingredients
  • 3 hours to bring chili to boil and cook in oven (almost completely hands-off)
  • 20 minutes to stir chili and let it thicken

Essential Tools

  • Spice grinder for making homemade chile powder (or mortar and pestle)
  • Food processor to grind walnuts and puree tomato mixture
  • Dutch oven with lid to cook chili

Substitutions & Variations

We prefer to make our own chile powder from whole dried chiles, but jarred chili powder can be substituted. If using jarred chili powder, grind the shiitakes and oregano and add them to the pot with ¼ cup of chili powder in step 4.

We recommend a mix of at least two types of beans, one creamy (such as cannellini or navy) and one earthy (such as pinto, black, or red kidney). For a spicier chili, use both jalapeños. Serve the chili with lime wedges, sour cream, diced avocado, chopped red onion, and shredded Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese, if desired.

  • 1 pound (2½ cups) dried beans, picked over and rinsed
  • Salt
  • 2 dried ancho chiles
  • 2 dried New Mexican chiles
  • ½ ounce dried shiitake mushrooms, chopped coarse
  • 4 teaspoons dried oregano
  • ½ cup walnuts, toasted
  • 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained with juice reserved
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1–2 jalapeño chiles, stemmed and chopped coarse
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 2 pounds onions, chopped fine
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • ⅔ cup medium-grind bulgur
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  1. Bring 4 quarts water, beans, and 3 tablespoons salt to boil in Dutch oven over high heat. Remove pot from heat, cover, and let stand for 1 hour. Drain beans and rinse well. Wipe out pot.
  2. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Arrange anchos and New Mexican chiles on rimmed baking sheet and toast until fragrant and puffed, about 8 minutes. Transfer to plate and let cool, about 5 minutes. Stem and seed anchos and New Mexican chiles. Working in batches, grind mushrooms, oregano, and toasted chiles in spice grinder or with mortar and pestle until finely ground.
  3. Process walnuts in food processor until finely ground, about 30 seconds. Transfer to bowl. Process drained tomatoes, tomato paste, jalapeño(s), soy sauce, and garlic in food processor until tomatoes are finely chopped, about 45 seconds, scraping down sides of bowl as needed.
  4. Heat oil in now-empty Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions and 1¼ teaspoons salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until onions begin to brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Lower heat to medium and add cumin and ground chile mixture; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add rinsed beans and 7 cups water and bring to boil. Cover pot, transfer to oven, and cook for 45 minutes.
  5. Remove pot from oven. Stir in bulgur, ground walnuts, tomato mixture, and reserved tomato juice. Cover pot and return to oven. Cook until beans are fully tender, about 2 hours.
  6. Remove pot from oven, stir chili well, and let stand, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Stir in cilantro and serve. (Chili can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.)

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