The other night, I got back to York after an exhausting couple of weeks down south. I'd spent the afternoon sleeping haphazardly on the train, groggy and disgruntled after a fortnight of very little sleep. I came home, dazedly unpacked my bag, and then was forced by increasingly prominent hunger pangs to consider the somewhat urgent question of dinner. All I wanted to do was lie like a starfish on my bed and sigh in a plaintive and exhausted fashion, preferably while a willing minion worked busily downstairs to prepare me a delicious feast that would then be spoon-fed into my recumbent mouth. Unfortunately, no such minion materialised and I was forced to de-starfish myself and actually figure out how I was going to sustain myself gastronomically.
For no apparent reason, I had a very specific craving for vegetarian chili. My friend Dan makes an amazing version that I've been lucky enough to sample twice now. I've made vegetarian chili a couple of times before and have never been blown away, but Dan's version reconverted me to the simple joys of soft, tangled vegetables in thick, spiced, sweet-sour tomato sauce, with the comforting bulk of floury beans, preferably smothered in grated cheese with some crunchy tortilla chips on the side. I'd also been asked by Schwartz, purveyors of herbs and spices, to create a recipe for one of their monthly 'themes'. I chose chili con carne, but because I'm a rebel and like to break the mould, I made it chili decidedly sin carne.
So, instead of just putting some bread in the toaster like any normal person would do, I cycled to the supermarket and filled my basket with a visually pleasing array of brightly coloured vegetables. Bulbous courgettes, glossy peppers, perfect little cherry tomatoes, and nutty chestnut mushrooms - the sight of them on the conveyor belt was almost enough to make me feel nourished already (I say 'almost', because I was still starving; let's face it, the sight of vegetables does not actually alleviate hunger).
I spent quite a while chopping, I won't lie. A fair few things have to be chopped for this recipe. But here's a tip: if you have a lot of chopping to do and really don't feel like it, put some loud raucous music on, get your sharpest knife out, have lots of individual bowls ready for each chopped ingredient, and embrace it. Embrace the soft slither of a blade through the yielding flesh of a courgette, the snap as you slice the crunchy skin of a cherry tomato, or the endlessly satisfying spring of a sprightly mushroom against a knife edge. Sing along to the music as you slice (but pay attention, obviously). What you probably won't embrace, unfortunately, are the red onions, which will leave tears streaming down your face and your eyes feeling like someone has given them a bath in sulphuric acid. Unless you are forward-thinking enough to have your contact lenses in, which - alas - I was not.
Although not quite the instant dinner I craved, this is extremely easy to make. Everything just goes into one pot - you only end up with a knife and a chopping board to wash. First, some toasted spices - cumin and vibrant paprika (but if you're short of time, Schwartz make a handy chilli con carne spice mix). Next, onions, which soften into a glorious caramelised mass before you add most of the other veg, to soften and release some of its water. Then the lot gets simmered in tomato sauce, pepped up by the tang of vinegar and chipotle (smoked jalapeno) paste, before finally the beans and cherry tomatoes are added. This benefits from long, slow cooking, at least a couple of hours, to allow the vegetables to soften and the flavours to intermingle. It's even better after a few days in the fridge.
I finished my chili with some fresh oregano from the garden, but coriander would work well too. It's excellent accompanied by creamy wedges of fresh avocado (or, if you can be bothered, mash up some avocado with lots of salt, lime juice and mint or coriander, to make an impromptu guacamole), lots of grated cheese, and tortilla chips to scoop up the fragrant and earthy mass of spicy vegetable. That said, it's also delicious simply eaten from a bowl, unadorned, with a spoon. I sprinkle smoked sea salt over at the end, for a final finishing touch of smoky satisfaction.
This is one of those vegetarian recipes that makes you wonder why you need meat in your life. There wouldn't be any actual room for meat in this recipe. There's more than enough flavour from the smoky chilli, the sweet paprika and the earthy cumin, and great texture from the combination of soft beans and tender vegetables: the bounce of a mushroom here, the sweet burst of a red pepper there. As a showcase for smoky flavours, an example of the best vegetarian cooking and a satisfying one-pot meal, you can't do better than this chili. Thank you to Dan for the inspiration!
The ultimate vegetarian chili (serves 5-6):
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
4 red onions, finely sliced
3 mixed peppers, diced
6 cloves garlic, crushed
3 courgettes, finely diced
2 x 400g cans of chopped tomatoes
2 tsp red wine vinegar
2 tsp chipotle paste
A generous pinch of sugar
300g mushrooms, chopped
A 400g can of black beans, drained and rinsed
A 400g can of kidney beans in chilli sauce
A punnet of cherry tomatoes, halved
Salt and pepper
A few sprigs of fresh oregano, leaves only
Fresh coriander and lime wedges, to serve
Sliced avocado or guacamole, tortilla chips, grated cheese and sour cream, to serve (if you like)
Toast the cumin seeds and smoked paprika in a dry pan until fragrant. Set aside. Heat the oil in a large casserole dish and sauté the onions until softened and golden. Add the peppers and cook for a few minutes until they are starting to soften. Add the garlic and courgettes and fry for a few minutes more. Add the cumin and paprika, then add the tomatoes, water, red wine vinegar, chipotle paste, sugar and mushrooms, bring to the boil and cover. Simmer for 40 minutes.
Add the beans and cherry tomatoes, and stir well. Simmer the chili for up to 2 hours - at least 45 minutes - until the sauce has thickened and the vegetables have softened. Before serving, check the seasoning and stir in the oregano leaves. Serve scattered with coriander with lime wedges to squeeze over, and any of the above serving suggestions, if you like.