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By Laura Stec

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About this blog: I've been attracted to food for good and bad reasons for many years. From eating disorder to east coast culinary school, food has been my passion, profession & nemesis. I've been a sugar addict, a 17-year vegetarian, a food and en...  (More)

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It's Chili, Silly

Uploaded: Jan 15, 2015
Wondering what to have for dinner tonight? Time to dust off the ol' recipe? it's chili, silly.

Chili is January and February's cover girl dish, perfect for cold nights and football weekends. Speaking of which ? I am still not happy about that "non-call" in the Lions v. Dallas game. It was so fun to say "Go Lions" while it lasted. Haven't done that in years.

Anyways...the recipe below for Veggie Almond Chili comes from my book Cool Cuisine. Veggie chili is tricky because it lacks the complex flavor profile of meat, which cooks should replace with other umami contributors. Umami, a basic taste along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, lends a deep, savory, full-flavored mouth feel experience to eating. It is determined primarily by the amount of glutamates (an amino acid) in food, abundant in meats and other animal products, but also found in some vegetables and other non-meat ingredients.

If you are cooking vegetarian cuisine, or whatever you are cooking actually, please read up on umami and actively incorporate it into your dishes. Umami-filled non-meat foods include: soy sauce, fish sauce, sea vegetables, soybeans, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, aged cheeses, fermented foods, dried peppers, and tomatoes.

Other ways to bump up chili complexity include secret ingredients such as red wine, cocoa and chocolate, Dijon mustard, dark beer, cinnamon, molasses.

Many of us have a chili secret or two stuffed up our sleeves.

I wonder what yours is?

Photo credit: Diane Choplin

Veggie Almond Chili

This chili has a lot of ingredients, but it doesn't take long to assemble. The key to a satisfying vegetarian chili is creating a deep complexity of flavors so people feel like they are eating chili and not vegetable soup. Chili is best cooked the day before, allowing flavors to develop.

Serves 8

1/3 cup almonds
1/2 cup emmer grain,* or 1/4 cup bulgur (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, sliced
2 carrots, diced medium
3 sticks celery, diced medium
1 small jalape�o, chopped
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon ancho chili powder (optional but preferable; can use regular chili powder)
1 chipotle chili, finely chopped
2 reconstituted dry or oil-based sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons dry red or white wine
1 (28-ounce) can tomatoes, liquid reserved, or 2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
6 tablespoons beer (dark is good, such as a chocolate stout or porter)
2 tablespoons molasses
1 /2 teaspoon rich-tasting olive oil
21/2 cups vegetable stock
1 cup white or yellow hominy, rinsed and drained
1 cup black beans, cooked (canned or homemade. See recipe on pages 28?29)
1 /4 cup chopped cilantro
Garnish: Chopped white onion and cilantro leaves, grated cheddar cheese (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place almonds on baking sheet and bake for 8 minutes, or until light brown. Remove from oven. When cool, finely grind in a food processor.

If using emmer: Rinse emmer and place in a small saucepan with 2 cups of water and a pinch of salt. Bring to boil, cover, reduce heat, and cook 50 minutes. Remove from heat.

If using bulgur: Place 1/2 cup bulgur in a small baking pan. Boil 1 cup of water
and pour on top of bulgur. Sprinkle in a pinch of salt. Cover and let sit for 15 minutes, until all the water is absorbed. For more flavor, use 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup stock. Add � cup or to taste to chili and reserve the rest for another use.

Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. Add onion and saut� on medium heat for 5 minutes, until translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add carrots, celery, and jalape�o; stir and saut� for 5 minutes. Add the next 8 ingredients (coriander through Dijon mustard). Saut� for 3 minutes. Add wine and saut� until mixture is almost dry. While cooking, blend half the tomatoes into a pur�e. Add the beer, molasses, ground almonds, and olive oil. Add both diced and pur�ed tomatoes. Stir well and lower heat; allow this thick slurry to lightly cook for 10 minutes. Add stock, hominy, emmer, and beans. Cook for one hour on a low heat. Mix in cilantro. Taste and adjust seasonings. Garnish.

*Emmer is an ancient wheat, described as the "grandfather of farro." It is a larger grain than regular wheat and has a distinct richer flavor and meaty-chewy texture?great for chili. I only know one place it grows in the country: Winthrop, Washington. Buy online at

What is it worth to you?


Posted by A Single Guy, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jan 15, 2015 at 1:46 pm

My umami suggestion would be to use a vegetarian dashi (a Japanese broth), one made from kombu (the Japanese name for a certain kind of seaweed) and dried shiitake mushrooms in place of generic vegetable stock.

I've collected seaweed for kombu from the local beaches, just rinse in the ocean, let dry, and brush off any sand later (or don't bother with the sand and strain the dashi). Of course, kombu can be found in Asian markets.

Kombu was the original source of MSG (an easy source of the umami flavor); the Japanese extracted the pure crystalline powder by processing seaweed as abundant MSG naturally occurs in this plant. Today, commercial MSG is synthesized.

These days, I make my own dried shiitake mushrooms. I buy the discounted "ugly shiitakes" at the farmer's market; they taste the same as the full priced "pretty" shiitakes. They dry out in a couple days on the kitchen table.

Here's a recipe for vegetarian dashi if you want one

Web Link

although I just improvise.

For the purpose of this vegetarian chili, I would probably chomp into a shiitake after I was done making the dashi. If it still had any flavor, I'd chop it up and toss into the chili itself. Dried shiitakes have a pleasant slightly smoky flavor that the regular ones do not have.

Ideally, dashi should be made fresh (just like traditional stocks, fish fumet, etc.), but you can make a bigger batch. It'll keep in the fridge for a few days, or you can freeze it.

Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jan 16, 2015 at 12:51 pm

Max Hauser is a registered user.

Chili is the absolutely perfect suggestion for this time of year. (By coincidence I'd just sorted dried beans and put them to soak for a related "bean pot" dish. The range of such dishes is legion.)

Now some quibbling about background info you touched on (from a lifelong student of tastes and food science):

First, natural umami agents aren't limited to glutamates -- in different food groups, the main families are glutamates, guanylates, and inosinates. (These products are sometimes isolated or semi-synthesized as food additives -- as anyone knows who reads labels -- but they're the natural components that add the flavor-enhancing quality to the condiments, broths, cheeses, mushrooms, seaweeds, etc. that various cultures use as umami aids.)

Second -- and this may be a subtle point, so bear with me. After the discovery of umami receptor cells on the tongue, it became fashionable to "explain" umami (a compact Japanese term for what in the US was long called "flavor enhancement") as a "fifth taste." That's tidy, but has problems both as a teaching concept and when its literal implications are explored.

The usual four taste sensations manifest readily in subjective evaluation, such as blind taste tests (the, pardon the phrase, meat and potatoes of "sensory evaluation" of tastes for various practical purposes, and a basic tool in related specialties like winemaking). Even evaluating the four is a bit complex because they interact, but basically, if one of the four is added vs. not added to an existing flavor, people can pick out the separate component consistently, blind. Not so with umami, which acts to _enhance_ other tastes rather than to add something new. Also (per Davidson, "Oxford Companion to Food," 1999), additional taste classes, identifiable in taster evaluations and understood as "basic" in some cultures' cooking, include "metallic," "astringent," and "pungent" (as in hot peppers). Umami (as well as "metallic") interact strongly with the classic four sensations to modify their perceived effect, while "astringent" and "pungent" are also physically sensed, but by different mechanisms distributed throughout the mouth. So some people argue you should speak of eight basic tastes if you're going beyond four.

The upshot of this is that "fifth taste" sounds good to anatomists who don't deal with taste trials; non-food-savvy journalists love the phrase; but it has real issues if you embrace the full scope of what the food world means by "taste." So I still describe umami as flavor enhancement, a feature of so many things we cook with, from Parmesan cheese to SE-Asian fish sauce.

Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jan 16, 2015 at 1:25 pm

Max Hauser is a registered user.

Postscript, more on bean pots: If you haven't ever read Charles Simic's piquant little 1992 essay "On food and happiness," a centerpiece is special-occasion bean-pot dish in his native Serbia, recalling an event when he ate everyone else "under the table," and still seemingly didn't get his fill.

The essay appeared in the food-writing anthology that was the Spring 1992 number of the literary semiannual "Antaeus." I have extra copies of you need one (or Simic might have posted the essay online by now). I'll send a copy of the Antaeus volume (it has lots of other good stuff too) if you contact me. (If you don't have my current email address handy, reach me via Gene Cordero.)

Posted by A Single Guy, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jan 16, 2015 at 8:58 pm

Another possibility -- while I've never tried it myself -- would be to add some parmesan rinds to the chili, perhaps in cheesecloth for the cooking period, to extract umami.

Some markets actually sell parmesan rinds.

My guess is that you can also buy a hunk of parmesan, use it up, then freeze the remaining rind until you need it.

I'm almost done with a hunk of Grana Padano, I might try this myself.

Posted by LAura Stec, a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge,
on Jan 17, 2015 at 8:44 am

Food Party! readers are smart. Good show you guys. Max Hauser = Gene Cordero somehow? The plot thickens. And parm rinds - yes yes yes! Max I know that thing about 5th taste and I usually add pungent to the list. Metallic & astringent take it too far for the average taster to relate too, in my humble writers opinion. But I love when you go into the depth of discussion. Thank you!

Posted by Laura Stec, a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge,
on Jan 17, 2015 at 8:50 am

And speaking of piquant, I didn't write anything about chili types either - so anyone please add your favorites. Lately, I have been purchasing from The Chili Shop, and enjoy their Hatch Chili blend. Grown near Hatch, New Mexico, it is prized for it's special contribution to a pot o'chili.

Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jan 17, 2015 at 9:45 am

Max Hauser is a registered user.

Agreed, Single Guy -- I haven't used them myself, but Parmesan rinds are a particular (and thrifty) umami source in Italian folk cooking, they're tossed into soups and so on.

This reference website, with a Japanese perspective, Web Link lists Parmesans at 1.2 to 1.6% free (soluble) glutamate by weight. (The rind zone being the part of the cheese that's lost the most water, you'd expect even higher concentration there.)

An interesting bit of trivia is that, besides being present, even prominent, in many foods (because it's a protein component common in animal and vegetable cells, including throughout our bodies), glutamate (glutamic acid) in foods such as cheese occurs together with sodium. That means, in the presence of moisture, those components together are identical to MSG. They are "natural MSG." Indeed MSG as a food additive isn't even truly synthetic, it's commonly made via a grain fermentation that concentrates the same natural sources. Some folks who've convinced themselves they're "sensitive to" (or even "allergic to") MSG -- as a result of its pop-culture stigma as a food additive -- are blissfully unconscious that they've always consumed it, in significant amounts and without ill effects, from natural foods without knowing it, and so have all of our ancestors. It's part of our natural diet. That's why (as Nathan Myhrvold summed it up in his massive modernist cookbook), clinical testing has consistently and relentlessly disproven the self-diagnoses of people claiming to be MSG-sensitive, though sometimes they're sensitive to something else in foods that they misinterpreted as MSG sensitivity, it being such a popular buzz phrase. (Not that I consider commercial MSG any substitute for good cheese, seaweeds, tamari, or any of its many other better-flavored strong natural sources.)

Posted by Laura Stec, a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge,
on Jan 18, 2015 at 8:56 am

I do use the parm rinds and they are great for soups and sauces with a Mediterranean flare. Chili... why not, but maybe pushing that southwest expectation? Same with dashi in chili. To each his own though. I keep them in a little glass tupperware in the cheese drawer. Don't throw yours out! If you don't want them - send over to me.

Re MSG - I agree with you Max about sensitivities and I will write something similar about gluten soon. (I expect people to give me a hard time about it). However - it's good to add the macrobiotic perspective here: anything taken out of the whole food is not optimal. MSG, cornstarch, white flour, white sugar, etc are problematic because they don't have the rest of the food to balance out their overwhelming affects.

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