Saturday, April 20, 2013

Vegetarian Chili and North-Meets-South Skillet Cornbread

Check out this recipe on my new and improved website:

Some people are obsessed with Chili... I am not. I am, however, obsessed with food and with language (shocker!), and if a dish is going to be called Chili, it must contain chiles. I am shocked and saddened by the quantity of Chili recipes I found in the world that did not have the word "chile" or "pepper" anywhere in them. The Chili I made this week may be controversial in some circles... there are beans and there is no meat. Some would say it's not even a real Chili. To that I say, "Change the name of the dish to Meati and I will put meat in it." I feel confident that I have some form of Chili based on the three different types of chiles in the dish.

I may have just gotten this blog banned in Texas. Maybe not Austin...

This week I made a big batch of Vegetarian Chili and paired it with a Skillet Cornbread. Both were memorized from the best recipes I could find and added to my Walking Cookbook index. Read on for myth, fact, history, and epic battles over these two famous dishes.

About Chili & Cornbread
Chili and Cornbread are tricky subjects to touch for a Californian-- I have no real geographic claim on either of these in modern sense. However, if we look back to the roots of the ingredients, we will find that they were part of American cooking long before America was called America. 

Chili seems to be Texas's baby, but according to the International Chili Society it has been in existence ever since Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs cooked meat, beans, and chiles together long before the Americas were conquered/settled/invaded. At some point it became a competition, and the rest is history. I won't attempt to summarize public opinion on Chili in this short section, but if you are curious, here is a trick: Next time you're at a group gathering, toss out the question, "What makes the perfect Chili?" I have a feeling you won't have trouble gathering people's thoughts.

As for Cornbread, we have Native Americans to thank as well. Corn (maize, maíz, etc.) has been grown and eaten in America for ages, and it has been dried and ground into flour for just as long. I remember going to summer camp in inland Southern California and seeing big rocks with holes ground in them. These grinding stones, my counselors told me, were how Native Americans would turn corn into cornmeal. I still love to close my eyes and imagine someone centuries ago making dinner for their family on a rock outside. It's a wonderful reminder that our food has an origin that we don't always get to see but should always appreciate. 

More modern Cornbread wars take place between the North and the South. Mark Twain, in fact, is quoted as saying: "Perhaps no bread in the world is quite as good as Southern cornbread, and perhaps no bread in the world is quite so bad as the Northern imitation of it." The main differences, as I have been able to sort out, are the following:

Northern Cornbread:

  • yellow cornmeal
  • 50:50 flour-to-cornmeal ratio
  • plenty of sugar
  • a cake-like consistency
  • ideal for eating plain

Southern Cornbread:

  • white cornmeal
  • little to no added flour
  • little to no added sugar
  • a flat, dense, crumbly consistency
  • ideal for eating with soup (or chili!)

While I do love a nice, sweet cornbread that tastes like a muffin, I knew what had to be done for this particular meal-- Southern style it would be.

Choosing the Recipes
My requirements for a vegetarian Chili were pretty straightforward: no meat substitutes, real chiles, and something extra that I wouldn't have thought of on my own. The Serious Eats recipe combined all of these, mimicking the effect of meat in a Chili without trying to replace the flavor. The chunky chickpea puree had the course texture of ground meat, giving the Chili something more than just broth and beans. The recipe also included vegemite and soy sauce, two umami-building ingredients that I would not have considered adding on my own. They upped the savory nature of the Chili without standing out as individual flavors. The combination of chiles, while not readily available and requiring some substitutions, meant that chili powder didn't come anywhere near the pot. It also bulked up the consistency of the broth.

As for the Cornbread, I had a few requirements as well. Since I am always giddy about buying a new kitchen gadget, I was sure to choose a Cornbread recipe that needed a cast-iron skillet. How could I resist? There are plenty of skillet Cornbread recipes, but the America's Test Kitchen recipe helped me fuse together the best of the North and the South. It used yellow cornmeal and a little bit of sugar, but it remained not too sweet and without added flour.

Memorizing the Recipes
Memorizing the Chili was mainly a matter of knowing what to puree (chiles and chickpeas), what spices/herbs to use (cumin and oregano), and tossing it all together. Bourbon and cornmeal at the end thickened it, and the rest was all common sense.

As with all baked goods, the Cornbread recipe was harder to memorize. The nice trick that I saw in the ingredient list is that the measurements of all the "extra" (but completely necessary) dry ingredients had  half-life-esque quantities: 2 tsp sugar, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp baking soda. Keeping them organized in this way helped a lot.

The Verdict
I would have no qualms about bringing this Chili to a cook-off and setting it up next to beefy, meaty, non-beany ones. It may not be traditional, but it is a force to be reckoned with. With heat, umami, a varied texture, and the right amount of spices, it was a definite winner. My roommate couldn't stop talking about how spicy it was while she simultaneously scraped every last drop of it from her bowl. The lifesaver for those of us who can't take much heat was definitely the combination of toppings-- sour cream and lime took the spice level down a couple of notches.

The Cornbread that went with it was perfect as an accompaniment. While I wouldn't eat this Cornbread plain (it was a little salty and ended up in chunks on top of my Chili), I was thrilled with the crumbly, toasty component that it gave the overall meal. The crust was awesome to crunch into, making my cast-iron skillet purchase a wonderful investment already!

The Recipes
Vegetarian Chili
adapted from Serious Eats
Yield: 8 servings
This Chili packs a punch, so serve with sour cream and lime to temper the spice.
  • 2 whole Poblano peppers, stems and seeds removed
  • 1 small hot chile (Serrano), stems and seeds removed
  • 3 whole rich fruity dried chiles (Ancho Mulato, Negro, or Pasilla), stems and seeds removed
  • 1 quart water
  • 2 whole chipotle chiles in adobo sauce (canned) and 2 tbsp sauce
  • 2 14-oz cans chickpeas
  • 1 28-oz can whole tomatoes packed in juice
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, grated
  • 1 1/2 tbsp cumin
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp marmite or vegemite
  • 2 14-oz cans dark red kidney beans, drained and liquid reserved
  • 2 tbsp bourbon
  • 2-3 tbsp cornmeal

A cutting board story
  • Soak Poblano, Serrano, and dried peppers in the water, covered, for 15 minutes.
  • Drain the liquid from the peppers into a separate bowl and set aside. Place soaked peppers, chipotle peppers, and adobo sauce in a food processor and blend until a smooth puree is formed, about 15 seconds.
  • Drain the liquid from the chickpeas and add to the bowl of chile soaking liquid.
  • Pulse the chickpeas in the food processor until they have a chunky, thick consistency (5-7 pulses).

A food processor story
  • Drain the tomato juice into the bowl of liquids. Chop the tomatoes and add to the bowl of liquids as well.
  • In a large pot, heat the vegetable oil. Add the onions and garlic. Cook over medium heat until soft, about 4 minutes.
  • Add the cumin and oregano. Stir for 30 seconds.
  • Turn the stove to low heat. Add the chile puree and stir for 30 seconds.
  • Add the chickpeas, vegemite, and soy sauce and stir for 1 minute.
  • Drain the kidney beans, keeping the liquid separate. Add the beans to the pot.
  • Cover the kidney beans with the chile/chickpea/tomato liquids and add kidney bean liquid if the beans are not yet covered by liquid.
  • Give the pot a stir and cook, uncovered, at medium-low heat for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.

A stovetop story
  • Add the bourbon and stir for a minute. Turn off the heat and add in the cornmeal until the chili is your desired thickness.
North-Meets-South Skillet Cornbread
adapted from America's Test Kitchen
Yield: 8 servings
The crispy outside comes from the scalding hot buttered skillet
  • 1 tbsp melted butter and 1 tsp vegetable oil
  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal, stone ground if possible
  • 2 tsp granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/3 cup rapidly boiling water
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk (or make your own)
  • 1 large egg, beaten lightly
  • Spread the melted butter and oil around the inside of an 8-inch cast-iron skillet. Place the skillet in a 450°F oven on the bottom rack. Let it preheat for 15 minutes or more.
  • In a small mixing bowl, combine 2/3 cup cornmeal with the sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Stir together.
  • In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining 1/3 cup cornmeal with the boiling water. Whisk it together to make a mush.
  • Pour the buttermilk over the cornmeal mush and whisk out lumps. Add the egg and whisk together.
  • Stir the dry ingredients into the liquid ingredients and mix until just moistened.
Dry ingredients and their ratios: just cut each one in half
(2 tsp sugar, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp baking soda)

The cast-iron skillet needs a dose of melted butter before it goes in the oven to heat up.
  • Remove the skillet from the oven. It should be outrageously hot, so be careful. Pour any excess butter/oil from the skillet into the cornbread batter. Then, pour the batter into the skillet. It will make a loud hissing noise because of the hot fat touching the cool liquids in the batter.
  • Return the skillet to the oven and bake for 20 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven, immediately turn the bread out onto a cooling rack, and let cool for 5 minutes before serving.
Double up on oven mitts and towels-- this skillet is hot!


  1. Love the cornbread lesson! I knew there were very different types of cornbread out there, but had no idea they fell into categories of North or South.

    I must say southern cornbread would be my cornbread of choice!

  2. Thanks, Jeremy! I was fascinated by the differences as well. One of these days I'll do a cornbread taste test with a Northern and Southern recipe, and we'll see how each of them fares on their own and with a soup or chili.