Come with me back to last October.
Somehow, I have just entered myself into a chili contest. A chili contest.
I'm not quite sure how this happened.
I had never made chili. In my life. Ever.
I don't even eat chili. Not even the vegan kind with all the texturized soy glop in it.
So, naturally, here I am in an absolute frenzy to come up with the impossible: an astoundingly tasty vegan chili, spiced and interesting, yet not freaky to hordes of meat-eating, festival-food-loving folk gathering in the middle of nowhere on the riverfront in upstate New York.
Laden with beans yet somehow…digestible.
Oh, where is Endora when I need her?
(Of course, Endora would be horrified at the mere idea of this thing, but I digress…)
And then there's the weirdness of it all. The idea of bringing healthy food to what I imagined as a Nascar crowd?
Would they laugh at me? Would the other participants treat me horribly? Pelt me with with hot sauce? Would they all join together in their shared loathing, tie me up and force me to eat... a corndog?
No. I was going to win them over. I was going to strut right into that tent, and give it to them.
Now, of course, I became obsessed with the idea of creating the perfect chili. I decide to make two different batches, do some taste-testing amongst both vegans and carnivores, then crown the magic potion that I will triumphantly present to the cheering hoards of chili-loving folk. I imagined them falling to their knees with delight, declaring their new-found commitment to good health…maybe they would give me a ribbon…"Miss Chili 2013."
Oh, and did I mention that a certain food network was rumored to be in attendance?
I was going to dazzle them.
My first batch was a Moroccan-inspired concoction, rich and thick, sweet and spiced, with its secret agents of raw cacao and North African souk spices. It was heavenly.
Its contender got even more intricate. The ingredients got more exotic, my stove got a workout, and my focus became singular: make the awesomest chili ever. This is the one I chose.
The big day arrived, and I was a ball of fire.
Smiling, radiant, eager to serve my finest offering in tiny paper cups to eager new friends.
And in they came.
They were making a beeline for me, and I was ready.
It started out incredibly well.
"Stunning in its complexity!" "That's GOOOOOD. DAMN!"
Oh my gosh, they were LOVING it…and the meat-eaters were totally fooled! This was going exactly as planned.
Then along came, "I'm NOT eating NO vegetarian chili, I just came over to see the girl in the red dress!"
The women were eyeing me angrily and corralling their men, which made me sad.
"You are NOT voting for HER!"
And I got angry. I thought, "Relax sister…so not interested. My fella is right here-you can't miss him, he's wearing bright orange pants and a red sweater. But speaking of pants, you might want to give the yoga stretch variety a little rest every now and then…give your man something he wants, would it kill ya?" Hmmm.
So you see, this competition, this being an underdog in a strange forum, was bringing out the absolute worst in me.
I was right back in high school, and I was not cool with it.
By this time, hoards of people were coming in. I could not refill samples fast enough. No one could. Literally hundreds of people were swarming.
I'd never seen anything like it.
They were devouring, glassy-eyed, coming back for thirds. I was running out of the eight billion gallons of chili I had brought, and starting to panic. If the tv crew showed up I would have nothing to serve them! My reputation would be ruined! All my hard work for nothing!
I was on the verge of a total meltdown, when, out of nowhere, something clicked.
This whole thing was hilarious.
Absolutely effing hysterical.
What on earth was I so upset about? It was a chili contest. And here I was, a gal who doesn't even eat chili, getting wound up as if a Nobel Prize were at stake.
And I began to crack up laughing. My fella was laughing. We were winding up to a full-on giggle fit as we started packing up our pots and ladles, gleefully informing zombies that we were all out of brains. (Well, we kinda were.)
So I didn't win. Not even close.
I ran completely out of chili 1.5 hours into a five hour event. I didn't become the next Food Network Star. I didn't get to schmooze with the press, save for a delightful fella from a local paper whose name that I cannot for the life of me recall, as we were shouting over the din of a country band whose amps were located right behind my table.
But I did meet a lovely couple who wished me well. Thank you. You have no idea how you made my day.
And I left feeling that I had connected with at least a few people, opened them up ever so slightly, managed to get over myself, turn the energy around and put smiles out into the world on a stunning, sun-drenched autumn day.
Why did I do it? Because it terrified me. And going for what scares you keeps you alive, vibrant, growing.
I got a lot of"Vegan? Oh. I guess I'll try it anyway."
"Vegan? No thanks."
This was clearly not a forum within which to push the animal issue, or the health issue.
What did I have left? Taste.
And this did it.
So here you have it: The recipe that did NOT take the prize in an upstate New York chili contest, but is nonetheless a serious vegan comfort food winner. It is absolutely delicious, super spicy with flavorful South Asian undertones, a walnut-based "meat" that can be used on its own in salads or wraps, and beans that won't give you a bellyache.
(You can find all the ingredients at your local Whole Foods or health food store.)
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- Extra virgin olive oil, cold pressed
- 1 Tbsp organic garam masala
- 2 Tbsp raw pignoli nuts, crushed
- 1/2 tsp organic Spanish paprika
- 1 large organic apple (McIntosh work best for a cidery flavor, but you can use Gala or Pink Lady also), chopped
- 2 Tbsp mango chutney (a commercial brand will contain a little sugar, so you can make your own if you like)
- 1 heaping tsp Ume Plum Paste
- 1 22 oz. can organic fire roasted tomatoes
- 1/2 C. organic dry kidney beans, soaked overnight, rinsed and drained
- 1 Tbsp coconut nectar
- Himalayan pink salt to taste
- 2 C organic walnuts, soaked overnight, rinsed and drained
- 2 Tbsp Nama Shoyu or gluten-free tamari
- 1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
- 1/2 Tbsp ground organic cumin
- 1 Tbsp ground organic cayenne
- 1/2 Tbsp ground organic coriander
First, make the walnut filling.
Process walnuts in a food processor or high-speed blender until they have a crumbly texture. Add in Shoyu or tamari, lime juice, and spices. Blend well. You may need to stir a little more by hand in a bowl to get all the flavors well combined.
In a large pot, saute garlic in olive oil gently on a low flame until the garlic releases and turns slightly translucent. Sprinkle garam masala on top of the oil, then add the pignoli nuts, and the paprika. Allow this to simmer about five minutes. Keep the flame low-this is they key to the flavors coming out and mingling.
Add in the apple, the chutney, and the plum paste. Stir. Let this simmer for a few minutes, then add in the tomatoes, and stir again. Now add in the beans, the walnut mixture, and the coconut nectar.
Give it all a good stir, and let it simmer on a low flame until the beans are tender.
While you're waiting for the beans to shimmy their way into tenderness, tell me about a situation where something has completely freaked you out, but you went for it anyway.
Brave souls, I do love you.