Monday, March 16, 2009

Easy Chili

When I'm too busy to plan ahead or too sick to get excited about eating (last month I was both), I rely on a few easy, adaptable meals that can be made with whatever I have on hand. I stock my cupboards with assorted canned and dry beans, diced tomatoes, nuts, and a variety of rice and pasta. I always have onions, carrots, and celery on hand, and I usually have bell peppers and broccoli, too. From these staple ingredients, with no grocery shopping and little effort I can whip up spicy black bean or hearty vegetable soups, pasta with white beans and broccoli, vegetable fried rice, or chili.

When I was a teenager, and the lone vegetarian in my house, I relied heavily on microwavable meat substitutes. I ate many, many Tofu Pups. I was first on my own without a dining hall during my junior year abroad in London. In my dorm's mouse-ridden communal kitchen, I had a designated cupboard and a shelf in the mini-fridge. I bought one pot, one bowl, one plate, one mug, and one set of silverware.

I had a tight budget, and I didn't know how to organize my trips to the expensive and poorly-stocked grocery store, or how to turn a bag of groceries into a week of healthy meals. For a while I survived on breakfast cereal, Heinz beans, and McVitie's dark chocolate digestive biscuits. When my then-boyfriend-now-husband got a plug-in tea kettle, my diet expanded to include instant mashed potatoes and nightcaps of (wretch!) instant coffee and Bailey's.

I reached a point when I couldn't stand to eat any more soft, bland food, and asked my mother to send me some recipes. My first real grown-up dinner was a zucchini lasagna. Hot, homemade food was such a big deal that we went around the building knocking on doors, inviting people to come eat it, and then took pictures of the feast. Look at me—I'm so proud of myself for slicing those zucchini:

Chili is another dish I quickly adopted. I maintained my mother's basic formula, (chili=1 onion+1 pepper+can o' beans+can o' water+seasoning), substituting veggie crumbles for ground beef. Now I dispense with the fake meat altogether and use more beans, because I like eating foods that grow in soil and haven't been messed around with. The main ingredients in this chili are canned, so I have them handy even if I haven't been grocery shopping in ages.

It isn't fancy, but chili never lets me down. It's healthy, delicious, and practically idiot-proof.

Chili con Can

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped garlic (4-5 cloves)
28-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 14-ounce cans beans, drained (I used black and pinto, but kidney beans and chickpeas are also nice)
2 cups water
6-ounce can tomato paste
1-2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
lots of freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Sauté the onion, bell pepper, and garlic for 10-12 minutes, until they are partially browned. Add the tomatoes, beans, water, and tomato paste. Stir to combine. Bring to a gentle simmer. Add the remaining ingredients. Some chili powders are more potent than others, so adjust the seasoning to your taste. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20-30 minutes to let the flavors meld. Serve with cornbread or tortilla chips.

Variations: try tossing in a cup of frozen corn kernels, or a few chopped jalapeño or chipotle peppers.

Serves 4.


  1. Yum, chili! Thanks for the recipe!

  2. great picture! I bet that combo is tasty..hope all is well.

    Dave and Laura


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