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A Healthier, Heartier Chili—With a Side of Revelation

By Liz Krieger

Before I launch into what went wrong during this week’s cooking endeavor and the numerous lessons I learned, I’ll go right ahead and spoil the ending by saying upfront that my chili was darn good! After all, I don’t want to always lead with the negative! That said, getting to “darn good” was a bit of a trial.

The mission: vegetarian chili, with ground beef. Yes, that’s right, I sought out a vegetarian recipe and then added lean, ground beef. Why? Because most chili recipes seemed to be little more than beans, beef and some tomato paste, plus spices. I wanted something more filling, more fiber- and vitamin-rich, and more substantive.

Realization #1: Making chili is messy business. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it, but I finally see that one of the main reasons I don’t like cooking is that no matter how neat and tidy you are, no matter how diligent you are about carefully peeling, slicing, dicing, and chopping—things will hit the floor. A lot of things! Tiny, pesky things like onion skins, garlic bits, and celery strings. Of course, I know this is whiny and lazy, but I simply find it really annoying—especially when I’ve already vacuumed and mopped the floor earlier that day. It’s like a freshly combed sand-trap on the golf course or a tightly made bed: Who wants to come along and disturb such loveliness?! And my dog is of no use, as she turns her nose up at anything that isn’t either fresh from a grill or placed in her bowl. (Where’s that ersatz floor mop/vacuum cleaner dog everyone else seems to bemoan? I’ll take one!!)

Realization #2: My reading comprehension and direction-following both need work. This became painfully obvious to me at least twice. After spending way too long chopping onions, carrots, mushrooms, red pepper, green pepper, and celery, I realized that I’d made a critical, novice mistake. I’d simply piled one ingredient on top of another in a big bowl like a seven-layer-dip minus the dip. I didn’t bother to read the first direction until after everything was chopped: “Start by sautéing the onions and garlic in a bit of oil.” (I used Smart Balance® Cooking Oil, a blend of canola, soy and olive oil with omega-3s) Um, that’s all well and good but my onions were buried under the other veggies in my prep bowl! Argh. So there I was, trying to separate all these items, so that I could isolate each ingredient, which (according to the recipe) all needed to go in at different times.

The second time this lesson became apparent was after I’d dumped an enormous can of whole-peeled tomatoes into the stockpot. That’s when I noticed that the recipe said “one can of whole peeled tomatoes, CHOPPED.” Oops. So, there I was (again) with an enormous knife sunk deep into my stockpot, chasing the slippery buggers around so I could chop them up. Not pretty, not neat. (See #1, above.)

Realization #3: For someone who has very little confidence, skill, or experience, I have a lot of chutzpah. Somewhere between the time I realized that the vegetables were supposed to be added to in a specific order and when I had to shakily transfer the hot onions, garlic and beef from a large saucepan to an enormous stock pot (it became painfully clear that my first-choice pot was not going to fit the jillions of ingredients), I started straight-up free-stylin’. I simply tossed the recipe aside and started just throwing everything in that stockpot at once. Corn, kidney beans, tomatoes, ALL the veggies at once. Spices: boom! I even got so bold as to sort of approximate with the chili pepper and the cumin. Um, hello? Who do I think I am? I have no business ad libbing. Of course, I do think I have enough savvy to know that chili is rather hard to mess up, at least in terms of looks. So long as it’s cooked through and set to simmer for a good long while, you can’t really go wrong. Yes, you can spice it horribly, or have a bland concoction, but for the most part, I did all right. I just found my own impatience with adhering to directions rather…shocking. But as I already said, the chili was quite good! I served it over some brown rice we had leftover from, um….ordering in two nights in a row, and topped with some shredded low-fat cheese.

 

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