Let me get one thing out of the way: I love red meat, and I have always been this way. I think this goes back to living with my dad from the years of 12 to 17. He was a bachelor for a large part of that time and, until my stepmom came along, he cooked as bachelors in Southern Louisiana do. We ate steak and potatoes or hamburger steaks most nights. To shake things up we’d have spaghetti sauce with ground beef and Italian sausage. This meat eating wasn’t because we were particularly flush but because my dad is a man’s man. He was born with a beard and mustache and wearing a plaid flannel shirt. He drives a tractor in his sleep and builds houses with his bare hands (or builds half-houses with his bare hands, he’s still working on his task completion). He hitchhiked across America, worked on an Alaskan pipeline, rode a motorcycle to Ecuador and did a Spanish immersion course at a jail in some Latin American country he is no longer invited to visit. And what does a man like that feed his scrawny, sullen daughter for dinner? Red meat, that’s what. For several years I worked in the restaurant business and the most formidable of those years were spent in New York City at The Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, a steak house company based there. It was with them that I learned how to order, prepare and finally perfectly cook a New York Strip, my steak of choice. Part of my job also included frequent dining out (cue the violins) and honestly, I don’t think I ordered fish for 6 years of recurrent restaurants visits. I ate red meat approximately 8 times a week. Maybe more. My red blood count was as high as the Chrysler building. And I was really okay with this.
Until I turned 40.
I had my third child a year prior and the fat just wasn’t going away this time. I am not a fad dieter so I decided to make real and drastic lifestyle changes that I would stick with from then on out. I looked at my diet, my routine, my goals and I set up the ambitious weight loss plan of eating less red meat. Drastic, I know, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
I kicked off by making one dinner a week vegetarian. Baby steps, I was playing the long game. I would then spend all week fretting over what I could cook that weekend that consisted only of vegetables. Ewwwww. I felt like I was letting myself down, my husband down. My father down. I’m stubborn though and so I persisted and succeeded…about half the time. Then I got serious. I had to admit that I felt better eating a little less red meat. Grilling oysters instead of steaks. Ordering fish instead of a hamburger. Opting for the veggie tacos instead of my usual “Americanos” at Juan’s. In New Orleans it was pretty easy. Seafood was super easy to come by and veggies grew plentifully in the tropical climate.
But in Autumnal London? That’s a different game. This is cool weather and short days with long afternoons that should only be spent at the stove braising, broiling and stewing…this is all about meats slowly simmering on a gas cooker releasing their aromatics through the air in a fine mist. I want the oven to be warm all day and I want bubbles and splatters and multiple wooden spoons dropping their bounty from the heavy black pot to their spoon rest on the cluttered countertop. These simply aren’t things we equate with vegetarian cooking. But can they be?
Vegetarian Chili would be the trial. Could I gain as much satisfaction from cooking for hours a vegetarian dish as I could from braised short ribs or a spaghetti bolognese? It took a lot of research and a few mistakes but in the end I did. It was possible to recreate the romance of a hearty meat stew using ingredients that would help me live longer, lose weight and take better care of my body. Chili – the cure all, ski town, cold weather, comfort food bridged the gap between rich autumnal cooking and a longer, better life.
I still love red meat, I just love it less often. I plan it a bit more, I eat it but not 8 times a week, now, barely twice a week. I know Michael Pollen says I should cut down even more, and maybe I will, but for now I am happy with my progress.
I chatted to my dad a few weeks ago and the conversation turned to what we were each making for dinner, “I’m trying to eat less red meat” I slithered into the conversation. “Yeah,” he said, “me too.”
- 2 cans red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 large carrots, roughly chopped
- 1 large yellow onion (or 1 medium red, 1 medium yellow), chopped
- 3 celery stalks, chopped
- 1 green bell pepper, diced
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 pinch ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 cans diced tomatoes
- 1 can tomato sauce
- 500 ml vegetable stock
- 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
- 1/2 light beer
- 4 oz bittersweet chocolate
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 fresh jalapeño, seeded and very finely chopped.
- In a large pot over medium head add the olive oil. After a minute or so add the carrots. Let cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring only once. Turn the heat up to medium high and quickly add the onion, celery, green and red bell pepper. Let cook for 5 minutes stirring only once or twice.
- Add the canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, stock, powdered spices. Let cook for 10 minutes.
- Add the chocolate, beer, sherry vinegar, garlic and jalapeño. Turn the heat back down to medium and let cook for 30 minutes. (Be aware that if you taste it at this point it may taste pretty bad and will make you nervous. Wait for 30 minutes and then taste it).
- After 30 minutes taste and adjust seasoning as desired. If it needs more spice consider adding more chili powder. If it needs more of the "chili" taste and less tomato taste, add more ground cumin. Let cook for at least 30 minutes but up to 2 hours. Keep the top on the pot once you reach the thickness you desire. If it gets too thick, just add more stock or more water.
- 30 minutes before serving add two cans of kidney beans and 1 can of black beans. Fold throughout the chili and let cook. Just before serving taste again for seasoning - if you add anything then let it cook for 5 minutes before serving.
- Serve over rice topped with sliced avocado, grated cheese, sour cream or a combination of the three.
- A few notes: You can add garbanzo beans if you'd like another bean for variety but I don't really like them unless they are smashed to hell with Tahini for hummus. I just think they taste like sawdust. Am I alone? Also, I Use canned beans because I have the patience of 2-year-old. If you follow my recipe, don't add the beans too early because you don't want them to be all mushy. They need to cook for 30 minutes at most.