The Great Chili Cookoff

There are few things that winter inspires in me, and innovation seems not to be one of them.  Indeed, I was disappointed to find that I can hardly come up with something new to say each year during the end-of-January/ beginning-of-February rut: please see exhibit A and exhibit B.  No, there’s nothing at the farmer’s market.  Yes, I am grumpy and sick of roasted squash.  But this weekend, I became acutely aware of what I needed.  And I can say with good authority that not all is bad in this cold, wintry world, for there is chili.

A light bulb went off on Saturday night, and by Sunday morning, I had recruited two others to participate in an impromptu chili cookoff.  The glory of chili is that everyone seems to have his own recipe.  No ingredient is off-limits and there’s almost no way to mess up.  Hence, the 3 chilies we ended up with were completely different and involved varying levels of improvisation, from a last minute addition of barley to soak up excess liquid, to a fortuitous “oops, I left that on the burner an hour longer than I meant to.”  Everything was delicious, and we reveled in how unique each was, despite the fact that 80% of our ingredients were the same.  Here was the breakdown:

  • Freya’s Quick Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili.  Sweet, starchy, fresh, and uber-healthy.  This one was totally by the book.  I’ve been making it since college, and  I follow the recipe the same exact way each time.  It’s simple, fast (not usually a virtue for chili, but it works), and always elicits intrigue from the diners.  It was the underdog and, dare I say, group favorite.
  • Greg’s Crock Pot Vegetarian Chili.  Slow-cooked, bright, and complexly seasoned.  Cocoa and chili powders lend this chili a robust, complex base, while the veggies make it light and fresh.  This is chili that makes you feel good and well-nourished when you’re done.  Beef is optional here, but works best cubed, rather than ground.  A layer of cheddar is particularly nice on top.
  • Michael’s Beef and Black Bean Chili.  Spicy, rich, and comforting.  This is what you think of when you think of chili.  Whereas the others had identifiable chunks of vegetables, this is more uniform.  Chunks of ground meat and black beans stand out, while the remaining ingredients meld together to form a blanket of rich, creamy, spicy goodness.

From left to right: Michael’s Beef Chili, Greg’s Veggie Chili, and Freya’s Sweet Potato Chili

For some, this weekend presents an opportunity to enjoy football, and for others (hi!), an opportunity to enjoy football food.  Regardless of which camp you’re in, you will need to eat, and I recommend that you eat chili.  So, draft your pick (sports words!) from what I guarantee is an excellent array of options, and put on a pot of chili.  And/or share your favorite recipe here; I think we could all use a little inspiration this time of year.


 Freya’s Quick Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili

From Nava Atlas’s The Vegetarian Family Cookbook



2 medium-large sweet potatoes

2 tablespoons light or extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced

1 medium red bell pepper, diced

One 32-ounce can diced tomatoes

Two 15-ounce cans black beans, rinsed and drained

1 or 2 small fresh hot chilies, minced, or one 4-ounce can chopped mild green chilies

2 teaspoons ground cumin

½ teaspoon dried oregano

Salt to taste

Chopped fresh cilantro, optional

  1. Bake or microwave the sweet potatoes on high heat until just firm, about 30 to 40 minutes in the oven or 3 to 4 minutes per potato in the microwave.  When cool enough to handle, peel, and cut into ¾-inch dice.  Set aside.
  2. Heat the oil in a large soup pot.  Add the onion and garlic and sauté over medium heat until golden.  Add the bell pepper, beans, tomatoes, chilies, cumin, and oregano.  Bring to a simmer.  Cover and simmer gently for 15 minutes.  Add the sweet potatoes and continue to simmer until the vegetables are tender, as little as 10 to 15 minutes, or as long as an hour, on low heat.
  3. Season lightly with salt.  If time allows, let stand off heat for 1 or 2 hours, then heat through as needed.  Garnish with cilantro, if desired.


Greg’s Vegetarian (or not) Chili

Original recipe



1-2 zucchini quartered lengthwise and sliced
1 celery stalk chopped
1-2 carrots peeled and chopped
1 onion chopped
2 cloves garlic minced
2 cans (14oz each) kidney and/or pinto beans drained and rinsed
1 can (19 oz) tomatoes chopped with juice
1 can (14 oz) pureed tomatoes
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp dried oregano leaves
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
optional for heat: dash hot red-pepper sauce or cayenne pepper

1 to 2 pounds of stewing beef, cut into small cubes, optional

Combine all ingredients in slow cooker.  Cover and cook on high for 3-4 hours of on low for 6-8 hours.



Michael’s Beef and Black Bean Chili

Recipe as seen in The Healthy Beef Cookbook, published by John Wiley & Sons



2 pounds ground beef (95% lean)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1-1/2 cups chopped onions
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 medium yellow bell peppers, chopped
1 large jalapeño pepper, seeded, finely chopped
1/4 cup chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves, crushed
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves, crushed
1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper
1 can (28 ounces) crushed canned tomatoes, undrained
1 can (14-1/2 ounces) chili-seasoned or zesty-style diced tomatoes, undrained
1 can (14 ounces) ready-to-serve beef broth
12 ounces dark beer
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon honey
2 cans (15 ounces each) black beans, rinsed, drained
Chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

  1. Brown ground beef in stockpot over medium heat 8 to 10 minutes or until beef is no longer pink, breaking up into 3/4-inch crumbles.  Remove from stockpot with slotted spoon. Set aside. Pour off drippings.
  2. Heat oil in same stockpot over medium heat until hot. Add onions and garlic; cook and stir 3 to 5 minutes or until onions are tender. Add bell peppers and jalapeño; cook and stir 4 to 5 minutes or until peppers are tender.
  3. Return beef crumbles to stockpot. Add chili powder, cumin, oregano, thyme and red pepper; cook and stir for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, broth, beer, tomato paste and honey; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer 45 minutes. Uncover stockpot; continue simmering 30 minutes or until thickened to desired consistency, stirring occasionally. Stir in beans; cook 5 to 10 minutes or until beans are heated through. Season with salt and black pepper, as desired. Garnish with cilantro, if desired.

Freya Bellin writes the food column for Frontier Psychiatrist. Her recent FP recipes include Go Fish!No Mo’ GMO, and For the Love of Latkes.