Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Chili is as Chili Does

While my mind is set on Spring my body is still here in one of the worst DC winters I've experienced since moving to the area 19 years ago. A blast of Arctic air this week and a late snowstorm brought us back to the comfort of a chili dinner. My family loves chili and I have been making it several times each winter for years. However, when I first started making chili years ago, I used a pre-made spice mix. This was no ordinary mix, but a handmade blend using Vermont maple sugar, created by the daughter of a family friend from the old country (NY!). My mother used to buy cases of the packets of Ali's Chili Mix for my brother, my sister and for me. This was the chili of choice for all of our families until Ali stopped production. I used the last packet of the chili spice close to ten years ago, and my chili making floundered for a while after that.

Some years ago, Cooking Light published a recipe with a spice blend that sounded similar in spirit to Ali's. After many pots of chili and much tinkering with the recipe, I came up with one of my own that is now my family's chili of choice. It is relatively simple to make, and I serve it right in the pot on our kitchen island next to bowls of toppings such as diced onion and tomato, light shredded cheddar or Mexican cheese blend, and fat-free yogurt for those who wish to cut the spice a little. Sometimes, I dice some avocado as well. Serve over pasta or with a whole grain bread.

Lately, I have been able to greatly reduce the amount of sodium in the dish with the more readily available low or no salt added cans of beans and diced tomatoes. Even if you aren't able to find the reduced sodium beans, take the time to open all the cans, dump them into a colander or strainer in the sink and rinse them well before using. I recommend using less than full water pressure on them, though, as they can otherwise get sort of smushed. The best thing to do when adding salt to a recipe, though, apart from limiting the amount, is to switch to kosher salt and sea salt. Kosher salt is inexpensive and very versatile. I use it in all my cooking. The crystals are larger than iodized salt, so by volume, 1 teaspoon of kosher salt yields quite a bit less sodium than the same amount of iodized salt. In some of my recipes, I use a light sprinkle of sea salt at the end, for huge flavor with less sodium.

I make many variations of this chili depending on my mood at the time and how extra healthy I feel like making it. It can be made vegetarian, with ground turkey, or ground beef or a combination of any or all of the above. Most grocery stores sell chiles in adobo sauce. The Vermont maple sugar is a specialty item that you do not need to purchase. I use it as a nod to Ali's chili. Just substitute brown sugar or agave nectar if you have it.

Wendy's Kitchen Sink Chili
(cause everything's in there!)
inspired by Cooking Light's Chili Especial

serves 8

1 can chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
2 pounds lean ground beef (I generally use sirloin) or turkey
1 medium to large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
2 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Vermont Maple Sugar (can substitute brown sugar or agave nectar)
2 cups water (feel free to substitute some red wine or beer for some of the water)
1 (28 - ounce) can of diced tomatoes, undrained (can substitute 2 14.5 ounce cans. I use Muir Glen no salt added Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes)
2 (15 - ounce) cans kidney beans (use no salt added if you can find them), drained and rinsed
1 (15 - ounce) can pinto beans (use no salt added if you can find them), drained and rinsed
1 (15 - ounce) can black beans (use no salt added if you can find them), drained and rinsed
1 1/2 cups frozen sweet corn
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

*optional ingredients: one small eggplant (peeled), 1 zucchini, 3 -4 large carrots, each diced.

- Remove 1 chili from can. Dice up and set aside. Reserve remaining chiles in sauce in a sealed container for another batch. If well sealed, these keep for a long time! (Note: this is where the hotter flavor comes from. Use more or less depending on your taste.)
- In skillet, cook ground beef or turkey until browned with no more pink showing in the meat. Break up larger chunks with the back of a spoon. Drain fat.
- In large pot or Dutch oven cook onion and garlic in the oil, over medium heat.
-Once the onion has softened and become translucent, add chili powder and next four ingredients (chili powder through salt). Cook 1 minute, stirring constantly.
-Stir in the diced up chipotle chile, the Vermont maple sugar, the water, the cans of tomatoes.
-Add the drained, cooked meat in to the pot. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes to a half an hour.
-In the meantime, open the cans of beans and rinse and drain.
-Once the meat mixture has simmered for the 15 minutes to half an hour, add the beans and simmer 15 minutes more.
-Stir in the wine vinegar and simmer 5 more minutes.

**note: to substitute veggies for the meat, you can use only one pot! In the large pot, cook the diced carrots, zucchini and/or eggplant in 1 Tablespoon of olive oil on medium heat. Then add the onion and garlic after 5 or so minutes, and follow as above. To include these extra veggies to a meat based chili, simply start the veggies in the large pot as I describe here and the meat in the skillet at the same time and follow instructions above.


  1. Cocoa powder?? I never would have thought to add that. I'll have to try this recipe (even in Florida, we like Chili!)

  2. Give it a try Joe! My kids love it.

  3. Hi Wendy,

    You say you use Muir Glen no salt added Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes ... where do you FIND Muir Glen no salt added Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes??

  4. In my area, I found them in Whole Foods ( I tend to shop in the one in Silver Spring) and sometimes MOM's (My Organic Market). You can easily substitute any other brand of no or low salt diced tomatoes if you can't find the fire roasted. Good luck!

  5. Happy new year.
    Very nice website.
    I am impressed.
    I like it very much.


  6. I lived in Vt from '92 to '99....and LOVED Ali's Chili Mix. Too bad it's out of production. Everybody thought it was great!

  7. Wow! How exciting that you knew of Ali's!