Thursday, February 18, 2010

Soup Stories: Caramelized Vegetarian Chili

When I have a house, I usually keep a bag or container in the freezer and shove in there all my carrot ends, onion clippings, and (almost) any other veggie or fruit scrap that is clean and healthy. This means I have a fairly regular supply of stock-making materials. If am diligent and don't eat too much soup in the summer months, I can make enough stock ahead of time to get a solid head start on winter.

When I do not have a house, I am a little lost; I have had to let some things go out of necessity, and the soup stock bag o' veggies is one of them. Never fear, Mirepoix is here! Mire-who? Mirepoix. It is the 'holy trinity' of French cooking. It is the flavor base, the first layer of yumminess in many French dishes, especially soup. I mention it not because I used its precision (usually 1cup onion, 1/2 cup carrot, 1/2 cup celery) and its guide (add bits of meat, spices, herbs) but because I utilize the culinary theory behind it.

Most cultures have a Mirepoix. It is what provides a little consistency in culinary culture. It what makes us know something is Italian or French, Mexican or Thai. It is the rhythm of making food, the daily prayers of eating.

In my year of making soup, my Mirepoix became garlic, onion, carrots, maybe an astringent veggie like celery or celeriac, and the cooking method of caramelizing. I roasted the garlic until it was gooey, mushed easily, and had browned oozes of juice around it. I caramelized the onions with olive oil until they had practically disintegrated. This gave all my soups a deep, sweet flavor I could rely on when trying something new (which was basically every week). It might not have been the best, most delicate method of attaining flavor, but I was new at the cooking thing. And it worked.

Yesterday I made chili. I kind of planned for it to not go well because I didn't have a lot of energy, and I was using two different (not usually combined) precooked beans. But in a moment of insight I decided to caramelize the onions.

I was still completely unexcited about the chili when I tasted it after dumping all the ingredients together and letting it cook another half hour or so on low heat. I was so shocked. I had essentially done nothing to it. But it tasted good! Straightforward vegetarian chili, but very good--sweet without my usual cinnamon, spiced without my usual cayenne, deep without meat.

Caramelized Onion Vegetarian Chili

I am partial to the pure flavor of home-cooked beans, but you could, I suppose use cans here. Just hold back on the salt. Also, the chili will actually need longer to cook, as the beans won't be falling apart enough.

2 medium onions
1 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium dried red chilies (or fresh of course, if you have access)
1/2 pound kidney beans, soaked and cooked until they begin to fall apart, water reserved
1/2 pound lentils, ditto
1 large can diced tomatoes (I used one pint and one 1/2 pint jars home-canned tomatoes)
about a teaspoon of salt, maybe more later, to taste

Saute onions with the salt on medium-high heat, stirring often to prevent scorching. When onions are translucent, but not yet caramelized enough, add garlic, and cook until mixture is caramelized and delicious when tasted.

Meanwhile, prepare the chilies. If you can, cut off the stems and pour out the seeds. Set seeds aside to spice up the soup if it needs it. Soak the dried chilies in boiling water until soft, then cool them enough so you can handle them. Chop and put them, the beans, and the tomatoes in a soup pot over medium high heat. When it has reached boiling point, turn down to low and simmer for a half hour. Serve with sour cream, shredded sharp cheddar cheese and a wedge of lime. Enjoy!

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