It's that time again. The leaves are at their peak, carved pumpkins adorn the neighborhood, and we need hearty one-bowl fare to warm us up after trick-or-treating, raking leaves or sitting in traffic on Interstate 40. It's time for chili. Made ahead and stowed in the fridge or freezer, homemade chili is convenience food at its healthiest.
In his cookbook Sacramental Magic in a Small-Town Cafe, Peter Reinhart waxes poetic in a chapter titled "The Zen of Black Bean Chili." He remembers first eating it at the famous Greens vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, and being "present in the moment," having a taste experience that conferred an awakening, befitting the restaurant's Buddhist influence.
I can't speak with authority about the spiritual ecstasies of chili, but I do know a heartwarming veggie-based main dish when I taste one. And I know the relief of gratitude when I take a container of it out of my freezer after a long day at work, and presto! There's home-cooked dinner.
Another great thing about chili is it's a good way to use end-of-season local produce, which is sometimes available in bulk from local farmers (see box at right). Ugly tomatoes, softening eggplants, the last of the season's sweet and hot peppers, local garlic and onions are paired with inexpensive legumes and given time to stew.
The flavors even improve after a day or two, or even a sojourn into the deep freeze. We serve it over rice or tortillas, or with hot buttered cornbread. Sour cream, salsa and grated cheese keep it under Mexican influence, but leave out the chili powder and serve it dressed with vinegar over yellow saffron rice and you get a Cuban version.
Reinhart's recipe uses vegetarian beef-flavored soup base and soy sauce, but other than that, our approaches are similar and typical. The inclusion of eggplant, which adds a wonderful silkiness to the texture, was suggested to me by cafe owner Carol Warren, who served up gallons of chili over many blowy winters on the island of Ocracoke.
Though our primary growing season is drawing to a close, most Triangle farmers' markets remain open (usually with reduced hours) throughout the cold-weather months. They offer crafts, winter root crops and greens and hydroponically grown produce as well as meat, cheese and eggs. Our comprehensive list is always online and up-to-date.
If you find a farmer who will sell you end-of-season produce at a bargain, here's what you can do to keep it fresh for winter cooking.
Tomatoes: Wash, cut into chunks and freeze. If you're feeling fancy, peel them by dropping into boiling water and cooling for a few minutes on a plate until you can handle them without scalding yourself. When defrosted, use them as you would any canned tomatoes.
Peppers: Wash, seed and cut into strips or 1-inch dice. Using a cookie sheet, freeze in layers separated by wax paper. When frozen hard, transfers to Ziploc bags and return to freezer. To use, measure out as many as you need and toss on pizza or into sauces, stews and chili.
Eggplants: You can freeze eggplants according to the method for peppers after running them under the broiler for two minutes on each side, but I've never had enough leftover to try it. We have frozen the puree from peeled and roasted eggplant and used it in more dishes than my kids could guess. —Sheryl Cornett