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Chili weather ahead 

Easy meals from end-of-season veggies and economical beans

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.

Black Bean Chili

1 pound (about 2 cups) dried black beans
5 cups water for soaking
8 cups stock (vegetarian or chicken)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
2 cups diced sweet bell or hot chile peppers (or a combination, to taste), seeded
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon each ground pepper, cumin, chili powder and kosher salt
2 cups diced fresh tomatoes, in their juice
2 medium eggplants, diced
1 bay leaf

Rinse beans. Soak them overnight (or up to two days) in the 5 cups water. Drain, rinse and cover with 6 cups of stock in large pot or crock pot. Bring to a slow boil and simmer until tender, about an hour and a half.

While the beans are cooking, make a sofrito in another skillet by sautéing over medium heat the onions, peppers, garlic and spices in the olive oil until onions are translucent. Add tomatoes, eggplant and bay leaf. Bring to a low boil, adding the remaining two cups of stock. Transfer this mixture to the bean pot and let it all simmer as long as you like. Half an hour will do if you need it in a hurry but the longer, the better—so long as it doesn't boil dry. If you make it a day ahead (or over the weekend and freeze it), have a little stock or water handy for reheating it to the consistency you like. (We like ours thick but saucy enough for dipping cornbread or tortilla chips.) Serve with steamed whole grain rice, tortillas or cornbread for accompaniment; garnish with salsa, sour cream and grated cheese. This recipe serves six to eight generously, and if you have a big enough pot, you can easily double or triple it.

Stretching the harvest

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


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