Regular readers of this column know by now that I'm a cantankerous omnivore. The fact is, I'm worse than that: I'm a bigot. I have rarely had vegetarian (much less vegan) food that was better than a three on a scale of 10, at least in terms of flavor. I try to compensate for my own prejudices by regularly testing things in my kitchen.
Vegetarian home cooking can be hardy and simple and occasionally excellent, but it is almost never wondrous. And it is always time consuming. Here I really am more concerned with everyday home cooking than restaurant food. (A restaurant can put more labor into dishes -- it takes just a bit more work to make 10 times as much.) And labor's what it takes to make good vegetarian food. For me to make a vegetarian supper for friends takes triple the time. Why? Because vegetables are mostly water -- meat and saturated animal fat are concentrated delivery mechanisms for flavor.
Yet, even as there are more vegetarians today (3 percent of the total population and 5 percent of teens, up 2 percent in the past 10 years), there is more public awareness of food, its sources, processes and flavors. One reason for the tremendous variety of hot sauces at the Co-op may be that capsaicin is a substitute for more complex tastes -- a kind of anesthetic that convinces the tongue it is getting true flavor.
So when we were invited to a buffet party at the home of Justine Shaw, Ph.D. -- CR anthropology professor, Division Chair for Arts, Languages and Social Sciences and a vegetarian -- I assumed the worst. Instead, I discovered one of the most remarkable dishes I've tasted: a crock pot of what appeared to be black bean chili.
Well, no. It wasn't chili. Yeah, a lot of people make bean "vegetarian chili," a kind of vegan stew in which the predominant seasonings are tomato, onion, garlic, chile and raw cumin, but food historians agree that chili is made with meat. No self-respecting Texas chili cook will allow a bean within miles of her concoction. So this wasn't chili, but it was a perfectly spiced dish of dazzling depth and complexity, and rich enough to satisfy a carnivore's most feral concupiscence. So I e-mailed Justine, begging for the recipe.
"Well, I don't call it chili either," she answered. "I started doing this in graduate school when I figured out that I could feed a good number of guests for less than $5 on cheap beans and chips ... so we could have money for other essentials such as books and beer." Nor did she have a recipe -- like all inspired cooks, she has evolved a process of changing ingredients according to availability and whim.
This is what I did, based on her notes:
You need a crock pot. (Failing that, I'd recommend either a pressure cooker or a couple days' cooking in a 170-degree oven.) This makes a huge quantity, but the beans are easily frozen (I use recycled yoghurt pints or cream cheese half-pints) and can be defrosted for a ready-to-eat Norteño vegetarian supper with tortillas, crumbled queso añejo and maybe a pico de gallo.
Justine Shaw's Grad Student Black Beans
In a standard large crock pot, combine:
2 lbs. black beans
1 small white onion, coarsely chopped
12 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 dried ancho or other mild chilé, seeded
2 dried "chilés japones" or other small hot chilés
4-6 canned La Morena chipotle chilés in adobo sauce (with sauce)
1-2 T bottled Bufalo prepared chipotle sauce
1 puck Abuelita (Mexican hot chocolate base; Justine says do not substitute Ibarra)
1 T ground cumin (I roast mine in a cast-iron pan before grinding)
1 T Mexican oregano (available at the Co-op and Murphy's)
Justine now says, "Fill to the brim with water, turn it on low, and leave it alone about 12 hours." (Later, you'll add 1/2 cup white vinegar, about a tablespoon of vegetable base, and the green version of El Yucateco habanero sauce to taste.)
I am an idiot newbie at crock pots. The manufacturer's instructions say "Do not fill over 2/3. Stir from time to time." But after a few hours it was clear that more liquid was needed. I added a bottle of Mad River Porter. Then some leftover strong coffee. Finally, I gave up, and filled the pot with water.
My Crockpot® only goes to 10 hours. So I turned it off, and left it overnight.
The next morning I followed the rest of Justine's directions:
"Then I add white vinegar (1/3 cup?) to counter the sweetness of the Abuelita, and 3 cubes of vegetarian bullion." For this, I used Better Than Bullion stock, plus some salt. It's important not to add salt before the beans have completely softened, or the skins will be tough. She also adds more cumin and oregano, if needed. And finally, "If I want more heat, then I add my favorite habanero sauce."
I set it to cook another two hours. The result was perfection. Black beans, native to southern Mexico, are the most flavorful of legumes, while the combination of Mexican chocolate and chipotle provide a rich mole-like base, the aromatic of cumin and oregano give it finesse, with vinegar and habanero sauce adding a little tang. And while it's not chili, it is far better than the stuff usually passed off as such.
In fact, I'm about due to make a new batch of real chili, and I'm thinking of trying some Abuelita in it.