The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

Vegan: The Best Sweet Potato and Bean Chili

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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Editor's Note: Welcome to the third year of The Vegan Experience! All month we're exploring the vegan lifestyle, from dining out to eating in, developing a slew of delicious recipes for vegan appetizers, snacks, and entrees along the way. For more posts in the series, check here!

When I was a kid, we had a strict "30 minutes of screen time per day" rule,* which meant that every day was filled with an epic internal struggle. Should I try and beat World 5 in Super Mario Bros. 3, or should I put it off for a day to corner that criminal mastermind Carmen Sandiego? What is this new show Thundercats, and will it ever be worth missing a new episode of He-Man for? There were, of course, ways around this. My sister and I would take turns sitting watch on the window sill when my mom went out on errands in order to catch a glimpse of her car entering the garage below. This would give us a window of about 7 minutes while my mom made her way up from the garage to our tenth floor apartment—just enough top shut the TV off with sufficient time for it to cool down and pass my mom's hyper-sensitive touch test (yes, she's really feel the TV to see if we'd had it on).

*exceptions were made for Mr. Wizard's World, Great Chefs, and on a case-by-case basis, documentaries and nature programs. My mom caught on half way through the film that the Jean-Claude Van Damme/Dolph Lundgren classic Universal Soldier is not actually a documentary about a re-animated super-soldiers.

But no matter how much we cheated, I always asked myself: why do I have to choose?

You can bet your butt that now that I'm my own boss, I make as few forced choices as possible.

For instance, why choose only one type of chili when you can have several? Last year, I took pains to develop a recipe for the Best Vegetarian Bean Chili, which is fantastic, but you know what else is fantastic? Sweet potato chili. And that's what we're making today.

I make chilies a lot. I mean, a LOT, and with each new recipe development, I like to synthesize all the tricks and techniques I've picked up from past experiments and incorporate them. In a way, every single batch of chili I've made for the last few years has been the best I've ever made, because each and every time it gets better and better, more refined. Here are some of the big techniques I use.

Key to Great Chili #1: Fresh Dried Chilies

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Want to know the absolute easiest way to improve your chili in one fell swoop? Put the chili powder back on the shelf. Chili powders are convenient—they give you a good blend of chili flavors and spices—but they lose their flavor very rapidly due to their fine particle size, and can make a finished pot taste grainy and gritty.

Instead, use fresh dried chilies.

That may sound like an oxymoron, but dried chilies have a shelf life. They should be dried, but for best flavor, they have to be malleable and moist, not dry and brittle. Storing your chilies in a sealed freezer bag in the freezer will help keep them this way.

As far as selecting the right chilies for the job, they come in four basic flavors:

  • Sweet and fresh: These peppers have distinct aromas reminiscent of red bell peppers and fresh tomatoes. They include Costeño, New Mexico (aka dried Anaheim, California, or Colorado), and Choricero.
  • Hot: An overwhelming heat. The best, like Cascabels also have some complexity, while others like the Pequin or Arbol, are all heat, and not much else.
  • Smoky: Some chili peppers, like Chipotles (dried, smoked jalapeños), are smoky because of the way they are dried. Others, like Ñora or Guajillo have a natural musty, charred wood, smokiness.
  • Rich and Fruity: Distinct aromas of sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, chocolate, and coffee. Some of the best-known Mexican chilies, like Ancho, Mulato, and Pasilla, are in this category.

The goal in a great, balanced bowl of chili is to mix and match from those categories so that you develop a complex flavor profile that hits notes both high and low, mild and hot. You can vary the ratio to suit your own taste, but it's always good to have at least a little bit of variety. Think of your chili pot as a 1990's mix tape. Sure, GNR is great, but you need at least a bit of MJ in there to keep Axl in check, you know?

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For this recipe, I'm using a mix of dried ancho, pasilla, and arbol chilies, along with some canned chipotle chilies in adobo sauce to hit a bit of every category. To develop their flavor even further, toast them in a dry pan before hitting them with some vegetable stock or water (I used my Hearty Vegan Stock) to let them re-hydrate.

Key to Great Chili #2: Flavor Boosters

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Fresh dried chilies have a natural citrusy, raisiny aroma to them. It's what gives them their fruitiness. Last year, when I was working on a recipe for Carve Adovada, a New Mexican specialty of pork braised with chilies, I thought to myself, "what if I boost those flavors by adding actual orange juice and raisins to the mix?"

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So I did, and lo and behold, it worked like a charm, adding a flavor boost that didn't dominate, but rather made the chilies taste even more like chilies, if that makes sense. Jesse is cool on his own, but Jesse and The Rippers can't be stopped. It's a standard addition to all my chilies these days.

Key to Great Chili #3: Chili Paste, Not Chili Powder

How do you get those softened chilies incorporated into your final dish?

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With a little help from the hand blender. This technique—toasting chilies, rehydrating them with stock, enhancing them with orange juice and raisins, then puréeing them with a hand blender—yields a concentrated chili paste that has a vastly superior flavor and texture to any powder you'll find in a jar.

With the chili paste made, the rest of the dish is really a cakewalk, but I've still got a few more tricks up my sleeve.

Key to Great Chili #4: Layer Aromatics

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Like with any good soup or stew, making a great bowl of chili is not as easy as just dumping all the ingredients into the pot. You've got to treat each one properly to bring out its best flavor. That means starting with larger diced vegetables like onions and peppers (I used poblanos in this case, which are the fresh version of ancho chilies), sweating them down in a bit of oil (this concentrates their flavor and drives off any raw aromas), and then following with your finer aromatics.

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Minced garlic, ground cumin, and dried oregano all benefit from a brief toasting in oil before you add your chili paste and other liquids. In a traditional meat-based chili, I'd think twice about adding tomatoes, but in this case they work to add some savory body to the recipe. Tomatoes are high in glutamates, the class of chemicals responsible for triggering our sense of savoriness.

Key to Great Chili #5: Umami Bombs

You knew these were coming, right? They make their way into nearly every soup or stew I make, vegan or otherwise. In this case, I use a mix of soy sauce and marmite, both ingredients that, like tomatoes, are rich in glutamates. Once they're added, all we've got left is the actual chunky vegetable elements.

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I love the flavor and texture that sweet potatoes can bring to chili. Here, I dice them into half-inch cubes and simmer them directly in the sauce, along with some canned kidney beans and black beans. The only problem? All of these ingredients end up very soft and creamy. For a bit of chewy texture, I like to add a can of hominy, a large-grained variety of corn that has been soaked in a an alkaline solution. The process, known as nixtamalization, is the process that allows hominy to then be ground into masa, the flour used to make tortillas, sopes, and the like.

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In its whole cooked or canned form, hominy has a delightfully chewy texture and clean, corn-y flavor. (I don't know why I don't eat it more often—I love the stuff.)

After simmering for about an hour to let flavors develop and concentrate (that may as well be Key to Great Chili #6), all that's left is to thicken it all up.

For this, I use actual masa, which is easy to incorporate, thickens without turning gluey or stodgy, and adds a warm corn flavor to the dish.

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As is habitual with my cooking, a splash of booze goes in at the end as well, which helps some of the more volatile aromatic compounds reach your nose just a bit faster.

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I'm not going to say the results are damn delicious, but...

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...Okay, I am going to say the results are damn delicious, because to say anything else would be a lie by omission. The results are damn delicious. So damn delicious that I've decided to suspend my normal act of sharing leftovers with family and doormen, and instead I'm keeping them all to myself. My wife can fight me for them, but I do believe that this bowl of chili has given me superhuman strength.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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