|This chili has been in my freezer and is as good as new!|
Chili is a staple in my diet, largely because it helps me say no to food waste. This is how I use things up before they go bad, and also have days and days' worth of meals in my freezer for easy lunches. Plus, chili is one of those things that, if you do it right, people forget that there isn't any meat in it.
Really, there are only three things you absolutely need: a tomato base, some kind of bean or legume, and whatever kind of vegetable your heart desires. Spices add a lot, though they're optional if you're a minimalist. (I'm not.)
Here's how you'll get those three (four?) things going...
You probably have something on hand already that will work. You can use any kind of canned tomato product, like tomato paste, tomato sauce, tomato juice, crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes... In a pinch, I've even used canned pizza or spaghetti sauce. No, seriously. The idea is for the base to be thick, so if you're using something that's pretty much tomato chunks floating in tomato water, then try putting it through the blender. It'll turn out better for you. Trust me.
And guess what? Fresh tomatoes work, too, if you peel them first. Just cut a slit in the skin, cover them with boiling water for 3-5 minutes, and pull the skin right off. Chop them up and stew them for a while, and it's like you just opened a can of tomatoes.
You can use pretty much any kind of legume for this. If you're using canned beans, it's even simpler. You just open the can, drain it (optional--I like to keep the nutrients and flavour from the water), and stick the beans in your chili. Chickpeas work a dream, also.
If you're using dried beans, then you've got a bit more work ahead of you. Boil your dried beans for however long they take...which is usually an hour and a half (some will cook faster, like hardy types of lentils). Once they're cooked, cook them more in your chili so they get nice and soft and absorb the tomato flavour. If you're using less hardy (e.g. red) lentils, don't cook them first. You'll end up with mashed lentil before you can even get them in the chili.
There really aren't many you can't use. The only things I'd stay away from are cucumbers and lettuces. I've used everything from spinach to squash to potato to eggplant to broccoli in my chili. Especially nice are onions and peppers, because they give chili that flavour we know and love. If you have garlic, make sure you throw that in also.
The more vegetables you add, the better. Just empty your fridge of unwanted veggies. My best chili ever had 17 types of vegetables in it, not including the tomato base. And my guests were fighting over who would get the leftovers.
You don't really need these, but it's much nicer with them. Choose your spices based on how traditional you like your chili to taste. For very traditional, use cumin and coriander with chili flakes. For less traditional, try throwing in some curry powder, paprika, and/or cayenne. If you're feeling especially daring, just throw a bit of your favourites in a bowl and see if you like the way the combination smells!
In terms of amount, I like a lot of spice in my chili. I put about a half tablespoon of spice per quart of chili that it makes. So if I make 4 quarts, we're looking at 2 tablespoons.
I like salt in my chili, though if you spice it properly, you may not need it. Do it to taste--what kind of tomatoes you used will affect how salty your base is to begin with.
So now what do I do with this stuff?
Now you sauté your onion and garlic in a little oil, then throw everything else in. Chop your vegetables small. (Trust me, chunky chili is only good in theory. When a piping-hot bowl lands in front of you, debating between burning yourself and waiting 15 minutes for those huge chunks to cool to a manageable temperature is not the best way to go.) Once all your ingredients are in the pot, simmer for at least an hour, or until the veggies are super tender, and be sure to stir regularly so it doesn't stick. You'll have a nice, thick chili at this point, and it'll be ready to serve with crusty bread and coconut cream.