This dish draws inspiration from many sources—vegetarian chilis in Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, The Silver Palate Goodtimes Cookbook and Didi Emmon’s, Vegetarian Planet. And there’s the Indian lentil stews I’ve learned to love over many years of marriage, like dal makhani which pairs lentils with kidney beans. We’ve been experimenting and doctoring over years, each time we stir up this chili, we tweak it a bit, here and there. The first version began with sautéed eggplant courtesy of the Silver Palate. Years later, lentils and beer were added via Emmon’s suggestion, and somewhere along the line the spices that go into dal were stirred in. If we have zucchini in the garden, we add it (toward the end of cooking). Or carrots and celery. Fennel even. The beans we choose depend on what’s in the cupboard—cannellini, black, kidney and garbanzo are all able partners.
Though this chili is simple to prepare and can be on the table in an hour or so, it’s even better after a day or three, which allows the flavors to mingle, mellow and come together.
I like to grind my own spices—a trick I learned from my mentor in Indian cooking, my mother-in-law—since the flavor is far superior. There’s a small coffee bean grinder stored in my cupboard, reserved just for spices. Buy bags of cumin and coriander seed at an Indian market in bulk—the cheapest prices you’ll find anywhere.
We love Spanish pardina lentils here—they keep their shape as they cook, and have a lovely light brown hue—but substitute any earth-colored lentil. French green lentils, lentilles du Puy, would be nice too. If you make a substitution, be sure to test the lentils for doneness, as each variety cooks at a different rate. You may need to add more water too, depending on the variety.
- Olive oil
- 3 cups chopped onion
- 1 medium Italian eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
- 2 large bell peppers, at least one yellow or orange, cored and diced
- 6 fat cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander seed
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin seed
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 4 large roma tomatoes, finely diced
- 1 28 ounce can diced tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 cup Spanish pardina lentils
- 2 cans pinto beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 cup beer
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 3/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
- fresh lemon juice
- for serving, any of the following: chopped cilantro, shredded cheddar or jack cheese, chopped scallions, cubed avocado, sour cream, hot sauce
- Warm 3 tablespoons or so oil in a large soup pot—preferably one with a heavy bottom. Cook onion until it begins to soften, then add eggplant and peppers. Cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until eggplant takes on some color. Add garlic, chili powder, coriander, cumin, oregano and cinnamon. Stir spices into the vegetables and cook until the mixture is fragrant, then add tomatoes and cook until they are soft and have begun to break apart. If needed, add a splash of water to prevent ingredients from burning on the bottom of the pan.
- Pour half the can of diced tomatoes into the pot, then purée the other half with an immersion blender (or in a food processor). Add to the pot. Fill the tomato can with water, and pour into the pot, then fill it again halfway, and add to the mixture as well. Stir in tomato paste, lentils, beans, beer and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low (or low) and gently simmer for twenty minutes. Stir now and then. Cover and simmer for 20-30 more minutes. Stir in cilantro and one or two teaspoons lemon juice, to taste. Add more salt as necessary to taste.
- Serving in warm bowls with any or all of the garnishes.