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.