This is a story about a cow in Squirrel Hill.
Though I grew up a meat eater, I was never a gigantic fan of the stuff. When I cooked and ordered and ate meat, especially red meat and pork, I always tried to transform it into something else. I required it burnt to a crisp before it could pass my lips, thereby breaking the cardinal rule of red-meat eating, specifically, that It Shall Be Rare And You Are Wrong, Just Wrong, If You Like I Any Other Way. I was perpetually squeamish about sausage, frightened of the squeaky little nuggets of gristly fat lurking throughout. But I did love that cured-meat nitrate flavor, so when I dug into links and patties I made sure that it, too, was burned beyond recognition. Kielbasas got split in half, length-wise, to increase burning surface area. Pepperoni was sliced into discs and made to sizzle away into blackness in a frying pan. Bacon was not permitted have one iota of non-crisped fat left on its poor, scalded self. I was the overcooking masochist of meat. Weird, I know.
Yes, I was a finicky carnivore, but in no way could I imagine being one of those strange, impolite, difficult, demanding vegetarians. I had met those before. Can't they get over themselves? Would it kill them to eat a piece of chicken?
Well, it might not kill them, but it will definitely kill the chicken. I realized this one day in 1994 when I visited Sister while she was in graduate school in Pittsburgh and living in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. One day, undoubtedly after a coffee at the 61C, we were walking back to her apartment down Murray Ave. when we came across an inexplicable urban petting zoo. We took a little detour into the "zoo" and surveyed the usual fauna: sheep, a tiny pony, the odd goat. Then there was this whitish/grayish cow. She looked at me with her big, soft, wise eyes and regarded me with a sort of gentle disdain: "I know you ate my friend the other day, but it would still be nice if you gave me a pet on the nose." So I did. I gave her a pet on the nose.
I turned to Sister and stated, simply but definitively, "You know, I don't think I can eat these guys anymore." Sister had been a vegetarian for quite some time, so you can imagine her joy. And you already know how much Sister's approval means to me.
From that moment, it was a steep and slippery slope to complete vegetarianism and, eventually, veganism. Since it started with a look in a cow's eye -- and not, say, high cholesterol -- my diet became political. I read every book on animal rights and vegetarianism that I could get my hands on. I sent money to Farm Sanctuary and sponsored a turkey whose photo, like a starving child in Africa, I placed on our dinner table at Thanksgiving. I started volunteering at a local animal shelter. Thankfully, I never threw red paint on anyone's fur (not because I like fur; rather, because I dislike any criminal activity, especially perpetuated by me).
It was natural, then, that I subscribed to Vegetarian Times. I loved reading each issue and poring over its pages every month. VT was the perfect publication for a new vegetarian who loved to cook and was hungry for new things to do with fruits, vegetables, grains and non-animal protein sources. I was particularly grateful when an issue devoted to chili arrived in my mailbox. Chili always has been and always will be a favorite of mine. My mom's hearty, meaty and beany version was omnipresent in the kitchen of my childhood. As a vegetarian, I hated that I couldn't have it anymore on account of all the beef -- and every veg recipe for chili that I'd ever found was a weak and tasteless facsimile.
Finally, a veggie chili that sticks to your ribs!
I have since mellowed quite a bit with regards to vegetarianism (indeed, I now eat chicken, turkey and fish, but I don't think I can ever go back to the cow and pig). This is not to say that I no longer believe in the rights of sentient beings; rather, it's just to say that my militant youth has passed me by. Moreover, as I have expanded my culinary knowledge, my list of allowable foods has expanded, too. Even so, the following veggie chili recipe has been an integral part of my kitchen repertoire since I first clipped the page from Vegetarian Times more than a decade ago. I still go for this version above all other would-be chilis. The original recipe doesn't include the meatless crumbles, but since Morningstar Farms has made such astounding advances in meatless technology over the past 10 years or so, I always include ground "meat" in this chili when I make it now. I then serve it to carnivores who don't have any idea what's going on.
HEARTY VEGETARIAN CHILI
Adapted from Vegetarian Times
3 T. canola or olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 cup celery, sliced (include some of the tasty leafy tops, if you can)
2 large cloves garlic, minced
8 oz. meatless crumbles, like Morningstar Farms (you can use them straight from the freezer)
28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
14.5-oz. can stewed tomatoes, diced, or, if you're a hands-on cook like me, squished between your impeccably clean hands
15.5-oz. can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 c. red wine (I use shiraz, because that's what's perennially on hand in my household)
4 t. chili powder
1 T. dried oregano
2 1/2 t. ground cumin
1 t. paprika
1 t. kosher salt
2 t. bottled hot sauce
1/2 t. freshly-ground black pepper
Extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated (optional, to taste)
Fresh cilantro, chopped (optional, to taste)
Heat oil in a large saucepan or dutch oven. Add onion, bell peppers, celery and garlic. Saute until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Add the meatless crumbles, and saute for 2-3 more minutes, just to thaw them.
Reduce heat to low. Stir in crushed tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, beans, wine, seasonings and hot sauce; bring to a simmer. Cover most of the way and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 25-30 minutes. Don't skimp on time here -- everything they say on the cooking shows about "flavors melding" is true. This chili tastes markedly better if it's allowed to simmer and bubble away until its disparate elements are holding hands and ready to join Up With People.
Remove from heat; let stand 5-10 minutes before serving. Ladle chili into bowls and top with the shredded extra-sharp cheddar and cilantro, if you are so inclined. You can also choose any number of additional toppings, such as chopped scallions or red onion, fresh salsa, sour cream, guacamole, Monterey Jack, cooked elbow macaroni, cornbread....Knock yourself out; the possibilities are endless.
This recipe makes 4-6 servings. Great for Superbowl Sunday! Also great for days that, like today, are 4 degrees Fahrenheit.