- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Planning to be spontaneous sounds contradictory, but it can work. That’s what we are doing when we stock our pantry and refrigerator with a few items that we cook, say, on a Sunday in anticipation of some friends passing through at dinnertime the following Friday.

“I just happened to have this home-cooked chili on hand,” you can then declare without even lying. “Nice of you to drop by. Let’s dig in.” And because this recipe is so flexible, if the friends don’t show, you can always freeze it and pull it out with the same casual flair two months from now.

This make-and-freeze-ahead sleight of hand is only one part of the convenience story. It is preceded by another nifty trick, which is to use canned beans in place of the more Grandma-esque approach of soaking dry beans and then simmering them for hours.

Once upon a time, that was my exclusive method for cooking beans, regardless of the purpose. In recent years, I’ve eased up on the purism.

Allowing certain canned foods (beans chief among them) into my pantry and onto my stove has offered me greater flexibility — and last-minute, throw-together meals that tasted like they were cooked all day. I call this “cheating at chili,” and it turns out that chili cheating is actually a tradition from the Old West. Let me explain.

In the days when there really was an Old West, chili was an important food for cowboys. They packed it up and carried it with them as their primary food while out on the range.

Chili started out as a meat dish. Spicy chilies were added to keep the meat tasting fresh. But the cowboys also added beans to replenish the pot as their supply began to dwindle. Eventually, chili became known in some places as a bean dish instead of a meat combination. Just don’t mention this to a Texan, or you will be considered a culinary fraud and sentenced to chili jail.

This version has no meat at all, so call it something else entirely if you are making it in Texas. You can still think of it as real cowboy food because it has spunky seasonings in it, akin to those of the old days.

This is a great dish for cold weather, and it is also easy enough for grade-school children to help you put it together. Serve it with your favorite corn bread and a spinach salad, and wash it down with hot cider spiced with a cinnamon stick, whole cloves and a few peppercorns.

Cheaters’ chili

2 tablespoons olive oil

1½ cups minced onion

1 medium carrot, diced

1 medium stalk celery, diced

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 teaspoons cumin

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 small bell pepper (any color), seeded and diced

3 15-ounce cans red kidney beans, rinsed and drained (about 5 cups cooked kidney beans)

2 cups tomato juice

Freshly ground black pepper


Sour cream

Grated cheddar


Minced cilantro and parsley

Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, chili powder, cumin and salt, and saute for 5 minutes or until the onion is translucent. Add vinegar, garlic and bell pepper, and saute for 5 minutes longer.

Stir in the beans and tomato juice. Cover and cook over very low heat for 20 minutes, stirring intermittently. Add black pepper to taste, and serve hot with the toppings of your choice. Makes about 6 servings.


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