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Carb Diva's "Un-Meaty" Vegetarian Chili

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A bean, tomato, and veggie chili.

A bean, tomato, and veggie chili.

I Had to Abandon My Favorite Chili Recipe

My younger daughter has been a vegetarian for more than 20 years. Thanks to her, we have changed our eating habits for the better. Even when she is not eating with us, beef and pork rarely appear in our dining room—our focus is now on lean poultry and seafood, whole grains, numerous vegetables, and healthy fats.

Some foods are easily converted to "vegetarian"—others, not quite so much. One would think the chili would be an easy switch—that veggie crumbles could easily substitute for the ground beef—but I've never been satisfied with the flavor. Veggie crumbles, although wonderful in taste and texture, just don't (according to my palate) fit in with the flavors I expect to find in chili.

So I began a quest to find something that would give us that taste of beef without sacrificing a cow.

The Quest for a "Meaty" Vegetarian Chili

There are five distinct tastes that the human tongue recognizes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Umami is a Japanese word for "pleasant savory taste." There are several natural, non-meat foods that have an umami flavor—tomatoes, mushrooms, soy, potatoes, carrots, and Parmesan cheese.

Most, if not all, chili recipes already contain tomatoes. I knew that potatoes and Parmesan would not fit the standard profile. And soy has such a distinctly "Asian" connotation that I knew it would not work, either. But what about mushrooms?

Here's how I put together a "meaty" but meatless chili:

"Un-Meaty" Vegetarian Chili


  • 1/2 cup dry pinto beans
  • 1/2 cup dry kidney beans
  • 1 cup dry black beans
  • 1 (28-ounce) can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder, or more if you like it hot
  • 1 teaspoon dried coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano flakes
  • 1 or 2 jalepeño peppers, (remove the seeds if you want less heat)
  • 1 pound crimini mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, finely diced
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced
  • 2 stalks of celery, finely diced
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • salt and pepper, to taste


  1. Carefully sort through the beans. Rinse well and place in a large stockpot. Add 2 quarts of water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and let sit for 1 hour.
  2. Drain the beans and return to the pot. Add water to cover the beans by an inch or so; bring to a boil. Simmer until the beans are very tender, 1 to 2 hours. Drain the beans, reserving 1 1/2 cups of the cooking water. Place the drained beans back in the pot and set aside.
  3. Place the tomatoes, spices, and jalapenos in a blender container--blend until smooth. Set aside.
  4. In a large saute pan cook the mushrooms in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat until they give off their water, the water evaporates, and they begin to brown. Remove from the pan and set aside.
  5. Next, add the remaining oil to the pan and simmer the carrots, onion, and celery over medium heat until the vegetables are soft—about 10 minutes.
  6. Add the garlic and bay leaves and saute one minute more. Add the tomato/spice mixture, the sauteed mushrooms, and the sauteed vegetables to the stock pot of beans. Stir in 1/2 cup of the reserved cooking water.
  7. Simmer over low heat until heated through and the flavors are blended—about 15 minutes. Add more of the reserved cooking water if needed to prevent burning. Remove the bay leaves. Stir in the lemon juice. Taste for salt and pepper and season accordingly.

Why This Recipe Works

  • Starting with dried beans instead of canned requires a bit of planning ahead and certainly increases the preparation and cooking times, but the payback is worth it. Canned beans, even those marketed as "low sodium," contribute a great deal of salt to one's diet. Dried beans contain no sodium. And dried beans cost considerably less than the canned product.
  • Mushrooms are a wonderful substitute for the umami flavor of beef or beef and pork.
  • Diced carrot and celery add fiber, texture (so that you won't miss the 'mouth-feel' of meat), and a bit of sweetness to temper the bite of chili powder.
  • Lemon juice might seem an odd addition to a pot of chili, but just 2 teaspoons will "brighten" the flavors, reducing the need for additional salt

© 2013 Linda Lum