This dish draws inspiration from many sources—vegetarian chills 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 that pairs lentils with red beans. We're constantly improvising—each time we stir up a pot there's an opportunity to tweak here and there. The first version began with sautéed eggplant courtesy of Rosso and Lukins. Years later, lentils and beer were added per Emmon's suggestion, and somewhere along the lines the spices that go into dal were stirred in. If we have zucchini in the garden, we add it (toward the end of cooking). Fennel is nice too, sautéed with the eggplant and peppers. The beans we choose depend on what's in the cupboard—cannellini, black, kidney and garbanzo are all able partners.
You can easily have a finished pot on the table in an hour or so, but it's worth planning ahead, since the flavors are even better after a day, or three, which allows time 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. The flavors are far superior to what comes packaged in a glass jar at the supermarket. There's a small coffee bean grinder tucked on the pantry shelf, reserved just for spices. Buy bags of cumin or coriander seed at an Indian market in bulk—the cheapest prices you'll find anywhere.
We love Spanish pardina lentils—they retain definition as they cook and have a lovely nut brown hue—but use any earth-colored lentil. 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.
Besides a steamy bowlful of chili, there's a reward to the cook here—the half glass of beer that's left in the bottle. It'd be a shame to let it go to waste. So drink up. —Ann S
medium Italian eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
large sweet bell peppers, at least one yellow or orange, cored and cubed
fat cloves garlic, minced
ground coriander seed
ground cumin seed
large roma tomatoes, finely diced
28 ounce can diced tomatoes
Spanish pardina lentils
cans pinto beans, rinsed and drained
beer (not super dark)
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 or creme fraiche, 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 several minutes, stirring frequently, until eggplant softens and takes on some color. Add garlic, chili powder, coriander, cumin, oregano and cinnamon. Stir spices into the vegetables and cook until mixture is fragrant, a minute or two. Add fresh tomatoes and cook until they are soft and begin to break apart. If needed, add a splash of water to prevent ingredients from burning on the bottom of the pot.
Pour half the can of diced tomatoes into the pot, then purée the other half right in the can, using an immersion blender (or in a food processor). Add to the pot. Fill the tomato can to the rim with water, and pour into the pot, then fill it again halfway, and add that too. Stir in tomato paste, lentils, beans, beer and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low (or low as needed) and gently simmer for twenty minutes. Stir now and then. Cover and simmer for 30 or more minutes (at least until lentils are fully tender). Stir in cilantro and one or two teaspoons lemon juice to taste. Add more salt as necessary to taste.
Serve in warm bowls with any or all of the garnishes.