The end of stew season


Spring in southeastern Ontario is a perfect and beautiful thing. Warm, cyclable, sit out and readable days come early and everything gets so green so quickly that it’s easy to forget that it will soon be too hot to safely go outside, except at around 6 am. Haven’t been to Toronto during the summer? The temps regularly hit the mid-40s (Celcius) supported by insupportable humidity levels, and it doesn’t cool down at night because all the concrete absorbs the heat all day and then releases it all night. It’s just fucking atrocious. Every summer here I get a strange pain in my chest remembering the days when I loved summer instead of feeling it like it’s a scourge inflicted upon us by an angry, deeply vengeful god.

But we’re not there yet. It is officially spring; we’ve had several days of perfect sunshine and baskable heat in the mid-20s sans hellish hot humidity. My house plants are coming alive (the peace lily sprouted three new flowers in one week, after months of plodding through the winter in a profound depression); my little strawberry plants are already over 2 inches tall and bursting with green potential. But then it also snowed a little on Friday night and while I rode my bicycle downtown on Saturday, I had to wear long johns and giant mittens.

This isn’t all bad. This weather is perfect for comfy chair tea and toast (soon to be replaced by equally attractive on the balcony, in the Muskoka chair tea and toast); just as importantly, this in between weather is perfect for making big pots of stew. I’m particularly fond of chili, having recently discovered an incredibly easy way to turn the chili up to 11: by topping it with generous amounts of homemade guacamole. If you’re not already adding guac to your favourite bean and tomato concoction, you might want to ask yourself how committed you really are to your culinary creations—hell, how committed you are to your stomach!

Guacamole needn’t be difficult. This is what I do; it’s simple and perfect and irresistible:

Two very ripe avocados
Juice of one lime (must be fresh!!)
About one tsp of sweet smoked paprika
Salt to taste

Mash that shit up with a fork and welcome to my delicious world.

The other day, I started the day by cooking up a big pot of Tex Mex chili. This was a recipe new to me and like most chili recipes created by others, it was too watery in its original form. I put in a bit less stock, added more beans to make up for the seitan I left out, and added a full cup of TVP granules to thicken it up. I may have rubbed my hands maniacally in anticipation.

I was entirely satisfied with my decision to engage in some chili-guac dinner action but then my darling, genius husband suggested we make it into an ass-kicking casserole: layer of polenta, layer of chili, layer of polenta, layer of chili and bake (which I did, for 20 minutes at 375F). Now this, with guacamole on top, turned the whole affair not up to 11, but up to 15. Truly, this is one of the best cold weather comfort food meals I’ve had—it truly raised the bar, as yummy vittles should.

Here’s the chili recipe with my modifications (the original is from The 30-Minute Vegan by Jennifer Murray and Mark Reinfeld):

Tex Mex Chili
3.5 cups vegetable stock
1.5 tbsp chili powder
2 tsp cumin, ground
2 cups onion, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1.5 cups chopped tomatoes
1 green bell pepper chopped small
1 jalapeño seeded and minced
1 19 oz can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 19 oz can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 6 oz can tomato paste
1 cup fresh or frozen corn
3 tbsp soy sauce or tamari (I use Bragg’s—no MSG or extra salt!)
3 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
1.5 tsp sea salt
black pepper to taste
1 cup small TVP granules, soaked in boiling water until water absorbed

1. Place the water, chili, powder, and cumin in a large pot over medium-high heat. Begin prepping the onions, celery, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, and place in the pot as you go.

2. Lower heat to medium-low, add the beans, tomato paste, corn, and TVP and cook for an additional 10 minutes, or until all the ingredients are tender, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining ingredients, stir well, and enjoy.

I have a lot of chili recipes (because I have a lot of cookbooks), and I’ve tried most. And while I’m very fond indeed of a number of them, I haven’t yet discovered a truly superlative chili. I aim for nothing less than perfection; cooking for me is about enjoying things here and now but always finding how to make things even more delicious. I am no ascetic, and admit to living happily somewhere between the fine lines defining gourmet and gourmand. Delicious food need not be fancy, complicated, or super-abundant; it does need to be delicious. Wholesome. Hearty. Stolid, but with a clear aftertaste of brave, original, and surprising. Stew.

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