One of the most commonly repeated assertions made by American home cooks might often be the most untrue: "I make a mean chili."
Although I, too, used to think that way, I can now say with confidence that I also make a mean Indian chili.
Growing up in the North and Southeast, I wasn't exposed to "authentic" chili. The recipe in our house involved little more than browning ground beef and onions, then adding canned tomatoes, water, kidney beans, tomato paste and chili powder.
Today I would find that dish one-dimensional and underseasoned. But I loved it back then, undoubtedly because its real purpose was to serve as a vehicle for big dollops of sour cream, mounds of grated cheddar cheese and chopped scallions. The goal was to heap as much of it all as you could onto a saltine and get it to your mouth before the thing crumbled.
There are two ingredients I consider non-negotiable for any chili: onions and garlic. The former for body and sweetness, the latter for punch. These are my starting points for many savory dishes, especially soups. In my chef days, my response to the diner query, "I don't like onions and garlic. What can I have?" was "a seat in another restaurant."
Making chili is all about building, layering and melding. Maybe it's not good news for cooks constrained by the five-ingredients-in-five-minutes formula, but chili requires multiple ingredients and time to cook. I simply see no other way to create body and concentrate flavor.
To justify the effort, make a big batch. It's a great party food, it freezes well and often lends itself easily to repurposing. Add stock to thin it out, it's a soup. Blend it with lots of cheddar or pepper Jack cheese and sour cream and you've got a great casserole. Serve a smaller portion and it's a side dish for a future meal.
When I decided to go vegetarian, I immediately thought of Indian cooking, so rich in textures and highly spiced that I don't notice when a dish is meatless.
I had in mind dal (a thick, souplike lentil side dish) meets palak paneer (cubes of farmer's cheese in creamed spinach) meets paneer makhani (paneer cheese in a spice, tomato, cream and butter sauce).
Paneer is a wonder cheese. It retains its faintly spongy, pleasant texture in hot foods and has a wonderful, pure dairy flavor that tofu just doesn't. It can be hard to find, but Central American queso blanco is a perfect substitute.
To enhance the paneer's substance for a main course, I roasted cubes of butternut squash in plenty of butter, to be added at the end. That's also a nice seasonal touch.
Paneer and Butternut Squash Kashmiri Chili
This dish — full of lentils, chunks of paneer (an Indian farmer cheese), roasted butternut squash and spinach — is so hearty and flavorful, you won't notice it's vegetarian. Its spice foundation includes well-known curry spices and a Kashmiri paste made from red chiles, tamarind, ginger and garlic.
For the spice paste:
1 teaspoon fenugreek powder
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons garam masala
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces canned tomato paste
¼ cup Kashmiri paste, such as Tiger Tiger brand
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon peeled, grated gingerroot
For the chili:
3 tablespoons canola oil
4 cups diced yellow onion (from 2 to 3 large onions)
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds, plus 2 teaspoons for garnish
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, crushed with your hands, plus juices
1 ¾ cups (11 ounces) red lentils, picked over and thoroughly rinsed in cool water
8 cups homemade or no-salt-added vegetable broth
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon salt, plus more for the squash
8 ounces chopped fresh spinach (4 cups, packed)
1 pound peeled, seeded butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes (4 cups)
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted
16 ounces paneer or queso blanco, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
2 cups plain yogurt, for garnish
1 cup chopped cilantro, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
For the spice paste: Combine the fenugreek, turmeric, garam masala, salt, pepper, tomato paste, Kashmiri paste, garlic and ginger in a medium bowl.
For the chili: Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the onion and sesame seeds and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion starts to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the spice paste and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the tomatoes and cook for 1 minute. Transfer the mixture to a bowl.
Return the same pot to the stove. Add the lentils, broth, cream and salt and bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are soft. Stir in the chili mixture. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the spinach and cook 5 minutes, until the spinach wilts.
While the lentils are cooking, line a baking sheet with foil. Place the squash pieces in a large bowl and season them with salt and pepper, then stir in the melted butter and toss to coat the squash. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, until the squash has softened but is still slightly firm.
Stir the squash into the chili, then stir in the paneer. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed. Serve immediately, garnished with yogurt, chopped cilantro and black sesame seeds.
Make ahead: The chili can be made a couple of days in advance without the paneer and then reheated, with the paneer added just before serving. It can be frozen (also without the paneer) for up to
Notes: A good substitute for paneer is queso blanco, a Central American semisoft curd cheese, available in most grocery stores. Kashmiri paste is available in many grocery stores, and an Indian market has the additional ingredients.
Source: David Hagedorn,