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Spicy chili recipe to pair with Anne Tyler book 'Noah's Compass'

BOOK: Anne Tyler specializes in hapless characters, simple, ordinary people who can't quite seem to get the hang of life. In 1985's The Accidental Tourist, her protagonist, after a disorienting divorce, stumbled into love almost in spite of himself, and presumably lived happily ever after. In her new novel, Noah's Compass (Knopf, $25), a similar protagonist, Liam Pennywell, doesn't do so well in the love department, but seems to arrive at a fresh appreciation of his quiet and uneventful life.

At the age of 60 Liam finds himself alone with three grown daughters hovering around him. Recently laid off — permanently — from a job teaching fifth grade, Liam plans to spend his long, empty days curled up with thick books by beloved philosophers. A mild, passive man who doesn't even own a TV, Liam can see himself becoming "one of those men who die alone among stacks of yellowed newspapers and dried-out rinds of sandwiches moldering on plates." But a brush with violence launches him into an exploration of his newfound freedom, including an awkward and ill-fated romance with a woman half his age.

WHY READ? Tyler has a way of taking the reader into the mind of her central character, revealing how life looks through the eyes of someone who may seem a bit peculiar to the rest of us. Liam, maddeningly meek and unassuming, seems incapable of criticizing others, much less getting angry, and he remains oddly disengaged from his world. (His daughters and his sister refer to him as "Mr. Magoo.") But his gentle heart and mild manner foster an outlook on life that many readers would do well to emulate. Tyler's novel may seem like an anti-adventure, with ordinary people involved in mundane activities — helping a friend move, babysitting, having lunch with a friend — but she understands that the inner life of seemingly uninteresting people can be enormously rich, complex and exciting.

MAKE IT: Liam is a vegetarian, but when his sister brings him a pot of beef stew he doesn't protest, resolving instead to silently pick out the pieces of meat. In honor of his preference, a discussion of Noah's Compass would pair well with a spicy vegetarian chili that adds fire and flavor to unassuming vegetables.

TAKE IT: Noah's Compass, like most of Tyler's novels, is set in Baltimore, and one of the few signature dishes of that city is the Baltimore pit beef sandwich. You can mimic it by buying some spicy sliced roast beef at the deli counter of the grocery store and serving it with a loaf of rye bread accompanied by chopped onion, tomato, horseradish and mayonnaise.

Tom Valeo, special to the Times

Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send e-mail to


Vegetarian Chili for Liam

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onions

1 cup chopped red bell peppers

2 to 3 serrano or jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 medium zucchini, diced

2 cups corn kernels, fresh or frozen

1 1/2 pounds diced portobello mushrooms

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 (15-ounce) can of diced tomatoes (or peel, seed and chop 4 large tomatoes)

3 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained

1 (15-ounce) can of tomato sauce

1 cup vegetable stock or water

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves

Cooked brown rice as an accompaniment, if desired

Grated cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese

Sour cream

Diced avocado and chopped scallions for garnish if desired

In a large, heavy pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions, bell peppers and serrano peppers and cook, stirring, until soft, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and stir. Add the zucchini, corn and mushrooms. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and the vegetables give off their liquid — about 6 minutes. Add the chili powder, cumin, salt and cayenne and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and stir well. Add the beans, tomato sauce and vegetable stock, stir well, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes.

Remove from the heat and stir in the cilantro. Adjust the seasoning.

To serve: If using brown rice, place about a quarter cup in the bottom of each bowl. Ladle the chili into the bowls over the rice. Top with grated cheese or a dollop of sour cream. Add a spoonful of diced avocado and/or scallions for garnish.

Can be made in advance, cooled and frozen.

Makes 16 cups of chili.

Source: Karen Pryslopski,

St. Petersburg Times

Spicy chili recipe to pair with Anne Tyler book 'Noah's Compass' 02/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 23, 2010 3:30am]
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