When it snows, it blizzards. You’d think the east coast had never seen the powdery white flakes before, based on the panicked reaction that the most recent storm brought bubbling to the surface. Just short of mass hysteria, it’s true, it was not entirely unwarranted. Just the next town over from me, a few miles away at most, streets remained unplowed and impassable for a full week after the sky suddenly dumped three feet of frozen raindrops. Times like these call for a fully stocked pantry and a good instinct for comfort cooking.
Though this cranberry chili, equal parts spicy, tangy, and savory, could very well be the story of this harrowing tale, there’s just one small catch: I wasn’t home. In a fluke that couldn’t have been better timed had I known the forecast four months in advance, I managed to perfectly miss all the commotion while partying it up in Germany. The landing may not have been smooth on the return flight, but there were no delays, no disasters, and no damages for me to deal with. “Lucky” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Thus, my thick and warming stew of hearty beans was not made just for the occasion, but it very well could have been. Considering all of the additional flurries still threatening to darken our days, it’s a recipe that will undoubtedly see more good use before the winter is through.
Cranberries are clearly an odd-ball ingredient here, but suspend disbelief for just a moment and hear me out. Every fall and winter, when bags of the fresh bog berries are on sale, I snap up a handful and toss them in the freezer. Always on hand but rarely called for, they turned out to be the perfect addition to the complex layers of flavor in this classic stew. Adding both their signature tart flavor and incredible thickening powers, they pull the whole dish together, without overwhelming the palate. The combination of both beans and bulgur are sure to satisfy, and with a handful of scallions or vegan cheese to help it all go down, no one will walk away from the table unhappy, no matter the conditions outside.
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Medium Yellow Onion
1 Small Carrot, Finely Diced
2 Stalks Celery, Diced
2 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Ounce Dried Mixed Mushrooms,* Roughly Chopped/Broken, Re-hydrated in Water and Drained
12 Ounces (1 Bag) Fresh Cranberries
1 Fresh Jalapeno Pepper, Finely Diced
3 – 4 Tablespoons Chili Powder
26.5 Ounce Aseptic Box Chopped Tomatoes (or 28 Ounce Can)
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
2 Tablespoons Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1 Cup Prepared Salsa**
4 Cups Cooked Cranberry Beans (AKA Roman Beans) or Pinto beans
1/2 Cup Coarse Bulgur
1/2 Cup Water
Salt, to Taste
Optional Topping Suggestions:
Thinly Sliced Scallions
Finely Diced Red Onion
Shredded Vegan Cheese
Vegan Sour Cream or Plain Yogurt
Crushed Tortilla Chips
*I used a combination of dried porcini, shiitake, black, and oyster mushrooms, but anything you’ve got will work just fine.
**Use your favorite! Ramp up the heat with a spicier choice or keep it more tame with mild salsa; it’s all good.
In a large stock pot, pour in the oil, swirling to coat the bottom of your vessel, and set over medium heat. Add in your onion, carrot, and celery, sauteing until softened and aromatic; about 5 minutes. Introduce the garlic next and continue cooking until the onions begin to look lightly golden brown. This should take between 7 – 10 more minutes, but you’re better off keeping an eye on it rather than timing it. Add a small pinch of salt if they begin threatening to stick.
Toss in the re-hydrated mushrooms next, along with the cranberries and jalapeno. Turn down the heat to medium-low, and let the cranberries soften a bit. After a few minutes, use the back of your spoon or spatula to crush the berries against the side of the pan, helping to break them down and release their pectin. Give them about 10 minutes, more or less, to get acquainted.
Starting with the lower amount of chili powder, sprinkle it in and stir well, incorporating it thoroughly with the other ingredients. Quickly add in the chopped tomatoes, liquid and all, to prevent those spices from burning. Scrape the bottom of the pan with your stirring utensil to properly deglaze and ensure that nothing is left sticking there. From that point, add in the rest of the ingredients except for the salt, taking care to first work the paste out so that it’s smoothly dissolved into the stew without any large blobs remaining.
Cover, reduce the heat just slightly again to keep it at a low simmer, and the chili gently bubble away for about 30 additional minutes. Stir and check for consistency periodically. Near the end of the cooking time, adjust the amount of chili powder and salt to taste. When it’s properly thick and the bulgur is tender, you’re good to ladle it up and enjoy! Top as desired, or of course, feel free to just eat it straight.
Makes 8 – 10 Servings (And Freezes Well!)