Vegetarian Chili

Vegetarian chili
credit: “Vegetarian chili” by Michael Gurski (that’s me!)

This recipe is a bit of a departure for me. I’m an unabashed, unapologetic carnivorous omnivore. However, it’s currently Lent, and my wife is a sometimes-practicing Catholic, and with it being Friday, we needed something that didn’t have red meat, at least for her. Last week I steamed up some Old Bay with a shrimp seasoning. ((Really, 2lbs of shrimp, and I swear there was more Old Bay than that. I like my steamed shrimp and of course crabs really heavily seasoned.)) But doing seafood regularly can get expensive if I want to prep everything myself, instead of going with processed mystery fish. Additionally, we have a lacto-vegetarian friend we want to have over for dinner, so this was a double whammy of an experiment. An experiment, I might add, that far exceeded my expectations.

My normal chili consists of 3-4 pounds of ground meat (a combination of 3-4 of any of: beef, veal, pork, lamb, bison) as a base, which I find really delicious. Add in onions, green peppers, corn, 1-3 kinds of beans (kidney, black, garbanzo, usually), and my typically random selection of spices in the “this smells like it would work” category, and you end up with a unique, savory, spicy, meaty concoction that you can’t stop eating. I usually serve it over spaghetti, rice, or cornbread, or you can just put some in a bowl with a little (or a lot of) shredded cheese on top.

Meat obviously wouldn’t work for a Lenten Friday meal, nor for a vegetarian, so I needed to find something that would give a good amount of protein, and especially the same “mouth feel”. I decided initially that I wanted to add lentils, even though my last attempt, over a decade ago, was an abject failure. I’ve been afraid of using lentils ever since, but figured we had frozen pizzas if history repeated itself. I also wanted to add chopped raw peanuts, since I knew the hour or so of cooking would be more than enough to cook them. It turns out that finding raw peanuts is more difficult than I thought, at least at the stores I was willing to go to this week.

As a backup, while I was wandering down the baking aisle at my local grocery store, I stumbled across something called “TVP”, or “Textured Vegetable Protein”. Apparently that’s a trademarked brand, but what it really is is dried soy flakes. Usually you can find it in a bag near the chia seeds (yes, ch-ch-ch-chia seeds), various brans, and other “health”/”hippie” foods (I say this somewhat jokingly). Check your baking/spice aisle for them, they’re well worth the couple bucks you’ll spend. And… pick up some of that other stuff. I’m sure we’ll all find a use for it somewhere, and we’ll be eating healthier.

So, even through this evening, I was still half-heartedly looking for raw peanuts, but after a really long week, I gave up. I seem to have made the right decision. The soy flake ended up almost perfectly mimicking the look and the texture of ground meat. I swear that if someone had served me a bowl of my chili, and I hadn’t made it, knowing full well what was in it, I’d be convinced there was ground meat in there, even if I couldn’t say what that meat was. Hooray for being tired and not wanting to drive too far out of my way to a store that probably would have had the peanuts!

I picked up a couple of nice large fresh green bell peppers, a couple really large jalapeno peppers, and cans of kidney, black, and garbanzo beans, as well as a can of corn. I try to keep onions and garlic on-hand all the time these days, since I use them almost daily. I also got a 1 lb bag of dried lentils. We get diced tomatoes and tomato paste by the case at our local warehouse club store, so I already had those. Our spice rack? Please. The only one I’ve seen with more variety lately is my step-dad’s, and that’s because he loves trying recipes from all the food magazines he gets, and so has tons of dried herbs and spices that he’s used maybe a few times, ever. ((Not that I don’t appreciate that, since it means when we visit and cook for him and my mom, I have an even larger flavor palette to improvise from. Just… ignore the lemon pepper that looked like black tar. It was probably 20 years old. It’s now in a landfill somewhere, and has been replaced with something that will come out of its container without a mechanical aid…))

After prepping all the fresh veggies (green pepper, jalapenos, onions), I just tossed the onion in a stock pot that had some olive oil heating in the bottom of it at about medium-high heat for a few minutes. I let the onion cook for a few minutes, stirring every minute, then tossed in the bell peppers and jalapenos. I cheated with the garlic, using a heaping spoonful of pre-minced garlic from the tub in the fridge. A few more minutes of cooking and stirring, then the diced tomatoes went in. I turned down the heat at this point, since I didn’t have the foresight to gather the spices ahead of time… Toss in a random selection of spices, some of my homemade vegetable stock, and an equal amount of water (the stock was very concentrated). Then I added the tomato paste, stirring everything together and letting it simmer. I bumped up the burner again to medium-high, just to get everything bubbling.

My wonderful wife and sous chef had previously sorted through and rinsed about half the bag of dried lentils, which I then added to the mixture. I thought I could get away with just a cup of the soy flakes, so I added those next, but about 2/3 of the way through the cooking process, I added another 1/2 cup of flakes, because there seemed to be too much liquid. Before that, however, maybe halfway through the about 90 minute cook time, I added a can of corn, liquid and all, and the 3 beans, drained and rinsed. Then I just let everything cook, while we waited for the over to pre-heat, and Cathy to mix up the Jiffy corn bread mix. ((Yeah, I like it. It’s cheap. I think it tastes good. Use whatever you want, or skip the corn bread entirely. We should have found a way to substitute the egg and milk in it, but the substitutions we found sounded either unappetizing, or required things we didn’t have on-hand.))

Once the corn bread was done baking, we were ready to eat! I just put a square of corn bread in a bowl, and ladled 3-4 scoops of chili on top. Shredded cheese to taste at the table, and we had dinner. Looking at the chili, it really did look like it had meat in it. The flavor profile matched my meat chili really well (especially since it varies every time I make it). Cathy thought it was a little spicy, but I felt it had just the right amount of heat. She barely finished half of hers, I almost made it through all of mine. I don’t know how I’m still awake to write this up, as I could easily have just passed out from a food coma when I was done eating…

The recipe, as much as I can document it, follows, with all spices about 1 Tbsp unless otherwise noted:

  • 1/2 lb of dried lentils, sorted and rinsed
  • 1 1/2 cups of soy flakes, I used the “TVP” brand
  • 3 small to medium onions, diced
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 largish green bell peppers, roughly chopped
  • 2 large jalapenos, with seeds, diced
  • 3 cups vegetable stock, I used homemade
  • 3 cups of water
  • 2 14.5 oz cans of diced tomatoes
  • 2 6 oz cans of tomato paste
  • 1 15.25 oz can of whole kernel corn
  • 1 15.5 oz can of kidney beans (light or dark), drained and rinsed
  • 1 15.5 oz can of black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 15.5 oz can of garbanzo beans (chick peas), drained and rinsed
  • ground black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder
  • Hungarian paprika
  • Kosher salt
  • dried cilantro
  • dried oregano
  • 1/2 Tbsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 Tbsp red pepper flakes
  • garlic powder
  • dried thyme
  • italian seasoning
  • dried basil
  • ground cumin
  • dried marjoram
  • 1/2 Tbsp ancho chile powder
  • 1/2 Tbsp chipotle chile powder
  • ground cinnamon
  • saigon cinnamon
  • 1 tsp celery seed
  • dried parsley
  • smoked paprika
  • dried basil
  • ground coriander
  • 3 Tbsp minced garlic
  • Shredded cheese for the table
  1. Heat the olive oil in an 8 quart stock pot over medium-high heat, add the onion and sautee for a few minutes until the onions become translucent
  2. Add the green bell peppers, jalapenos, and minced garlic. Stir and sautee for a few more minutes
  3. Add the tomatoes, all the spices, tomato paste, veggie stock, and water. Stir and wait until it starts to bubble, a simmer is good, a boil is OK too.
  4. Add the lentils and soy flakes, mixing thoroughly. Allow about 20-30 minutes of simmer, stirring ever few minutes. As it cooks, both the lentils and the soy will start absorbing liquid, and everything will thicken up significantly.
  5. Add the canned corn (with liquid), and the beans (drained and rinsed). Simmer for another 30 minutes or so, or until your corn bread is done.
  6. Mix up your corn bread according to package directions, bake according to the package directions.
  7. Remove the corn bread from whatever you baked it in, add some to a bowl, ladle chili over it
  8. Serve and enjoy! Add shredded cheese to your liking.

I’d also be willing to serve this over rice or spaghetti (for a veggie chili mac). I’d still like to try chopped peanuts, if I can find them somewhere. I might add whole dried chile peppers (hand crumbled, of course) next time, though I think the heat’s pretty decent right now. Maybe a tsp of turmeric could go in, too. I’m actually surprised that I forgot to add fennel seeds (hand crushed to bring out the flavor), since those usually go into my chili.

Cathy pointed out that, before we added the corn bread (with egg and milk) and the cheese, the chili was vegan. I bet if we had a kosher kitchen (yeah, right, we love pork, cheese burgers, bacon, etc too much for THAT to ever happen) that this would also be a totally kosher meal. Leaving out the corn bread, it’s lacto-vegetarian friendly, too.

I honestly did not miss the meat at all in this recipe. Between the lentils and the soy flakes, there was enough of a “meaty” texture to satisfy this carnivore, and the olive oil added just enough fat to the dish. As I mentioned before, the way we served it up was incredibly filling. Normally I’d have a second helping, at least, but tonight it was a chore to finish just a single serving. Definitely, this is something I’ll try again. After all, I still have 1/2 lb of lentils and a decent amount of soy flakes…

As always, if you try this and have suggestions for improvements or variations, please let me know.


  1. I just have to point out that I mentioned to cmgurski the idea of using TVP in her chili recipe and I was roundly booed. πŸ™‚

    Super excited about trying this idea but in a crock pot. I’m thinking you can just throw it in dry and let it soak overnight as part of the normal crock pot process.

  2. Yeah, well, I didn’t tell her I was going to fall back on TVP if I couldn’t find the raw peanuts. Normally, I’d be opposed to it myself, but since I had a specific vegetarian goal in mind, I allowed myself a little bit of leeway.

    You can probably definitely do this in a crock pot, just make sure you have enough liquid to accommodate the requirements of the lentils and the TVP, with enough left over to give a bit of liquidity to the rest of the chili. If I’m recalling the cooking instructions correctly, the lentils need 6-7 cups of liquid for 1 lb, and the TVP needs a little under 1 cup for 1 cup of TVP. I basically manipulated the amount of liquid to be slightly more than the combined needs of the two (1/2 lb lentils == 3-3.5 cups liquid, 1.5 cups TVP == 1.3125 cups liquid, which gives “enough” extra to keeps things from becoming a solid). Both of us really did *not* miss the meat, which surprises me. I usually notice when I’m eating something meatless, because it leave me wanting more. In part, I credit the homemade veggie stock, since I made that with me in mind, so it had so many varied vegetables and seasonings in it, and was reduced to such an extent that it can’t be used as a broth without dilution. Cathy can definitely attest to that, as she tried to add steamed veggies to a 2 cup container last week, and couldn’t finish it, due to how rich it ended up…

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  4. This is hands down one of your greatest successes, Mike. And you’ve had a lot of successes lately. I would never have guessed this was meatless. The TVP really did look and feel like some kind of ground meat. My only suggestion? Cut down on the jalapenos. It was almost too spicy. πŸ™‚

    Considering Lenten Fridays usually consisted of frozen pizzas or pre-seasoned frozen fish? I am ecstatic about this!

  5. “I bet if we had a kosher kitchen … that this would also be a totally kosher meal.” Absolutely kosher, and all of your ingredients are readily accessible as kosher. Next time you’re in the area, you can drop in, make us some chili, and take the rest home in containers to freeze so you can host a kosher meal at your house for your other friends. πŸ™‚ (Just double-wrap the containers in saran wrap, then heat in the microwave and serve in paper plates.)

    We don’t use TVP as the stuff scares me. Since I always make my chili in dairy equipment so I can add cheese to it, what I do instead is take a block of extra firm tofu, freeze it, thaw it, squeeze out the liquid, and crumble it by hand. Freezing it changes the texture and gives it more of a ground beef feel. Yes, you can still tell the difference, but it helps. You’ve also got me wanting to try putting lentils in next time; normally I only use them for curries/dahls, but now I’m intrigued.

    • Sadly, no, I’ll probably never make it to eat again. I’ve started a diet that’s extremely low-carb, so while I’d make this for my vegan/vegetarian friends, I can’t eat it myself anymore. I need to start developing and posting low-carb recipes really soon…

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