Posted Online: Dec. 31, 2012, 1:11 pm

Share the warmth: Cozy up to a welcoming serving of vegetarian chili

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Sarah J. Gardner, sjgardner@qconline.com

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Photo: Paul Colletti
Sweet potato chili with corn bread baked on top.
If there is a winter dish more packed with love than chili, I don't know what it is. Nearly everyone has his or her own special recipe, recounted in affectionate detail. One person swears by a certain mix of spices, another speaks of hours spent checking on a slowly simmering pot. A third only nods and winks, guarding his recipe as a treasured family secret.

But it's not just that. Sure, there are fancier and more elaborate meals you could cook up, but the magic of chili is it makes everyone feel right at home. Simply put, there isn't a more warm or welcoming dish to share with people you love. It's like being able to ladle cozy comfort right into a bowl.

Over the years, I've collected many chili recipes, each served with a side of fond memories of the person who gave it to me. There's my mom's recipe, a no-frills affair that cooks up quickly on a weeknight. Then there's the thick and hearty chili my college boyfriend served to introduce himself to my family (is it any wonder he's my husband now?), and the recipe for a smokey chipotle concoction given to me by a Texas river guide who took us rafting down the Rio Grande.

Among my absolute favorite recipes, though, is a vegetarian sweet potato chili, prized in no small part because it was given to me by our beloved next door neighbor after we moved to Iowa. One day as I was returning home from work, she called to me from her deck. "Oh, Sarah, I've been eating the most wonderful chili! Stay right there." In the next minute she was at my door, pressing the recipe into my hand with assurances I would love it.

And I do. I really do — almost as much as I love that neighbor! Of course, like any chili aficionado, I've tinkered with the recipe a bit, adding my own canned salsa and, when the mood strikes, topping it with corn bread. But whenever I make it, I always think back to that early day in my new home, when the simple gift of chili made me feel so welcome in the neighborhood.

Now, of course, the memory of getting that chili recipe is tied up with many others, including a more recent recollection of a time I borrowed eggs from this same neighbor, assuring her I would replace them within a day. "Please don't pay me back," she said. "Let's just make this a neighborhood where we share things." Seasoned with such good will, how could any recipe go wrong?

Sarah J. Gardner is the editor of Radish magazine

Overnight Sweet Potato Chili
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 large onion, chopped
1 green pepper, seeded and diced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and diced
1 can (15 ounces) black beans
1 can (15 ounces) kidney beans
1 can (14 ounces) tomatoes
1 jar (16 ounces) of your favorite salsa
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
salt and pepper to taste


Combine all ingredients in a slow cooker. Cover and cook for 7-8 hours on low (4-5 hours, high), until potatoes are tender.
Optional: To serve with baked cornbread topping, spoon chili into Mason jars or other tempered glass containers. Fill 2/3 full. Prepare your favorite corn bread mix or recipe as usual, then dollop the corn bread batter on top of the chili in the jars, leaving a 1-inch space at the top. Bake in a preheated oven at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes, until cornbread is set and starting to very slightly brown. Allow to cool somewhat before serving.