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This rich, flavourful fusion chili is based on a recipe from ‘Bean by Bean‘ by Crescent Dragonwagon, adapted for the Instant Pot (but still easily made in a slow cooker or on the stovetop). It’s loaded with big, bold flavours reminiscent of Mexican mole sauces, minus the huge workload! It’s perfect for anyone looking to shake up their chili game a bit. It’s also one of those wonderful plant-based recipes that manages to please even die-hard meat-eaters!
The words ‘chili’ and ‘mole’ have a lot in common. (For the record, that’s the Mexican sauce, not the burrowing mammal or the unit of molecular measurement). Both are food-related words that come from the Nahuatl language (historically known as Aztec) of Mexico. Both words have found their way into English by way of Spanish (along with other Nahuatl words like coyote, tomato, and chocolate) where they have undergone considerable evolution in meaning and usage. And both words are subject to considerable debate concerning their ‘correct’ usage. I’d like you to imagine me vigorously air-quoting the word ‘correct.’
Let’s talk about chili first. The word originally referred to the chili pepper, which is (of course) an important ingredient in the dish called chili. The first chili was almost certainly chili con carne, literally chili (i.e. peppers) with meat. Over time, this stew-like Mexican-American dish came to be referred to simply as chili (or chilli), especially amongst English speakers. How exactly the recipe came to be referred to solely by one of its components isn’t entirely clear, but as I’ve mentioned in other articles, funny things happen when you play broken telephone with food. It is kind of funny when you think about it – imagine if we started referring to beef bourguignon as ‘carrots.’ It’s even funnier when you think about the fact that the term ‘chili pepper’ is made up of two confusing culinary words that both refer to more than one kind of food.
The word chili might be a little confusing, but at least everyone agrees that chili (the stew) should contain… well, chilies. Its the other ingredients that stir up controversy – and I do mean controversy. Fun fact: the Wikipedia page for chili con carne has a subsection called “Dispute over ingredients”. The world of chili cooking is inhabited by some very passionate, and often very opinionated professionals and amateurs alike. People get very heated about what does, or more importantly, does not constitute ‘chili.’ Most of the controversy surrounds the inclusion of beans and tomatoes, though you can bet that some of the other ingredients in this recipe would raise a few eyebrows. It’s hard to say why, exactly, chili is so controversial – there are plenty of recipes out there in the world that provoke some pretty strong opinions, but for some reason people get very vocal about what can be called chili. I have a theory that it has something to do with chili cook-offs. These events are popular and highly competitive, and restricting the allowed ingredients probably helps to remove some of the subjectivity inherent to judging recipes. A narrow and specific definition of chili makes plenty of sense in this kind of setting, but (as you can probably tell from this recipe), I don’t really buy into it when it comes to home cooking. The argument is often made that recipes like this one may well be delicious, but they’re not ‘chili,’ and should be given different names. The problem though, is that the term ‘chili’ has been applied to recipes like this for such a long time now that any other word seems unnecessary, or out of place – at least to me. Sure, you could call this a stew, but I feel like the word chili immediately evokes a certain characteristic flavour and texture that’s not conveyed by the word stew. The purists might object, but I think it’s fitting that a word that has evolved so significantly over time would continue to do so.
Now what about mole? I’ll be the first to admit that nothing in this recipe qualifies it as a traditional Mexican mole – but that’s already a ridiculously complicated subject. When they think of mole, many people’s first thoughts turn to the famous and incredibly complex dish Mole Poblano, but it’s just one example of the many different types of mole, ranging from the wildly complex to the surprisingly simple. As with the word chili, mole has become complex in its translation; the original Nahuatl word molli means sauce, or stew. There’s no single rule about what is or isn’t a mole, though most of them contain fruits, nuts, chilies, and spices. Even then, there’s a very well-known exception; guacamole (from the Nahuatl words āhuacatl, meaning avocado, and molli) is light on spices, and generally doesn’t include any nuts or seeds. Language alone might give you the impression that moles are distinctly Nahuatl/Aztec dishes, but this is certainly not the case. Instead, most of what we consider to be the classical mole recipes evolved through the fusion of New and Old World ingredients in the kitchens of Mexicans of similarly blended ancestry. The mixture of ingredients in this chili recipe is somewhat evocative of the flavours found in a Mole Poblano, but it’s quite clearly a fusion-focused departure from more time-intensive and traditional recipes. There is one broad similarity that I do want to make note of: both this recipe and Mole Poblano contain chocolate, yet are not what I would consider ‘chocolaty’ tasting. Without any sweetening, chocolate (or cocoa) can make an impactful, yet decidedly un-dessert-like contribution to a recipe, and that’s demonstrated to full effect in both dishes.
I could just take the cowardly route and duck out from the debate entirely by pointing out that ‘Chili Mole’ is the title of the original recipe that this is adapted from (as found in the phenomenal mostly-vegetarian cookbook “Bean by Bean” by Crescent Dragonwagon). But the truth is that I think the name is perfect. When I first read the name I had an immediate sense of the kind of recipe I was in for. And really, that’s a) a very good thing to have in a title, and b) kind of what language is all about. The words chili and mole have been passed from language to language, winding through myriad cultures and customs. Given the popularity of the foods these words describe, it’s only reasonable to assume that they will continue to do so.
You’re completely free to disagree with me on all counts of course. Perhaps you have VERY strong feelings about what can be called chili. Or mole. Or both. And that’s ok – language is much too complicated and important for there to be much in the way of consensus about it. But regardless of all that, I hope you’ll try out this recipe. You can call it whatever you like – even if it’s “Mole-inspired meat-free Tex-Mex-style stew with beans and tomatoes.” To paraphrase The Bard:
That which we call a Chili
By Any Other Name should bring the heat.
Don’t be intimidated by the ingredient list for this recipe. I know it looks a little on the long side, but I can assure you that this is easy to make, and the ingredients are easy to use in a variety of recipes. I’ve broken down the instructions into sections to make it easier to understand (and break up, if necessary). If you’re looking for a resource to help you learn to choose and cook with Mexican chilies, I’d encourage you to start right here.
I love making this recipe in my Instant Pot, including the beans (in fact that’s basically the only way I make beans these days because it’s so effortless). That being said, because of the way that the actual cooking steps are broken up, it’s quite easy to adapt this to a slow cooker or stovetop, and/or to make the beans separately. See below for details on these methods, but do take note that they’ll still interweave with the standard (i.e. Instant Pot/pressure cooker) version.
As with any chili you can do plenty to adapt this to your own tastes, and I certainly encourage you to do so. Most importantly, the spice level is easy to adjust through a combination of ingredients and serving methods. See the section after the next photo for more on this.
I’ve been making and tweaking this chili for years, and ever since I first adapted it for the Instant Pot I haven’t looked back. It’s fast, easy, and allows me to make the beans from dry without any advance prep. That being said, you can easily make this in a slow cooker or on the stovetop too – it’ll just take a bit longer. The main recipe below details the Instant Pot method, but I’ll go over how to adjust it for the other methods here.
If you’re using an Instant Pot but you’re unsure about using dried beans, you can follow the canned substitution below, but I do recommend that you give the pressure-cooked method a go. It’s wonderfully simple, and builds a lot more flavour up for the final dish.
Alternative Methods for the Beans
*SAFETY NOTE* You MUST precook dried beans in a pressure cooker or by boiling BEFORE adding them to a slow cooker. Do NOT cook dry beans in a slow cooker. Dried beans prepared in a slow cooker do not cook at a high enough temperature to destroy a compound called phytohemagglutinin. This toxin, which occurs at varying levels in all raw beans, can cause wildly unpleasant food poisoning. Kidney beans are generally much higher in phytohemagglutinin than black turtle beans, but it’s still important to properly prepare any bean by cooking it at a sufficiently high temperature for an appropriate length of time.
I won’t go into a lot of detail about preparing black beans here, but I will give a brief breakdown of alternative methods for preparing them from dry:
- Boiling (presoaked) – Sort and wash the beans to remove dirt, rocks, etc. Soak the beans overnight in a large quantity of water. Dump the water out, then place them in a large pot. Add vegetable stock and enough water to submerge the beans by about 2-3 inches (5-7 cm). Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil on the stovetop. Reduce the heat a bit so that the water is boiling gently, then cover and cook for 50-60 minutes, or until the beans are soft (older beans can take longer to cook). You want to check the water level in the pot from time to time, adding a bit of extra liquid to top it up if it’s getting too low.
- Boiling (unsoaked) – Follow the same steps as above (minus the soaking of course), and increase the cooking time to about 2 hours. Check the beans, adding water if necessary to keep the level fairly high. If the beans aren’t soft enough after two hours, simply extend the cooking time, adding more water as needed.
- Baking (unsoaked) – I haven’t tried this one myself, but apparently it works quite nicely. Sort/wash the beans, then add the water/stock/other ingredients as above. Preheat your oven to 375°F (190°C). Cover the beans and bake for 2 hours. Check the beans to see if they’re tender enough and continue cooking for 15-20 minute increments as needed. You may need to top up the water level a bit.
Don’t want to cook beans? Regardless of the method you’re using (including the Instant Pot) you can swap out the dried beans for canned/cooked ones, but you’ll have to adjust the recipe a bit to incorporate the other ingredients and flavours. Here’s the basic overview:
- Substitute a little over 4.5 cups of cooked/canned black turtle beans for the dried ones. This is generally going to be about three 15 ounce (540 ml) cans.
- Add the other bean ingredients (stock, bay leaves, jalapeño, etc.) to a large pot on the stovetop. Bring to a gentle boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 30 minutes.
- Add the beans to the stock and bring back to a simmer, then remove from heat. Let the beans stand while you continue with the recipe method of your choice. The longer they stand the more the flavours will mix, so don’t be afraid to do this step the night before.
Slow Cooker & Stovetop Methods
Once you’ve taken into account the bean cooking method (see above), finishing this recipe in a slow cooker or on the stovetop is very simple. Because the beans are cooked in advance, most of the remaining cooking steps are about bringing all the flavours together. On that note, it’s worth letting the chili sit for a while after cooking so the flavours can blend and mellow, regardless of the cooking method you use.
- Slow Cooker: Once you’ve finished the beans and the saute steps, transfer all of the remaining ingredients (including the “To Finish” ingredients, but minus the “To Serve” ingredients) to a slow cooker. Cook on low for 4-6 hours.
- Stovetop: Once you’ve finished the saute steps, add the beans to that pot. Bring this mixture to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes, then add the tomatoes and tomato paste and cook for an additional 20 minutes.
Once you’re finished with the steps above, finish the chili by adding the chipotles in adobo (if you’re using them, which I do recommend) and blending some of the beans and any of the large tomato/pepper pieces as instructed for the pressure cooker method in the recipe card below.
Adjusting the Spiciness
My wife and I like a moderate kick to our chili. Our kids, however, are what I like to call ‘spice averse.’ Fortunately I’ve worked out a great way to adjust this recipe to any heat level.
This recipe calls for chipotles in adobo, which are smoked dried jalapeños (chipotles) preserved in a vinegar-and-tomato sauce. They’re one of my absolute favourite ways to use chilies, and they’re generally easy to find (canned) in the Mexican section of most grocery stores. The smoky, spicy chipotle and the tangy, acidic adobo sauce contribute a lot to the chili, including a noticeable-but-relatively-mild level of spice. This spiciness can leave both heat-loving and heat-averse diners feeling a bit left out, but there’s a great way to allow your diners to adjust it to their own tastes. If you’re serving this to a group and you’re not sure about how spicy to make it, I recommend removing a portion of the chili (see step 6 in the recipe) and blending the chipotles in adobo into it with an immersion blender. Instead of mixing this spice-heavy blend back into the chili, simply set it aside and use it like a condiment. Diners can stir in as much or as little of the blend as they like to adjust the heat to their own tastes. If you’re a capsaicin-addicted heat freak (and I say that with affection), you can add more cayenne pepper, other hot chilies (chile pequin would be a great choice), or a fiery hot-sauce to the set-aside portion as well.
Toppings & Vegan Notes
I’ve generally avoided vegan dairy substitutes in the past because, frankly, I don’t like many of them. That being said, I’ve made this a bunch of times now for those who can’t do dairy and I’m happy to share some of those options here with you.
First of all, let me just say that this is delicious without any toppings at all, so don’t worry too much if you’re not into the dairy substitutes. If you are looking for non-dairy topping ideas, you can go one of two routes: dairy-like substitutes, or completely unrelated ingredients. In the former category, there are plenty of plant-based (generally soy or cashew) sour cream substitutes out there that will work nicely. Non-dairy plain yogurt also makes a nice substitute for sour cream. Cheese is, in my opinion, a bit trickier. I’m not the biggest fan of most commercial non-dairy cheeses, but if you have one you like, by all means go for it. There are more and more small-scaled non-dairy cheese makers popping up with really great products, so don’t be afraid to explore at all. But if your only option is the pre-shredded bagged stuff, I’d skip it altogether. If you’re looking for unrelated plant-based options, I’d suggest upping the avocado (a creamy avocado-based sauce like guacamole is also a great alternative to the sour cream), sesame seeds, toasted pumpkin seeds, and/or fried shallots. Pico de gallo is another great topping option, and a very healthy one too. If you’re really into the peanut component and you want to amp up the spice, try topping the chili with a dollop of pure (non-hydrogenated) peanut butter mixed with a sharp, fruity hot sauce.
Note: Nutritional Information is given for a single serving (1/8th portion of the total recipe) and does NOT include toppings.
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- 1 lb dried black beans (approx. 2.25 cups, picked over for quality)
- 2 quarts vegetable stock
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 ancho chili (or 1 tbsp ancho chili powder) stem and seeds removed
- 1 jalapeno pepper stem and seeds removed, halved
- black pepper freshly ground
- 6 medjool dates chopped
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 large onions chopped
- 1 green bell pepper stem and seeds removed, chopped (large dice)
- 2 poblano pepper stem and seeds removed, chopped (large dice)
- 1.5 tbsp cumin seeds
- 1.5 tbsp coriander seeds
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (more if you like it spicier)
- 1/4 tsp fennel seed
- 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 clove
- 1.5 tsp sweet paprika
- 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 28 oz canned tomatoes with juice
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 2 tbsp cocoa powder
- 2 tbsp peanut butter (non-hydrogenated variety, see note)
- 2 tbsp tahini (or toasted sesame seeds, see note)
- 1 large chipotle pepper in adobo sauce (optional) plus 2 teaspoons of adobo sauce
- salt to taste (don't be shy)
To Serve (all Optional)
- sour cream or plain yogurt, or vegan alternative
- sharp cheese grated
- tortilla chips
- cilantro or flat-leaf parsley chopped
- Rinse the beans and pick out any rocks or dirt. Place all of the bean ingredients in the Instant Pot and cook on manual (high pressure) for 25 minutes. Allow the pressure to release naturally for at least 10 minutes before venting.
- Grind and mix the spices, then set them aside.
- Add the oil to a large pan set over medium heat on the stove top. Saute the onions for 4-5 minutes, then add the peppers and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes. Add garlic and spices, cook for 2-3 minutes further.
- Add sauteed veggies to beans. Pour some liquid from beans into the pot to deglaze the pan and scrape out the browned bits, then add this mixture back to the beans.
- Set the pressure cooker to saute for 30 minutes (the default on the Instant Pot). Stir in the tomatoes and tomato paste after 10 minutes, then continue to cook.
- Use a slotted spoon to remove large tomatoes (if you used whole), any big pieces of jalapeno, and a generous helping of the beans and liquid. Add to a blender, food processor, or container for immersion blender.
- Combine the removed portion of the chili with cocoa, peanut butter, tahini, and chipotles in adobo & sauce (if using). Blend to form a thick paste. Stir this paste into the chili and mix well. Salt to taste.
- Serve with fixings. Tastes even better if made in advance.