Veggie Chili

Chili with toppingsWhy spicy foods are hot

The calendar says it’s April, but I don’t believe it. Except for a few cruelly teasing days of sun, Chicago has been stuck in a cold, dreary, windy, rainy end-of-winter slump that really needs to be over. But if winter won’t give up and let us have the spring weather (and vegetables!) that I’m SO ready for, then I’m not going to give up the best part of winter–chili and cornbread for dinner!

This weekend I made a huge pot of colorful veggie chili and vegan maple cornbread (coming soon) to tide me through this week of bike commuting in the pouring rain. It almost spans the vegetable rainbow, with red peppers and tomatoes, orange squash, yellow peppers and corn, and green jalapenos. No blue potatoes or purple cabbage, but it was still quite pretty. Round it out with a combo of black and cannelloni beans and a kick from canned chipotles and I have to say that the result was both filling and delicious.

It’s hard to talk about chili without talking about chillis, so that’s exactly what we’re going to do. My recipe has a number of different kinds: bell peppers, although usually sweet instead of hot, are part of the chilli family, as are the fresh jalapenos and canned chipotles that give my chili its spiciness. Wilbert Scoville, a pharmaceutical chemist, invented a system to quantify the heat of a chilli in 1912. He would place the pepper in alcohol overnight to extract the spiciness, then dilute the steeped alcohol in sugar water. The more sweetness it took to cover the heat of the pepper, the spicier it tastes and the higher its score in Scoville units. To give you an idea of how this plays out, bell peppers range from zero to 600 Scoville units, while cayenne is at 30,000 to 50,000. Jalapenos are in the middle at 2,500 to 10,000.

Although they’re useful for comparing different chillis, these Scoville numbers are pretty arbitrary. What are we actually measuring? When we identify something as tasting spicy, our mouths are detecting a compound called capsaicin. Which looks like this:


But what we really care about is what it does, not what it looks like. And what it does is activate a particular ion channel called TRPV1, causing electrical signals to run around your nervous system screaming about how spicy the food you just put in your mouth is. This is a loose description that would probably make my neuroscience professor crazy, but we’re going to go with it because what I really want to talk about is what else activates this particular receptor. Any guesses? Think about your body’s response to spicy foods, or just think about how we describe it: spicy foods are hot. And as it turns out, that sometimes-confusing double meaning of the word hot has a real physiological basis. Temperatures above 43 degrees C (110 degrees F) activate the same receptor as capsaicin, meaning that we really can’t tell the difference. Whether the food we’re eating is hot in temperature or hot in spice, the same exact thing happens. This blew my mind a little bit when I learned it, so I hope you are appreciating how cool this is.

Let’s go back to the body’s reaction to spice that I touched on in the last paragraph. What happens? You might turn red (like people do when overheated) or break out in a sweat (which anyone who’s experienced a Chicago summer can tell you is a response to heat as well). Via sweating and increased blood flow to the skin, the body tries to cool itself down–whether the trigger is a chili pepper or a hot day. Pretty neat, huh? So if this chili makes you flush or burns your mouth a little (more heat words associated with spice…), it’s all thanks to capsaicin.

Veggie Chili

This chili is big on flavor but not super spicy. If you want to amp it up, just increase the amount of chipotles and/or jalapenos. I loved the contrast of the sweet squash and corn with the spice of the chilis, and I’m always a sucker for beans. 

Yield: a LOT. Probably 6 quarts.

1 lb. dried black and cannelini beans (or 4-5 cans)

1/2 c. walnuts

1 butternut squash

1 onion

5 cloves garlic

2 yellow bell peppers

1 red bell pepper

2 jalapenos

1 28-oz can diced tomatoes

4 canned chipotle peppers, plus adobo sauce

1 cup frozen corn

If you’re using dried beans, cook them using your preferred method. Mine is to stick them in the crock pot and forget about them for about 8 hours.



Toast the walnuts at 350 degrees F for about 7 minutes, or until the skins darken (but don’t let them burn!). Let them cool for 10 minutes, then rub the nuts between your hands to remove most of the skins. Using a mortar and pestle, crush them into small pieces.

Roasty toasty

All ground up

Tackle the vegetables: chop the butternut squash and roast it with some olive oil, salt, and pepper for 15 minutes in a 450 degree F oven. Mince the garlic, chop the onion, dice the peppers, and try to avoid making your fingers sting for days while dealing with the jalapenos (I keep meaning to buy gloves so that I can both eat jalapenos and remove my contacts, since that hasn’t been working out for me lately). Roughly chop the canned chipotles.

Lots of color


Flag of Cameroon

Heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot (or two. I started all of my vegetables in one and then split it up before adding the tomatoes and the beans). Saute the onions until soft but not brown, then add the garlic and the bell and jalapeno peppers. Cook until the vegetables start to soften and are fragrant.


Add the tomatoes, chipotles, corn, beans, and crushed walnuts and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the flavors are melded. Add spices to taste: I used about a tablespoon of cumin, a teaspoon and a half of chili powder, a tablespoon of paprika, two teaspoons of salt, and some ground black pepper.

Top with sour cream or yogurt, avocado, and lime juice, and enjoy accompanied by some hot cornbread (recipe coming soon!).

Mmm delicious