So I have something of a pet peeve when it comes to vegetarian and vegan chili. That pet peeve is the lack of umami in most of the veg chilis that I have tried. Umami being that rich round "meaty" flavor most people think of as being a big part of browned beef, and mushrooms and soy sauce. A lot of times when I try vegan chilis they taste like beans and vaguely of cooked tomato. The deep rich beef flavors I associate with all day cooked chili con carne is really what I love about chili, and I am of the opinion that there has to be a way to achieve that level of flavor without meat. So I decided to try and tackle that problem head on.
I looked up a few vegetarian chili recipes to see what they included to take care of the "beef" aspect. Many of them were obviously of the tomato and beans variety that I had become accustomed to and I passed those by. Several included portabello mushrooms, which worked for me because I had an unused package of crimini in the fridge (close enough for my purposes). So after thinking on it a bit I decided I was going to try and attack the umami problem from multiple fronts. Here are the tactics I chose to use.
1 Build a Fond: This just isn't done enough by people, especially in vegetarian cooking. It is the French secret to great flavor, but most people think of it as requiring meat. It does not require meat at all. What you need for a vegetarian fond is several vegetables that brown well, and that exude enough moisture and sugars to coat the bottom of a pan with the joyous products of their Maillard reactions. Onions and mushrooms are both excellent choices for this. So the first step of this process had to be a good solid fond. So I began by browning my mushrooms in small batches on the bottom of my pot with a bit of olive oil each time, never crowding the mushrooms. The fond builds up over time, and you have to switch the mushrooms out quickly so that there is always something pulling the heat out of the pan so the fond does not burn. As the mushrooms browned I moved them to a bowl. Once they were all browned I threw in my diced onions and garlic with just a touch more oil. Normally I would salt the onions at this point to help with carmelization. Unfortunately this was all destined to be the base of a batch of dried beans that had been soaking overnight, and beans that are salted before they're done cooking means crunchy unpleasant beans. So no salt. It makes the carmelization a bit more tedious, but the heat still does the trick. If you see the fond starting to lean more towards black that you think is ideal throw a little liquid in to deglaze the pan. Let the glaze coat the onions and keep cooking them down. They will caramelize over time this way, it might just take a little longer than you think is ideal. Really get a nice even brown all over and through your onions. This is a huge source of flavor and umami and you don't want to waste it.
2 De glaze the Fond with Something Worth While: So some of the recipes I looked at had water in them. Water is an utterly useless ingredient in a dish you want to have maximum robust flavor. There is always something better. In my case I used a deep nutty beer and vegetable stock. I collect scraps from my vegetables and boil them into stock once a week or so and it makes an amazing rich stock. I learned this at a class on vegetarian cooking at Edible Alchemy. If you're in the Chicago area I highly recommend checking out their classes. It will change the way you look at food, and the are incredibly affordable. Once you have the fond thoroughly deglazed then you can add your soaked beans to the mix. For my batch of chili I deglazed with a bottle of Goose Island Nut Brown ale, added the soaked beans and then topped the mixture off with a container of my home made vegetable stock. I kept the mushrooms aside at this point, because if they cooked the entire time with the beans they would be completely decimated by the time the chili was done.
3 A Few Less Than Traditional Ingredients: Ok, so I know I know, it's chili. It should have tomato and beans, and peppers, and meat. Here's the thing though, the meat is gone, and replacing it with a product like seitan or soy crumbles isn't going to bring back the gelatin, or the thick umami of the meat. It just isn't. The beer and carefully developed fond will help on that front, but it's not going to do the whole job. My secret ingredients are soy sauce and smoke. The smoke is fairly traditional, but the soy sauce really isn't. Soy sauce was used extensively in Asia in vegetarian dishes because it provides depth to dishes that could seem flat because of their lack of meat. In this case I add soy sauce slowly and taste regularly to make sure that it never actually tastes "like soy". This is a case where I want the soy sauce to enhance the other flavors. It doesn't get to be a central part of the performance, because that would just taste odd. The other thing that really brought the flavor to life is fire roasted tomatoes and peppers. This is a rare case where I use canned tomatoes. Fire roasting tomatoes at home is a huge ordeal, so I use canned. If you can find jarred USE THEM! The BPA issues with canned foods have me almost entirely off them, but I haven't found a decent alternative for fire roasted tomatoes. Fire roasting the peppers for this dish is a different matter though. I turn my gas stove on high and just pop the pepper down, rotating occasionally until the whole thing is black. Then I throw it under a bowl when there is no more skin to blister and let it steam while the chili works. This can be done whenever you have a free moment early in the cooking process.
Finally that brings us to the smoke. Smoking is an absolutely amazing way to infuse flavor in a dish, and most people think it takes a lot of equipment. I thought that as well until I worked at Big Jones. The chef would take a big roasting pan and fill it with the item to be smoked, then take a small stainless steel container and fill it with wood chips. Then he would put that pan on the stove until the wood started smoking/burst into flame. Then with tongs sneak it into the roasting pan under a tightly crimped cover of aluminum foil. This can happen at the same time that the whole thing lives in a 200 degree oven and slowly roasts , or if the heat isn't required can happen out on the counter top. In the case of this chili, I decided to use my dutch oven, and a steamer. Since I don't have restaurant quality 9 pans I used a stainless steel powdered sugar shaker. It worked beautifully. I did the whole thing on the counter. I would leave the lid to the dutch oven slightly askew so the chips had a little bit of oxygen to keep smoking. To be honest they went out very quickly, but the smoke stayed in the pot for quite a while. I recommend taking the container out and re-lighting it every 25 minutes or so. It might seem like a hassle, but it's not much worse than basting a turkey. I smoked super firm organic sprouted tofu. I would have liked it to dry out a bit more than it did, so next time I'm thinking I will probably keep the whole thing in a 200 degree oven just to slightly roast the tofu, even though it doesn't need to be cooked for safety reasons. I didn't really time this process. I started the first smoking, then did the fond process and got the beans going. Then I re-lit the chips and went about my day periodically re-lighting the chips. It slightly darkened the tofu, and added an amazing smoky flavor to the chili. Then, when the beans were done I added everything to the pot, including the mushrooms and the fire roasted pepper. I also added half a bag of frozen corn for some additional texture and starch. That along with a few tablespoons of MASECA to thicken finished the whole thing off.
This might seem like a lot of work, and I'm not going to lie it was an all day cooking endeavor. The people I know who love to smoke though are generally more than happy to be close to their food, and tinker with it and touch it. In my opinion this was the best batch of vegetarian chili I've ever made. It was rich and delightful. The spices were as usual a bit improv, and started with whole dried poblano instead of messing around with chili powder. Just once I really advise you to make a batch of this for your friends. You won't regret it.
A Note on Dutch Ovens and Smoking: I used my exposed cast iron dutch oven for this, and it worked beautifully. The smoke also imbued into the prime. Not a terrible thing, but something to consider. If you use your dutch oven to say occasionally make caramel corn this might not be a desirable effect. You can use a stock pot, or a Le Creuset style dutch oven as well and you won't have to deal with a smoky prime in your pot.