My Daughter’s Great Tree Hugger Chili–and some thoughts on hiding vegetables


(Yes, there really is a recipe in this entry; you just have a little more prose to plow through to get there. I have been told, by a reliable source, that it is better to put the recipes up front, since those are what people are really interested in. However, I just have to have my say about the hidden vegetable thing. Besides, this chili recipe is well worth waiting for, so bear with me for a few more paragraphs.)

A few years ago, there was a little bit of a dust up over two competing cookbooks designed to “hide” vegetables in kids’ meals. Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Foods by Jessica Seinfeld (Mrs. Jerry Seinfeld) hit the stores only a few months after Missy Chase Lapine had published her cookbook, The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals. There were charges of plagiarism over the similarities and also some spirited debate over whether it is ever good to try to slip disliked vegetables into foods rather than just getting kids to eat “what’s good for them.”

Meanwhile, I found the whole thing pretty funny, since I had long ago been influenced by Confessions of a Sneaky Organic Cook, by Jane Kinderlehrer–and my own mother. Both of these women knew how to add flavor and nutrition to foods by slipping in unexpected ingredients. For my mother, this meant putting grated carrots in her meatloaf for added juiciness and including all manner of leftover vegetables in soups and casseroles. She made carrot cakes and breads, tucked leftover beets into a delicious hash whenever there was leftover pot roast, and combined applesauce and other fruits in pies and cakes–and perhaps even things we never knew about!

Kinderlehrer added an infamous (for my kids at least) idea that I used often when my children were small: including a small amount of ground liver to ground beef for burgers and meatloaf. Because two of my children were often anemic, I had been told to serve liver more often, never something children enjoy, so this little hint was one that seemed just right. I would buy a pound of liver, grind it in the blender, and then freeze it in tablespoon size packages. I started with about a tablespoon per pound and was usually able to get up to two to three tablespoons before the family started to notice. The more I included other, strong flavored ingredients like lots of onion, bell pepper, and garlic, the less they were able to detect the liver. And I quickly learned that spaghetti sauce and chili didn’t work with this trick because the liver was never really incorporated as well as with the more compact forms of burgers and loaves.

As with any good thing, I did have a tendency to overdo the liver addition, causing the entire meatloaf or hamburger to become liverloaf or liver patties, not welcome entrees! Today my kids still remind me of those least favorite meals, but they didn’t realize how often they did eat–and enjoy–liver-enhanced ground meat dishes, when I learned how to moderate the amounts.

Liver aside, I did begin collecting recipes that that included vegetables and sometimes fruits in unexpected places. At first, they were mostly for breads, cakes, and other desserts. Then, following my mother’s frequent addition of carrots to various main dishes, I grated these always available orange vegetables into just about anything that had a tomato sauce and then branched out to adding carrot puree to cheese-based sauces, even using them to replicate the bright orange fluorescence of the mac and cheese in the little blue boxes.

Spinach is another vegetable I learned to add into foods in unlikely places. First my meatloaf, sometimes almost more vegetable than meat, and then lasagna, chili, and spaghetti sauce. Frozen chopped spinach mixed into these tomato-sauce based foods is barely distinguishable, yet its addition gives depth of flavor without itself standing out separately.

However, it was not until my daughter introduced me to her incredible killer vegetarian chili that I really learned about tucking lots of vegetables into all manner of foods. Her chili doesn’t try to hide anything, but it still has unexpected ingredients that, like the spinach I had been adding to other things, don’t step up and say, hi, did you know you just had zucchini in your chili, yet the added flavor makes her recipe a really good one.

In addition to zucchini and any other squash, she incorporates barley. This is another good food to include if you are trying to move to more vegetarian meals. It provides a texture in chili, spaghetti and other sauces very similar to ground beef–a good “starter” for those trying to move toward more vegetarian options…and, it’s an excellent choice for the coming cold weather months, when nothing is so warming as a steaming bowl of chili or soup.

If you are looking for a vegetarian dish that will satisfy even the most carnivorous eaters, you can’t do better than Darcie’s own chili.

Darcie’s Tree Hugger Chili

2 1/2 c dry kidney and/or black beans, soaked (see NOTE)
1 very large onion, chopped
2 to 3 stalks celery, diced
6 to 8 large cloves garlic, minced (don’t be afraid to use too much!)
1 to 2 medium bell peppers, chopped
1 c pearl barley
2 t chili powder, or to taste
black and cayenne pepper to taste
2 to 3 t cumin
1 small can tomato paste
46 oz can tomato juice
2 T olive oil
1 medium carrot, diced
1 to 3 zucchini OR any butternut or other winter squash, cubed
2 t basil
1 1/2 t garlic salt
1 t Italian seasoning
1 14 1/2 to 15 oz can stewed tomatoes
1 T sugar or molasses (opt)

1. Soak beans for at least 4 hours before cooking, or overnight. Prepare all other ingredients while the beans are cooking.
2. Place the soaked beans in a large kettle, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Partially cover, turn heat down to a simmer, and cook until tender (about 1 1/4 hours, slightly longer for black beans). Watch the water level during cooking, adding more if necessary. Drain off any excess water when the beans are done.
3. Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized skillet. Add onion, half the garlic, carrot, celery, and seasonings. Saute over medium heat about 5 minutes, add bell pepper and zucchini, and saute until all of the vegetables are tender.
4. Stir in half the tomato juice. Simmer, uncovered, gradually adding rest of tomato juice, tomato paste, and barley. Keep cooking slowly until of desired thickness. Taste to see if more seasonings are needed.
5. Add beans, canned tomatoes, and more chili powder and cayenne pepper if necessary. Continue simmering over lowest possible heat, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 30 minutes or longer. After about 15 minutes, add remaining garlic. Barley will continue to swell even after cooking.

Serve topped with cheese and with toasted flour tortilla strips on the side. This becomes more and more tasty the longer it sits. It reheats very well in the microwave, but tends to separate if frozen.

Canned beans may be used, drained of their juices. You would probably want three to four 15 1/2 ounce cans and can mix black and kidney beans if desired.

Also–if you are using butternut squash instead of zucchini, you may use precooked puree, adding this with the tomato juice in step 4, rather than in step 3 with the other vegetables.

And, in case you wondered, with cheese and cilantro on top, it looks like this:

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