This recipe happened because my favorite cooking reference, Google, totally failed me. It was Halloween and I was inspired. Pumpkin chili was on the menu. One of our children was a vegetarian and it seemed like a wonderful, hearty solution. But I had no recipe and Google was no help. I even looked through actual cookbooks. Every version I found contained meat, pumpkin purée, or both. My vision was a meat-free dish with chunks of pumpkin. Goshdarnit, the pumpkin chili was happening, recipe or not. I decided to wing it.
But I'm sort of a chicken, so I called my friend Gabrielle, an actual chef with lots of experience in vegetarian kitchens, to ask if my idea was gross. I mean, if you can't find it on Google, maybe there's a reason. She thought it would work, and even responded with some enthusiasm, so I went for it. I added turnips for flavor and to lighten up the dish just a little. (I was also going through a turnip phase, and pretty much added turnips to everything.) The chili turned out to be a hit with everyone. Even the kids like it, and I'm glad to get something healthy into their stomachs before the onslaught of candy.
Over the years, I've kept track of what went into the pot. The first time, I was sipping a little celebratory Halloween bubbly while I cooked, so the recipe wasn't exactly precise. Since then, pumpkin chili is our regular Halloween night meal, and we invite people to drop in for a bowl and help us hand out candy.
Our meat-eating friends never notice the lack of animal protein in my pumpkin chili. It can easily be made vegan, too, by adding extra olive oil to replace the butter, and serving dairy-free toppings in place of the cheddar cheese and sour cream, or skipping them entirely. The chili is also gluten-free, although you should check your ingredients just in case. (Some broths, canned goods, and tomato paste can have sneaky gluten.) Speaking of broth, feel free to substitute chicken broth or whatever you have on hand if you aren't vegetarian. Heck, you can even crumble a little bacon over the top.
Serves 8 to 10
3-pound pie pumpkin or other orange-fleshed squash such as butternut, Red Kuri, or Golden Hubbard
2 medium turnips, about 3/4 pound
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup finely ground cornmeal
2 red bell peppers, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 cups vegetarian broth
2 (10-ounce) cans diced tomatoes with green chilies, such as Rotel
2 (16-ounce) cans chili beans, drained
2 cups frozen corn
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin
Several dashes vegetarian Worcestershire sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Balsamic vinegar, to taste
Chopped green onions, to serve
Shredded cheddar cheese, to serve
Sour cream, to serve
Peel the pumpkin or squash and cut into 1-inch pieces. To make it easier to peel the pumpkin, cut in half, remove the seeds (and set aside for roasting!), then microwave each half cut-side down in a shallow dish of water for 5 minutes, or roast the halves at 450°F for about 15 minutes. When the pumpkin is cool enough to handle, shave off the skin with a sharp knife. (See our directions here on how to roast pumpkin and squash seeds.)
Peel the turnips and cut into 1-inch pieces.
In a large Dutch oven or soup pot (it should hold at least 6 quarts), heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. When melted, whisk in the cornmeal until smooth, then stir in the chopped pumpkin, turnip, bell peppers, onion, garlic, and tomato paste. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes.
Add the broth, diced tomatoes, beans, and corn. Stir in the chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, and Worcestershire sauce. Bring back to a simmer then reduce the heat and cook for at least 1 hour, or until the pumpkin and turnip are tender. (It gets even better if simmered longer — a whole afternoon, if you have the time.)
Before serving, taste and season with salt and pepper and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Serve hot with chopped green onions, shredded cheddar cheese, and sour cream.
Vegan & gluten-free pumpkin chili: Substitute olive oil for the butter and offer dairy-free toppings to make the chili vegan. The chili is naturally gluten-free, as long as all prepared ingredients are gluten-free.
Storage & freezing: This chili freezes well, but it's also a crowd-pleaser, so we rarely have any left!
(Images: Faith Durand)