October 11, 2012

Ken's chili | My year of mathematical acuity

The recollection for today is a much later one than the very early memories I've shared so far. It took place during my first year of college. For the first two years we were all required to take a core curriculum in liberal arts, and one of the requirements was math. I'd neither excelled nor failed at math in the past — I usually got a noncommittal "B." I neither liked math nor hated it, but it made me a little nervous. I was more interested in art and literature, and probably would have avoided math if it had been possible to do so. When I learned who my math professor would be, I was warned by my comrades that he was the hardest math instructor on campus and most of his students failed. He gave tests designed to trick his students and he was nasty. Great. I steeled myself for a struggle.

But something happened to me in that class — by the end of the first day my brain was on fire. Something had switched on, and I became a math wizard. I loved the professor and his genius way of explaining math. I couldn't wait to get to my math assignments, and the very tricky exams were so much fun I was practically giddy. I noticed that some of the shiftier elements in the class suddenly wanted to sit next to me during exams, but I put a stop to that right from the start. I would only sit next to Roland, a nerdy math genius who always answered in class and got 100% on the tests, just like me. He was happy to have me beside him, though I'm sure he would have preferred to take his exam in a room by himself. Roland and I were a strange party of two that year — our only relationship being math nerds in the classroom — one real nerd, and one temporary.

That same year I had a ghastly case of chicken pox. I'd never had it as a child and never received a vaccine. It struck with a vengeance, and I was incapacitated. I missed an important math exam, and once I'd recovered, I went to speak to the professor to explain where I'd been, and ask about making up the exam. "Why bother," he said, sending a small shiver of fear into my heart. "We both know what you'll get."

What? See, I still didn't quite believe I had reached a place in math class where the professor knew I'd get an "A" before I'd even taken the exam! I wasn't used to being a math star. I still smile when I think about that experience ... even though it couldn't last. :)

The recipe for today was created by my husband. Someone once asked me if he was a good cook, and I answered by saying he could follow a recipe. That's a good skill to have if you're not an intuitive cook. But, with this recipe, from 2008, he showed his "cooking wizard" potential.

So where did the inspiration for his terrific chili originate? Well, Ken was at the veterinarian with our dog, Buffy. Buffy was in the back having blood drawn, and Ken was in the waiting room — waiting. And waiting. Now, when I'm at the vet, I always pick up the dog magazines, but Ken's not sentimental like that. He doesn't care that Super Speedo Galactic Fido just won his 10th all-champion dog master competition. He found himself attracted to a Rachel Ray cooking magazine instead. There was a recipe for chili in there that inspired him to come home and create his own perfect version of the dish he'd read about.

The recipe is not gluten-free, but you can make it so by leaving out the seitan and adding 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of liquid smoke. Or, you can soften and season soy bits or curls and add those if you wish. Or you can add quinoa or chopped portabella mushrooms. But really, the chili is so full of flavor, you don't have to substitute for the chorizo unless you want to.

Ken's perfect chili
  • two large yellow onions, chopped
  • three large cloves garlic, chopped
  • two–three celery stalks, chopped
  • two medium peeled carrots, julienned
  • three large sweet peppers (including red or yellow), chopped
  • one jalapeño pepper, chopped (optional if you don't like spicy food)
  • 1/2 head cauliflower. divided into small florets
  • one can (or 1-3/4 cups home-cooked) kidney beans, drained
  • one can (or 1-3/4 cups home-cooked) pinto beans, drained
  • one can (or 1-3/4 cups home-cooked) garbanzo beans, drained
  • one 14.5 ounce can fire roasted diced tomatoes (like Muir Glen)
  • one cup frozen corn
  • one–two tablespoons good quality chili powder
  • one teaspoon dried oregano
  • one teaspoon dried basil
  • one teaspoon hot sauce (like Frank's)
  • 1/4 cup red wine (or lemon juice, if you don't use wine)
  • about four ounces chorizo-style seitan*
  • salt to taste
  • olive oil for cooking
  1. In a large, heavy pan or dutch oven, sauté the cauliflower, onions, celery, carrots and peppers in one or two tablespoons of olive oil for a few minutes until the onions are translucent. A minute before the vegetables are done, add the garlic. (Don't burn the garlic.)
  2. Add the kidney beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, seitan, tomatoes and wine.
  3. Stir in the chili powder, oregano, basil and hot sauce.
  4. Add water or vegetable broth as needed for the right consistency. (And so the chili won't burn as it cooks.)
  5. Simmer for about one hour or until the cauliflower is soft and the flavors have blended.
  6. Stir in the frozen corn and heat until the corn is hot.
  7. Adjust seasonings.
Serve with a cooked grain or crusty sourdough bread.

1. *My husband used Upton's Naturals chorizo-style seitan in this recipe.

2. If we don't have leftover home-cooked beans, we use canned beans with no salt added. The cheapest beans we've found are the organic 365 brand at Whole Foods. The no-salt ones always seem to be hidden on the highest shelf!

3. Salt and spiciness are personal preferences, so add the amount that seems right for your taste. This recipe will be moderately spicy, depending on the heat in your jalapeño and chili powder.

4. I think a few fat leaves of Italian parsley or cilantro would go well with this. It needs a little dark green!


  1. I love your math memories. I really love math, even though I ended up studying fine arts. Math is pretty cool stuff. Also, I love that your husband invented a delicious chili recipe for you!! WHat??! My husband can make pasta with sauce from jar, and that's pretty much it. I keep suggesting to him that he take up vegan cooking as a hobby, but it hasn't happened yet.

    Also, send this recipe to Upton's, I know they'd love to have it in their recipes section!

    1. Don't get carried away with your idea of my husband's cooking skills. They have improved over the years, but sometimes sauce from a jar is the better option. My husband and I take cooking classes together but he rarely makes anything that we learned.

  2. Must be a manly man thing. My man does the whole chili bit too-thankfully!
    Love the math memories. I don't have those!! I did accidentally sign up for a college logics course because it was listed under philosophy but it was MATH. I had to drop. Just way to logical for me!

    1. Chili does seem to have a masculine edge, doesn't it. Is it the association with cowboys and cookouts?

      I had a philosophy class that was a logic course, but it really was logic, and it was good. I have a fun memory from that class, too.

  3. Must be the weather; I've been thinking of making some chili too. Glad you beat me too it; I think I'll add sweet potato ;-)

    1. I like sweet potato in chili. I like it even better in African peanut stew.

  4. Now I am convinced that you and the chili are genius, minus the cooked celery of course :)
    I had adult chicken pox too, terrible. Glad we both survived :)

    1. Did you have the pox or the adult shingles thing. I had the pox and it was ghastly. We are pox sisters.

  5. Your math memories are far better than mine, and I don't mean because I've forgotten mine!


    1. Hahaha. Maybe your math memories are more like my history memories. Those memories remain sealed.

  6. Pox. I really no joke could have died it was that bad! I had it in my early 30's. Yes we are pox sisters, indeed ghastly.

    1. I cried every morning when I woke up because I knew I would have to swallow and my throat felt like razor blades. There were shooting pains in my arms and legs and I was covered in pox, many of which became infected. I felt like I was dying but I don't think I was in danger. A nightmare.

    2. i am so sorry you endured that as well. There was not an area on me that was clear. I looked like a burn victim. I was supposed to open in a show that weekend oh well. I still have two scars, that I didn't pick but were just so deep. You were probably in danger and didn't know it.

  7. I am in awe of your math class experience! Seriously! I was, like you, a math avoider and someone who feared college math. I have always hated math! I *wish* I could have had your experience (well, really I wish I could have opted out of math after high school all together, lol), but my math genius has never revealed itself, unfortunately. I guess I could keep my fingers crossed and wait for it to burst free, but at this point, I highly doubt it. Have your math skills and confidence stuck with you after college? Are you more confident in math than you were before?


    1. I'm glad I couldn't opt out because then I never would have had the chance to be a math maven, even if it was only for a year. It showed me I had skills I never knew about and that I liked math more than I'd realized. In answer to your question, I don't feel that I have very good math skills because I didn't keep up with it. Maybe I have potential math skills. You can always take a math class if you want to and see how it goes. I take all sorts of classes and some go well and others not so much.

  8. Chili is fantastic. math not so much.

    1. Yes. But math has some possibilities if you're selective. :)

  9. I have to agree, I'd rather sit down to a bowl of that chilli than a bowl (?) of maths! My dad always said that doing maths was like speaking a foreign language - I don't think I ever got past the math equivalent of 'hello' 'two beers please' and 'I'm sorry, I don't understand'....

    1. I've never been very good with foreign languages but I did have my "math moment" so I'm not sure if I'd compare the two — but I know what he meant!

  10. What a great math experience! I have horrible math memories. Sometimes I wish I could go to school again and start over so I'd also love maths one day.

    1. I went back to school as an adult to learn a new career, and it was the most fun I'd ever had at school! Much better than the first time.

  11. HOLY HEARTY CHILI. Your husband rules. By the way, I'm jealous of your math brain. I have to study for days just to ace an exam. Le sigh.

  12. No need to envy my math brain. I left it back in that classroom!

  13. What a perfect chili! I love the seitan in it! I love that your husband can cook too!

    I was never good in math. I remember crying for hours during math homework after school and when my dad told me I would have to understand math in order to be an architect (my dream job at the time), I was crushed. The next week, I wanted to be a cheerleading coach, haha! :-)

    1. He can sort of cook.

      It was one year of being good in math — but I suppose one year is better than nothing! And it shows potential, right?

  14. Mmmmm.. Its that time of year when chili sounds appealing again...
    I am sure its blasphemy but i always add ketchup to mine! And somehow i love hot chili ontop of a bunch of fresh spinach- its gets all wilty and adds some greens-
    The math situation i cant relate to! Was always my achilles heel. Except for geometry. That i got.


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