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Vegetarian Chili with Brown Butter Cornbread and Book Giveaway Winner

Happy New Year! Here at Umami Girl, things are simmering away already—and at least one pot has already boiled over. Read on for the dirty details.

vegan chili squareFeeling pensive (and, okay, a little tipsy) one night near the end of 2009, Umami Boy and I got to talking about the fact that these days, we feel a lot more revolutionary on the inside than we act on the outside. I suspect we’re not alone in this place, nor in the dull itch of surprise that accompanies our arrival here. It’s an ironic equilibrium: the happier we are, the less likely to make radical change. But without change to push us forward, there’s an upper limit on happiness.

Sometimes we convince ourselves for a moment that one day soon we’ll take off in the middle of the night for Bangalore or Bangor for the year, leaving only a trail of brown butter cornbread crumbs in our wake. That will be the first step. From there, we’ll never look back to bourgeois civilization.

Not yet, though. And probably not this year. Still, our restlessness rarely goes completely unheeded. Often, I’m sorry to say, it claims victims. Sometimes it even yields a bit of enlightenment. See, for reference, Exhibit A. Guess where we found this antique specimen yesterday?

floor history 1

What’s that? I couldn’t hear you over the sound of Umami Boy prying up seven layers of linoleum and plywood from the kitchen floor. Let me tell you, this was the first good-looking material we found. It’s a page from the New York Herald Tribune from Saturday, January 6, 1934—76 years ago almost to the day—and what we could read of the news could just as well have been published this year.

When I thanked my pryer for raising the bar (yuk yuk) on the level of renovations we’re attempting on our own around here, he said, “No problem. I’ve got all of 2009 to work out.” Feeling somewhat the same way myself (don’t we all, after a year like that?), I have an inkling we’ll be bringing you lots of rabble-rousing, thought-provoking goodness in 2010, including plenty of umami-rich food. Even if all we have under our feet is a little something like this.

floor history 2

Never ones to let a little chaos stop us from sharing New Year’s Eve with friendly vegetarians, we’re kicking off the year with an inherently contentious dish: vegetarian chili. If this pot could talk, its smoky, earthy voice would assure Texans, Mexicans and Cincinnatians alike, “I’M CHILI, OKAY?” Don’t let the focus on lentils, barley and bulgur tell you otherwise. This hearty stuff makes a convincing bowl of chili, especially next to a generous piece of brown butter cornbread.

Although I’m not entirely sure whether Erin Bried, who has never given us reason to suspect she is anything but civilized, would approve of our current project, I also want to announce the randomly selected winner of our How to Sew a Button book giveaway. Congratulations to Susan, commenter number 28. I hope you enjoy the book!

So. Welcome to 2010 here at Umami Girl. If you’re inclined (perhaps against your better judgment) to trust us, come on along. We’d really love to have you. But for the love of god, please watch your step.

Heidi Swanson's Vegetarian Chili

This recipe makes an enormous pot of chili, at least enough to feed 12 people. It would be great on a buffet at a big winter party. I used my 7 1/4 quart Dutch oven. Half a recipe would feed most families with ample leftovers, but I suspect it also freezes well.


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 2 poblano peppers, diced
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 8 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon peeled, grated ginger
  • 3 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, minced
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 10-12 cups water
  • 1 15-ounce can pinto beans
  • 2 1/4 cups brown lentils, rinsed and picked over
  • 2/3 cup pearled barley
  • 2/3 cup bulgur wheat
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • Chopped cilantro, chopped scallions, shredded cheddar and sour cream for topping


  • Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a very large, heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onion, poblanos and shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until the peppers start to soften. Add the garlic, ginger, chili powder and cumin and cook, stirring, for one minute.
  • Add the chipotle, the tomatoes, and eight cups of the water and stir to combine well. Then add the pinto beans, lentils, barley and bulgur along with two teaspoons of salt and stir thoroughly. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a brisk simmer. Cook for about an hour, adding more water by the cupful as necessary to ensure that the lentils and grains get tender. Taste and adjust the seasonings to taste. Serve garnished with chopped cilantro, scallions, shredded cheddar and sour cream.
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    Michael Natkin's Brown Butter Cornbread

    Makes one 9×13? pan


    • 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
    • 2 cups coarse, stoneground cornmeal
    • 2 cups all-purpose flour
    • 2/3 cup sugar
    • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda
    • 4 eggs
    • 2 cups buttermilk


  • Preheat the oven to 375° F and butter a 9×13? pan.
  • Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook for about 10 minutes, swirling the pot occasionally, until the butter starts to turn light brown and smell nutty.
  • Meanwhile, combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt and baking soda in a medium bowl and whisk to mix well.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and buttermilk. Pour in the butter in a slow stream, whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from cooking.
  • Pour the dry ingredients over the wet ingredients and whisk until just combined.
  • Pour the batter into the pan and bake about 25 minutes, until a tester comes out clean from the center of the cornbread. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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    Hi there, I'm Carolyn, and I'm delighted you're here. I'm a NYC-area food, travel, yoga, coffee, wine, running, music making and book obsessive with a great family and a love for sharing it all with you. Grab a drink and come on in. Learn more.