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Vegetarian grain chili: Perfect for football tailgates

I love the fall. I have said it before and I will say it again: It is the best season, and it’s not even close. The weather is amazing: crisp, cool mornings, warm and sunny afternoons, evenings just screaming for a campfire. The produce is outstanding: late summer fruits, trips to the apple orchard, the pumpkin patch, the beginning of the hearty winter vegetable season. Maybe the best thing about fall is the sport that has become America’s new pastime, football.

Whether it is high school, college or professional, one thing is certain – Americans love football. It isn’t just the game itself, either. At the high school level, it’s also about community and civic pride; it’s about bragging rights with the neighboring towns; it’s about seeing local kids and their parents celebrating the hard work and dedication that comes with a victory under the Friday night lights. In college football, it’s pageantry and pride in your alma matter, its fight songs and the marching band; it’s Saturday morning pre-gaming (hopefully only if you’re still in college). With the NFL, it’s all about trash talk, fantasy football, the big city stadium experience and rooting on your favorite players. But no matter what level of football you are talking about, for me, the best thing about it is the tailgate experience.

Whether you are setting up outside your local high school stadium, Beaver Stadium in State College, or the Linc in Philadelphia, tailgating is an essential part of the football experience. It’s the perfect way to set the stage for the rest of the day – getting your buddies together to gather around a cooler of beer, setting up the grill, all while playing some cornhole and arguing over what is going to happen in the game.

From a chef’s perspective, a tailgate is another one of those sacred crossover events in life, where food meets fun and friends and football. It is another opportunity to showcase our skills and impress our friends and family while getting to enjoy food in a relaxing and fun environment. When it comes to tailgate food, most people’s minds go to the same few things: burgers, dogs, sausages, buffalo chicken dip. So, for a chef at a tailgate, we have to think a little more out of the box. We can still make things that are comfortable and familiar, but we need to put a chef’s twist on the recipe.

One of my favorite things to make at tailgates is chili. It is an incredibly versatile dish that can be made with almost any flavor combination or ingredients. Since most tailgates are already loaded with meat on top of meat on top of meat, I think it is a nice break to make a vegetarian chili. As most people who know me can attest, I don’t really tend to eat my vegetables unless they are covered in ranch dressing or some sort of cheese sauce. But for this chili, I make an exception. This recipe uses three different grains to create the texture and mouth feel of ground beef, while providing some flavor and a whole lot of healthy fiber and nutrients. Add the beans in there, and this dish makes for an explosive combination of flavors.

So the next time you tailgate, try this recipe. With all the calories you save on skipping the meat, you can have a few more pre-game beers. Cheers!

Vegetarian Three-Grain Chili

Serves 8-10

Start to finish: 1-2 hours

1 cup cooked brown rice

1 cup cooked lentils, brown or green

1 cup cooked barley

1/2 cup olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

1 jalapeno pepper, minced

3 stalks celery, diced

1 green bell pepper, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 small carrot, peeled and diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons chili powder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon Spanish or smoked paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

Kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste

2 medium tomatoes, diced

1 28-ounce can of peeled diced tomatoes

1 12-ounce bottle of beer, preferably a lager or IPA

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 15.5-ounce can of red kidney beans

1/2 cup sour cream

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

2 scallions, sliced thin on a bias

Heat a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add the onion, jalapeno, celery, carrots, bell peppers and garlic. Sweat the vegetables for about 5 minutes, or until the veggies have softened and begun to lightly caramelize.

Once the vegetables have started to brown, add the spices, and stir to combine with the sautéed vegetables. Allow the spices to cook and combine with the vegetables, about another 5 minutes.

Add the fresh tomatoes, and stir to combine with the other vegetables. Continue to cook until the tomatoes have broken down and released their liquid.

Add the beer and canned tomatoes and stir to combine. Stir in the tomato paste and beans, then bring the chili to a simmer. Allow the chili to simmer for an additional 30 minutes to an hour.

The longer you let the chili cook, the more concentrated and rich the flavors will get. Once the chili has simmered and had time to meld the flavors, stir in the grains. Season with salt and pepper, taste, and adjust seasonings as needed.

Transfer the chili to serving bowls, and garnish with sour cream, cheddar cheese and sliced scallions. Feel free to add your favorite hot sauce if you like it extra spicy. Enjoy!

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