“I love to watch football on TV, and I will tell you exactly why: I have no idea…. Whatever the attraction is, a lot of women seem to be immune to it. I have seen women walk right past a TV set with a football game on and—this always amazes me—not stop to watch, even if the TV is showing replays of what guys call a ‘good hit’…. The average guy cannot ignore something of this importance.”
— Dave Barry
By the time my younger son was 5 years old, his knowledge of football had already far surpassed mine. Name just about any NFL player, and now, at age 7, he can tell you where said player attended college, how many yards he ran for/threw for/kicked for in the last game, how many seasons he played for the previous team before being traded to his current team, his overall standing in the league, and so on. And when you combine his encyclopedic knowledge with his older brother’s understanding of the game from playing flag football and their dad’s decades of experience playing in Fantasy Football leagues, well… my knowledge of the game is laughable in comparison. I’ll be honest though: It doesn’t take much to top my knowledge of America’s game. I’ve never been much of a football fan, and so I’ve barely made an effort to understand the rules of the game or the different positions on a team. Case in point: I just recently learned that the role of the “safety” is not, as the name would suggest, to keep the other players on the team safe. Sure, I know that Tom Brady is the (tall and handsome) star quarterback for the New England Patriots, and I could probably name a few other players on the team, but that’s about the extent of my football awareness.
As the boys have grown older, their interest in football has grown as well (almost as if it were their genetic destiny), and I’ve come to accept that Sunday afternoons from late August through the first weekend in February are now pretty much all about football. In fact, I’m learning to embrace these much-needed lazier Sunday afternoons and enjoy some solo time in the kitchen while the boys are otherwise occupied. Besides football, perhaps the only other thing my boys care as much about on these Sundays is what we are going to eat for dinner. Feeding hungry, sports-obsessed boys? Now that’s something I know a little more about. I might not know which players are on “injured reserve” that week, but I usually know what I’ll be making for dinner on football Sundays: The answer is almost always a big pot of chili.
I’m not entirely sure how watching football on Sundays became associated with eating chili, but I suspect a similar dinner scenario plays out at many football-watching homes across America. Perhaps it started because right around the time that football season begins, the cooler weather starts to set in here in New England, making us crave something warm and comforting on the stove. I’ve experimented with many types of chili over the years, but this vegetarian chili is the one I make most often. Even my carnivorous boys will eat it with gusto, although on some Sundays, including the upcoming Super Bowl Sunday, they also request a batch of chicken wings (or “chicken bones,” as my 7-year-old has referred to them since he was old enough to eat them) as a pre-game appetizer, something to nibble on while they anxiously anticipate kick-off time.
This chili is just the thing to feed a crowd—small or large—on Super Bowl Sunday, or on any day really when you want something warming and hearty. Like most vegetarian chilis, it is chock-full of beans and tomatoes, but its flavor profile is uniquely inspired by Mexican mole dishes, delicately spiced with cumin, oregano, cinnamon, and… chocolate!
As one of chocolate’s biggest fans, I was of course intrigued by the idea of adding cocoa powder to chili when I first came across it many years ago in an issue of Health magazine. And yet, I was also a little skeptical (chocolate chili?!), until I realized that the sauce that smothered one of my favorite dishes at our local Mexican restaurant—enchiladas mole poblano—included chocolate, which is a traditional ingredient in Mexican mole sauces; I never thought that dish tasted chocolatey, just deliciously rich and complex with the right amount of spiciness. So I decided to give it a try, and sure enough, that cocoa-spiked chili turned out to be a big hit, and after some additional tinkering over the years, it’s become a family favorite, especially on cold winter afternoons or NFL Game Days.
A few Sundays ago as the boys cheered on the Patriots in the playoffs, I made a big batch of this chili, along with a pan of cornbread, which is the perfect accompaniment, in my opinion. As my younger son was devouring his second piece of cornbread, he asked, “Mom, how did you make this cornbread so good?” I started recounting the ingredients and the steps, and then paused and said, “I’ll have to show you and your brother how to make it sometime. It’s pretty easy.” And he said, “Okay, and then I can teach you about football. Deal?” “Deal!”
About a week later, my lessons began: Bedtime now involves my first-grader reading to me every night from The Everything Kids Football Book. (“Mom, I know you’re not a kid, but you never learned about football when you were a kid, so this book will be good for you.”) So he will teach me about football, and I will teach him and his brother how to make their favorite game-day meals… at least before they head off on their own to college or wherever their adult lives might take them. (But let’s not talk about that just yet; my mom heart can’t handle that terrifying thought.) For now, I will gladly make chili and cornbread on Super Bowl Sunday and watch the game with the boys, while trying to make sense of it all and wincing every time someone gets tackled. Because really, I’m just here for the food.
This recipe makes a thick and hearty chili. If you like a “soupier” consistency, add some water when adding the tomatoes to thin it out. Start with about ½ cup of water, then add more as needed during the simmering stage to reach your desired consistency.
One more note for those with food sensitivities/allergies or dietary restrictions: This chili recipe is gluten-free and vegan as written, unless you choose to serve it with the accompanying cornbread (which is neither gluten-free nor vegan) or with non-gluten-free or non-vegan toppings.
- -- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- -- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- -- 1 large carrot, finely diced
- -- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
- -- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- -- 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
- -- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- -- 1 tablespoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican oregano *
- -- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- -- ½ teaspoon chili powder, or to taste **
- -- ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
- -- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- -- 1 (28-oz.) can diced tomatoes (preferably fire-roasted***)
- -- 1 (28-oz.) can crushed tomatoes (preferably fire-roasted***)
- -- 3 cups cooked black beans, or 2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained
- -- 1½ cups cooked chickpeas, or 1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- -- 1½ cups cooked pinto beans or red kidney beans, or 1 (15-ounce) can pinto beans or red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
- Optional toppings:
- Shredded cheddar cheese or crumbled Mexican cheese (e.g., cotija or queso fresco), minced red onion or jalapeños, diced or sliced avocado, toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds), chopped fresh cilantro or parsley, sour cream or Greek yogurt, tortilla chips
- In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, and red bell pepper; sauté, stirring frequently, until the onion becomes translucent and is just starting to become golden and the carrot and red bell pepper start to soften, about 7 to 9 minutes.
- Add the garlic, cocoa powder, cumin, oregano, cinnamon, chili powder, salt, and pepper; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Stir in the canned tomatoes with their juices. Turn up the heat to high and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in all of the beans; simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the beans are heated through and the chili is slightly thickened, about 5 to 10 minutes more. (You can simmer it longer if you'd like; if it starts to get too thick or dry, add some water.) Taste and add more salt and/or pepper if needed. Serve hot with desired toppings.
** My kids do not like too-spicy chili, so this amount of chili powder works for us: just enough to give a little bit of heat, but not so much that they’ll refuse to eat it. Of course, feel free to adjust the amount of chili powder to suit your and your family’s preferences, keeping in mind that different brands of chili powder have varying amounts of heat, and they lose their potency the longer they sit on the shelf. (The particular brand I buy seems to be on the spicier side, so ½ teaspoon is perfect for us.) If you want even more heat, feel free to add a pinch or two of red pepper flakes or a finely minced jalapeño pepper.
*** Muir Glen is my favorite brand of canned tomatoes, and their fire-roasted tomatoes add an extra layer of flavor to this chili. If you can’t find them, regular canned tomatoes will work just fine, but the fire-roasted tomatoes are worth seeking out. (My local Target usually has them in stock, and they are often on sale.)
The cornbread also freezes well if you want to make it ahead or if you have any leftovers. (I freeze the baked cornbread wedges/muffins/squares in plastic resealable freezer bags.) You can thaw them at room temperature or—if you’re in more of a hurry—in the microwave. I think the cornbread is best when served warm, so once it’s thawed, I recommend heating it up in a warm oven or in the microwave just before serving. A dab of salted butter is optional, but highly recommended.
- -- Nonstick cooking spray or melted butter (about ½ tablespoon) for coating pan(s)
- -- 1 cup yellow cornmeal
- -- ⅔ cup whole-wheat pastry flour *
- -- 3 tablespoons natural cane sugar
- -- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- -- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- -- 1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
- -- 1¼ cups plain low-fat yogurt (but NOT thick Greek yogurt), at room temperature
- -- 1 egg, slightly beaten, at room temperature
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. If you are using a cast-iron pan, put it in the oven while it is preheating so that the pan also gets preheated. If you are not using a cast-iron pan, then lightly coat your pan or muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray or melted butter, then set aside.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the melted and cooled butter, yogurt, and egg until smooth and well combined. Add this mixture to the cornmeal mixture and stir together with a rubber spatula until just combined. (Do not overmix!)
- If you are using a cast-iron pan, use a thick oven mitt to carefully remove it from the preheated oven and set it on a trivet or hot pad. Lightly spray the pan with nonstick cooking spray or use a pastry brush to brush the pan with melted butter. Scrape the batter into the pan, spreading it out to the sides if needed. (If using a sectioned cast-iron pan, fill each triangle about two-thirds full; use the remaining batter to make about 4 to 6 cornbread muffins.) If you are using a non-cast-iron pan and/or a muffin tin, then simply scoop the batter into the prepared pan(s).
- Bake until the top is golden brown, the edges are a darker golden brown and pulling away from the sides of the pan, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 20 to 25 minutes. (Muffins will take less time, about 10 to 15 minutes.) Carefully remove the pan from the oven and place it on a wire rack; cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the cornbread (and muffins, if you made any) from the pan and serve while still warm, or place on a wire rack to cool completely. Alternatively, you can let the cornbread cool slightly in the pan, then cut it into wedges or squares and serve straight from the pan.
Recipe adapted from NYC firefighter Joe Bonanno’s cornbread recipe, as featured on From Martha’s Kitchen.
Did you make either (or both) of these recipes?
I’d love to hear how it turned out for you! Leave a comment below and/or share a picture on Instagram with the hashtag #wholesomefamilykitchen!