For kids, Halloween is everything. It’s a holiday built around dressing up crazy and getting buckets of candy for free. They might as well rename it National Kids’ Dream Come True Day.
But for me, Halloween is a chore. I know I’m a scrooge but I just don’t look forward to carving slimy pumpkins. And I really don’t relish slowly inching my way through the neighborhood while the kids go door-to-door in the pouring rain. The alternative isn’t much better: staying home and getting up to answer the door every 3.5 seconds to hand out candy. For me, the trick to making Halloween a treat is to find other parents to commiserate with, hence our annual chili party.
The beauty of the chili party is three-fold. First, there’s the fact that chili is easy to make in mass quantities and is even better when made ahead. Second, it’s a way to feed the kids something healthy that they actually like before they stuff their faces with sugar. And third, it’s an excuse to gather friends together for pumpkin carving or trick-or-treating, which make both activities way more fun for everybody.
Sometimes I add ground beef to the chili, or some chorizo for extra flavor, plus beans and vegetables like kale or winter squash to make it a balanced meal. Other times, especially if I have vegetarian friends coming over, I skip the meat entirely and go heavy on the veg, using mushroom broth in the base. Mushroom broth has a meatier flavor than plain vegetable broth.
No matter what, though, I use Penzey’s regular chili powder because it has a ton of flavor without the heat. I buy it by the bag from the shop in the Pearl district. Many other store-bought chili powders are too spicy for kids, especially when you use large amounts, and I firmly believe a generous amount of chili powder is the key to a great chili. Skimp and you basically have tomato stew.
What else makes for great chili? Toppings, and lots of them. There must always be shredded aged cheddar cheese, sliced scallions, fresh cilantro, sour cream and Tapatio or Cholula for those who want a kick of spice. But diced avocadoes, diced white onions and tortilla chips make it a real party. Plus beer and cornbread of course.
To me, this is what fall is all about — casual get-togethers with friends to finally catch up and hang out after a summer of vacations followed by the frenzy of going back to school. Put a big pot of chili on the stove, set out the toppings, then invite everyone over to dig in.
Vegetarian Three-Bean Pumpkin Chili
Makes 6 servings
This is scaled down for normal weeknight cooking, but if you want to serve a crowd, it’s easy to double it. It’s incredibly easy and you can mix up the vegetables as you see fit. Chopped kale and corn kernels are great additions.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chili powder (preferably Penzey’s regular)
2 tsp ground cumin
1 quart mushroom broth
1 (28-ounce) can finely chopped tomatoes
3 (15-ounce) cans beans, such as black and pinto, drained and rinsed
4 cups peeled, seeded and diced winter squash, such as pumpkin, butternut or delicata
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Toppings: sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese, sliced scallions, chopped fresh cilantro
Heat the olive oil in a large pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions and carrots and saute until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute a minute more. Stir in the chili powder and cumin. Pour in the broth, stirring to scrape up the browned bits. Add the tomatoes, beans and squash. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Bring chili to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and slowly simmer until vegetables are tender and chili has thickened slightly, about 30 minutes.
Ladle into bowls and serve with toppings alongside.