Chili non Carne

Makes 6 to 8 servings
Time: About 2 hours, largely unattended

Chili means different things to different people; I think of it as slow-cooked red beans seasoned with cumin and chiles, though some insist that chili should be made with meat and few or even no beans. To me, at that point you've entered the realm of cassoulet, though the second variation includes meat. Other beans you can use: red or pink beans are traditional, but you can also use cannellini or other white beans alone or in combination.

1 pound dried pinto beans, washed, picked over, and soaked if you like

1 whole onion, unpeeled, plus 1 small onion, minced Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup bean-cooking liquid, vegetable stock, or water 1 fresh or dried hot chile, seeded and minced, or to taste (optional)

1 teaspoon ground cumin, or to taste (optional)

1 teaspoon minced fresh oregano leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (optional)

1 tablespoon minced garlic

Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish

1. Put the beans in a large pot with water to cover and bring to a boil over high heat, skimming the foam if necessary. Add the whole onion. Adjust the heat so the beans bubble steadily but not violently and cover loosely.

2. When the beans begin to soften (30 minutes to an hour, depending on the type of bean and whether or not you soaked the beans), season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally and adding water if necessary, until the beans are quite tender but still intact (about as long as it took them to begin to soften).

3. Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid if you choose to use it. Discard the onion and add all the remaining ingredients except the cilantro. Turn the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Cover and turn the heat down to low.

4. Cook, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid if necessary, until the beans are very tender and the flavors have mellowed, about 15 minutes. Taste, adjust the seasoning, and garnish with cilantro. Serve with rice, crackers, or tortilla chips and bottled hot sauce.

Chili with Tomatoes.

This simple addition makes a big difference; you might also add 1/4 teaspoon or so of ground cinnamon: Substitute 2 cups peeled, seeded, and chopped tomato (canned is fine; don't bother to drain) for the bean or other liquid. Cook carefully, adding a little more liquid if needed. Top with freshly grated cheddar or other semihard cheese if you like.

Chili con Carne.

Try this with the preceding variation: While the beans are cooking, put 1 tablespoon neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn, in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 1 pound hand-chopped or ground beef, pork, turkey, or chicken and cook, stirring, until the meat has lost its color, about 10 minutes. Season the meat with salt, pepper, and about 2 teaspoons chili powder, or to taste. Stir it into the beans along with the other ingredients.

White Chili.

Substitute any kind of white beans for the pinto beans. In Step 3, when you discard the onion, stir in 2 cups shredded or chopped cooked chicken (grilled is terrific).