When the weather takes a turn for frostier nights and nippier days, chili is a welcome, warming, one-pot meal. For our version, I replace the beans with toasted eggplant and incorporate a wider range of spices for a little more tang. The Aleppo and ancho chilis anchor the sauce, the toasted cumin seed will add depth of flavor, and the chili powder and cayenne peppers will add heat. For spicier chili add more cayenne, a drop or two of jalapeño oil (available at Trader Joe’s), a pickled jalapeño, or piece of chipotle pepper in adobo sauce (a little goes a long way).
A combination of both ground lamb and beef adds the right level of fat and wonderful complexity. Garnishes of peppery black lentils give crunch; toasted onions and a touch of fresh mozzarella or buratta cheese provide a creamy smoothness to cool and blend the spicy components.
Slice eggplant in 1/2 inch rounds and toast on medium heat in dry cast iron skillet, flipping to evenly color. If eggplant is drying out, dabbing a bit of olive oil with a silicone brush should help achieve the right coloration and texture. You want the eggplant to be cooked enough to hold up in the chili without getting mushy. Set on wire rack to cool.
Chop onion and brown with the beef and lamb until cooked thoroughly. Drain extra fat.
Add cumin seed to a small cast iron pan. Here I included a bit of coriander seed and toasted enough to have leftovers. Toast on medium heat moving the seeds around in the pan until they start to brown; they will begin smoking a bit but let them color up and remove immediately from the pan. I pour mine onto a piece of paper to make transfer into the spice grinder easier.
Chop peppers zucchini and celery in large enough pieces so they will be recognizable bites in the finished chili. Lightly sauté in skillet with a touch of olive oil. I add a few fennel seeds for additional texture at the end of the sauté. Remove immediately from pan to keep from getting overcooked.
In a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven combine cooked beef, two types of tomatoes and spices. I broke up the whole tomatoes once they were in the pot by cutting through the tomatoes with a knife. Turn heat to medium or medium low. Add spices to the mixture and some of the broth or water to form the desired consistency. The rest of the broth will be added after the vegetables are included.
While the chili simmers, prepare the toppings.
- Shred a bit of burrata or fresh mozzarella to spread sparingly on the top.
- Small black lentils (beluga or black caviar varieties) cook in about 8 minutes on medium low heat in 2 parts water to one part lentil. Drain in cold water when they are softened to your liking. Lentils are high in fiber, protein iron and zinc and they provide a refreshing peppery crunch when topping salads or chili.
- I take some of the red onion I roasted earlier in the day and give them a finishing dry toast in a cast iron pan.
- A final scattering of chopped scallions or a squeeze of lime add a final note of brightness to the dish.
When the tomatoes, spices and broth have cooled down, fold in the eggplant and other vegetables until incorporated. Add more broth until the completed dish reaches the desired consistency– the meat, tomatoes, and spices should be easily stirred. Splash the vinegar to taste at the end. That’s when I always do it–tweak salt pepper and vinegar at final taste. This minimal amount for vinegar isn’t going to chemically alter the meat– its just used as a brightening finish.