Perk Up Lacklustre Chilli With Instant Espresso Powder

Perk Up Lacklustre Chilli With Instant Espresso Powder
Photo: Claire Lower

Friday evening, I had several people over for some vegan chilli. Vegan chilli probably doesn’t sound all that exciting if you’re not vegan, and I could tell that several of my guests (besides the vegan) were less than stoked that I had gone with a meat-free, dairy-free option. (I provided sour cream and cheese for the omnivores, but they remained sceptical.)

That all changed, however, once they tasted it. “This is actually really good,” they half-whispered and mumbled in quasi-apologetic tones. (Why they would doubt me, I do not know!)

At least half of the credit goes to A.A. Newton’s vegetarian Frito Pie recipe (which I used as a template, but tweaked with red wine and extra tomatoes), but the Trader Joe’s brand soyrizo, which is a very good fake meat product, did a lot of heavy lifting. When simmered with tomatoes, beans, onion, and Ro-Tel, it reads almost exactly like ground meat, at least in texture. The chilli was was, however, a little too bright tasting.

Good chilli should have a darkness to it — there should be a roasted, deep flavour available to temper the fruity sweetness and acidity from the tomatoes. Umami is easy enough to add, even with vegan dishes — just shake some MSG in there — but crystalized glutamates don’t make up for the lack of flavour compounds you usually get from the Maillard reaction. Without these flavours, chilli just doesn’t taste finished to me. Browned meat does a great job in this capacity, but that was off the table, and the soyrizo had been far too sticky to get a good amount of browning.

What, I asked myself while looking around my pantry, could contribute those delectable flavours usually brought by the Maillard reaction? I didn’t have enough time to burn onions, and I was starting to panic, but then I saw it: A small jar of Medaglia D’oro espresso powder that had been sitting in my pantry for at least six months. I added a teaspoon to my chilli, stirred it until it dissolved, and gave it a taste. There was an immediate, noticeable improvement. I added a little more, tasted it again, and finally relaxed. The chilli tasted finished.

Even if your chilli isn’t vegan or vegetarian, a little bit of espresso powder or instant coffee can give it a deeper, darker, more complete flavour. You don’t need a lot, so go slow — add a teaspoon or less at a time and stir until completely dissolved, tasting after each addition until it tastes done. Whether you finish it with cheese and sour cream is up to you — it won’t need it, but chilli is one food where lily gilding is almost always welcome.

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