When I worked in Texas, I learned that real chili has no beans. The story goes that chili was invented by the cowboys to sustain them for long cattle drives through the desert. Cowboy cooks were creative enough to plant onions, oregano, chili peppers and spices amid pesky mesquite plants to discourage the cows from finding and eating these delicacies. The plants grew so that each time the cook returned to the spot, he could collect these ingredients to use in big pots of chili.
In the early 1900s, a German immigrant living in Texas developed the first chili powder, which made the process easier. Anyway, that's what I was told. I take it with a grain of salt as Texans are big story-tellers.
My chili story is very different. A young chef eager to create a bold-tasting meatless chili locks himself in an industrial-size kitchen with dozens of seasonal vegetables, three different kinds of fresh and many dried chilies, whole-grains and a bunch of meatless protein sources. He makes a dozen batches of vegetarian chili, and lets lots of people taste each one. He offers them to both vegetarians and nonvegetarians. He watches reactions. He wants a real winner everyone will enjoy.
Of course, that young chef was me. And now, years later, I've refined my chili recipe to this one that has overcome the inherent challenges to making good vegetarian chili.
"Mouth-feel" is the first problem when you can't add meat. I use seitan, a wheat-based protein that comes shredded, whole or ground. Or you can use a soy isolate such as Gimme Lean. Both are available in natural-food stores.
When it comes to spice, I love heat, but don't want my chili so intense that I can't enjoy the flavor. I use a combination of fresh and dried chilies. The flavors are very different, and I enjoy the smoky taste of dried or chipotle chilies in adobo, found in cans in the ethnic sections of most supermarkets.
I usually use canned beans unless I have the time to soak and simmer dried beans. Because I enjoy variety, I use two kinds.
Serve my Chunky Garden Vegetable Chili with chopped avocado, steamed basmati or jasmine rice and some homemade cornbread. I always accompany my chili with sour cream or plain yogurt and shredded cheddar cheese for my dairy-eating friends. This dish freezes extremely well.