black bean chili

a warming dish to stir up memories of comfort & connection

photos karen messer, food prep ian cant

I’m five years old, and my family is visiting my Polish grandparents in Toronto. The minute we arrive at the door, my grandmother ushers us to the dining room table, and food starts appearing from the kitchen. I breathe in the sweet, pungent smell of onions cooking and hear her chopping vegetables. She emerges again. “Eat, eat!” Even through the excess butter, I taste the love in her food. Cooking is how she speaks to us. I feel cherished and love her back. And so begins a strong association between love and offering food.

As a teenager, I learned from my mother that my grandmother was in a concentration camp in World War II—something that my grandmother avoided talking about with us. While imprisoned, there were times when she was so hungry that she ate grass and paper. Learning this gave me a deeper understanding of why feeding us was so important to her. Food was an offering of love and safety for her family. Each time she cooked, she affirmed that life would continue, created new memories to displace the hungry ghosts of the past. If we see our bodies as the collective physical memories of our meals, what new food memories do we choose to create?

In my mother’s kitchen, the sizzle of onions frequently heralded the start of dinner preparations. During the winter, one of my favourite outcomes of this aromatic beginning was chili. Hearty and grounding, its warmth soothed my hungry belly as well as my cold fingers. Chili is a comfort food for me, not just because of its sustaining qualities, but because my mother offered it on the coldest days.

In recent years, I’ve seen that my love of making food for other people is a way of recreating memories of that connection between love and offering food. Starting a recipe by sautéing onions transports me back to childhood times of feeling nurtured. It’s a “comfort-cooking” practice, one that nourishes me as much as those I am cooking for.

I offer this black bean chili recipe to you for comfort in the cold months ahead.

black bean chili with squash & chipotle

serves 6–8

Chipotle peppers are really just smoked jalapeños, and add a lovely, sultry heat to this sweet and spicy chili. For extra flavour, instead of using pre-ground spices, toast whole cumin and coriander seeds in a dry pan, then grind them in a coffee grinder.


1 cup dried black beans, soaked overnight, drained & rinsed
1 bay leaf
1 strip kombu (optional)
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil
1 large onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 Tbsp ginger, grated or finely minced
2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
1 Tbsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp paprika
2 tsp dried basil
2 tsp dried oregano
11/2 tsp sea salt
1–2 tsp minced chipotle pepper (in adobe, or dried & reconstituted)
2 cups diced squash
4 cups tomatoes (fresh or canned), diced
2 cups water, or reserved bean broth, as needed

optional vegetables: 1 diced red pepper, 1 cup diced zucchini, 1 cup corn kernels

1/2 cup fresh cilantro and/or parsley, chopped
2 Tbsp lime juice or apple cider vinegar
freshly ground black pepper to taste


  1. Place the soaked and rinsed black beans in a medium pot with 4 cups of water, the bay leaf and strip of kombu. Bring to a boil and cook vigorously for 5–10 minutes, skimming any foam that develops. Reduce the heat to an audible simmer and cook until the beans are tender (approximately 1 hour). Drain the beans and reserve their broth for the chili if desired.
  2. While the beans are cooking, wash and chop the vegetables.
  3. Heat the oil in a medium pot, over medium heat. Cook the onions until they soften and emit a sweet aroma (about 7 minutes). Add the carrot and celery, and cook another 3–5 minutes, until the celery and onion are becoming translucent.
  4. Add the ginger and garlic, and cook another 2 minutes. Add the spices, dried herbs and salt, and stir constantly to toast the spices for another 1–2 minutes. Add the chipotle pepper, squash, tomatoes and cooked black beans. Add the water or reserved bean broth as needed to cover the vegetables. Bring to a simmer, and let your chili pot bubble for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. If desired, once the chili is cooked, you can thicken it by removing 2 cups to a blender. Purée and return this mixture to the pot. Add the optional vegetables, if desired, and cook until just softened. Add the remaining ingredients. Taste, noting the balance of hot, acid, sweet and salty notes and adjust to your liking.
Jill Boadway is a holistic chef who empowers people through customized whole foods cooking classes and The Conscious Table. It is her service to bring the spirit of yoga into the kitchen. She is currently writing a cookbook with nutritionist Meghan Hanrahan, to be published by timeless books in 2009.

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