Chili Nights in the Backcountry

Serves 8-10

Vancouver’s local mountains have been blessed with considerable snow and sunshine this winter – a rare combination on the West Coast. This has made for some pretty great skiing and snowshoeing conditions, and what better end to a day of playing in the snow than a hearty bowl of chili?

Chili is a comfort food for many, and it’s one that we associate with hiking, as it is one of our go-to backcountry meals. When it comes to nostalgic comfort foods though, if I’m being completely honest, I downright hated chili as a kid. My chili loathing was 100% a result of my distaste for beans, as previously explained in this post. While I now enjoy most beans, the kidney bean, arguably the quintessential bean of any good chili recipe, remains one of my least favourite. I will eat them but I almost never cook with kidney beans and it is for this reason you won’t find any in this recipe. Instead, I prefer to use black beans. If this sounds like chili sacrilege to you, please feel free to take full creative bean license and adapt to your own preferences.

What this recipe lacks in beans, it makes up for with other veggies. It’s probably safe to say my diet is never short on vegetables, but I make an extra point to incorporate lots of them in this recipe since it’s a staple for us when hiking. And when out on the trail – sometimes for days at a time – it can be challenging to ensure we get our daily dose of veg which, in-turn, can make me a difficult person to be around (not such a big deal for the wildlife, but a different story for Brett).

But I digress. No matter what the season, after a long day in the outdoors, especially if we’re going to be sleeping in the outdoors, this chili is comforting on so many levels. First, it smells amazing and with each bite it continues to warm from the inside out, thanks to the subtle heat of the spices. It’s hearty, stick-to-your ribs kind of fare, while also being nutritionally restorative, and the non-traditional addition of eggplant, which is roasted, lends extra oomph and richness to the dish. While there are some pretty decent ones available, the pre-packaged backcountry meals purchased from your local outdoor store will never taste this good – no matter how hungry you are.

Some of you may be wondering how this chili – with literally pounds of ingredients – makes it into the backcountry with us. The answer is dehydration1. The great thing about vegetables is they are composed primarily of water, so this recipe reduces down remarkably well. In fact, one dinner for both Brett and me weighs about an ounce. Another reason I love this chili so much? I can almost guarantee you would never be able to tell if it had been dehydrated or not, which can’t always be said for other dehydrated meals.

It hopefully goes without saying that this chili doesn’t have to be dehydrated. It is a great crowd pleaser, and also serves as an excellent make-ahead meal for those weeks when you know you’ll be super busy and just won’t have time to make

nutritious, satisfying meals in the evenings. No matter how you choose to enjoy it, I hope it brings you as much comfort and great food memories as it has to us.

1A dehydrator is a very useful piece of kitchen equipment, regardless of whether you plan on making your own meals for backcountry hiking. They are perfect for preserving food, such as drying your own seasonal fruit, as well as herbs. They are also the only accepted cooking device for raw foodies. In addition, having dehydrated meals on hand can be good in a pinch for shift workers, providing an option for a nutritious, home cooked meal on the run. Finally, they can serve as an important addition to an emergency kit – something all of us should have, here on the West Coast in particular. If you choose to purchase a dehydrator, the industry gold standard devices are made by Excalibur, but a more affordable, yet still very good brand (and the one I own), is Gardenmaster.

Ingredients

  • ¾ lb lean ground beef*
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large eggplant, diced
  • 1 bell pepper, diced colour of your choice
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 stalk of celery, diced
  • 1 large carrot, grated
  • 2 cups cooked black beans, or 14oz can drained and rinsed
  • 6 cups fresh tomatoes and their juices, chopped; or 2-28oz cans
  • 1 5.5oz can tomato paste
  • 3 tbsp Mexican chili powder
  • 1 tsp chili flakes (or to taste)
  • 1-2 tsp chipotle puree (optional)
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 cup sweet corn kernels (fresh if in season, or frozen)
  • Sea salt, to taste
  • 1 cup cilantro or Italian parsley, chopped

Optional toppings

  • Sour cream
  • Fresh lime
  • Avocado, sliced
  • Green onions, chopped
  • Cilantro, chopped
  • Aged cheddar, grated

*For a vegetarian/vegan version, substitute 2 cups of beans, such as a combination of chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and pinto beans.

Method

Preheat oven to 375°F. While oven heats, prepare vegetables ensuring you dice finely and uniformly in size if you are planning to dehydrating afterward (smaller chunks will dehydrate faster).

Place eggplant and red pepper in a roasting pan, toss with 2 tbsp olive oil and a little salt and pepper before placing in the preheated oven. Roast for 30 minutes, or until tender and slightly caramelized.

While the vegetables roast, brown the beef in a large pot over medium heat. Monitor carefully, breaking up the beef with a spatula or wooden spoon periodically. After about five to seven minutes, when the beef is cooked through, but not dry, transfer to a bowl and set aside.

Return the pot to the stovetop and add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes until the onion is soft and translucent. Stir in celery and shredded carrot and continue to cook for another five minutes. Add the beef back in, along with the garlic, and stir. Add the next eight ingredients (through oregano). If the eggplant and pepper have finished roasting, stir those in at this time as well. Leave the corn and cilantro aside.

Mix the chili well and increase heat to medium-high. When the chili starts to gently bubble stir and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer partially covered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stir in corn 10 minutes prior to serving.

If serving right away, divide among bowls and serve alongside your choice of toppings with some fresh corn bread or toasted baguette for dipping.

Instructions for dehydrating

If you plan to dehydrate this, make sure you chop your vegetabls in realitvely small, uniform size (see image with eggplant and pepper). This will ensure everything dehydrates at the same rate. I also find adding grated veg to deydrated recipes works really well, which is why the carrots in this recipe are grated - zucchini is another good one to do this with.

When the chili is done, stir in cilantro or parsley, then allow it to cool completely before spreading onto the plastic dehydrator trays. Follow the manufacturers instructions for drying. I dry mine spread over four large trays at a heat of 160°F for four to six hours. I then check the trays and break up any chunks, continuing to dry for another two to four hours until there is no moisture left.

Once completely dry and cool, portion into Ziploc bags and store in the freezer until ready to take on the trail. I split this into four bags (two servings each).

To rehydrate on the trail, add one cup of filtered water per serving of chili to a pot along with the dried chili. Ideally allow to soak for 30-60 minutes before cooking, which will reduce cooking time and save on fuel. Simmer until hot and fully re-hydrated, about 5-10 minutes, adding more water, as needed, to reach desired consistency.

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