Chow Town

Chili mac can easily be made gluten- and dairy-free

The Best Damn Chili Mac
The Best Damn Chili Mac Special to The Star

More than three years ago I met an attractive, cheerful, food-loving yogi named Tara via Instagram.

At the time I was following a fairly strict plant-based diet, and I believe we found each other through our love of vegetarian food and equally appetizing food photos. Tara just happened to be vegan, but more notably I took kindly to the fact that she was a rather talented cook.

Nightly I would pore through my Instagram feed, excited to see what all my cyber-buddies had prepared and eaten in the span of roughly 8 to 12 hours.

Tara’s food was always enjoyable to look at, from the creamy overnight oats she’d devour in the morning to the comforting plates of pasta, roasted cauliflower every-which-kind-of-way, and other savories with which she’d finish off her yoga- and food-filled day.

But there was this one thing she prepared fairly often that had me wishing my smartphone came equipped to handle a tasting app: chili mac. Yes, amazing vegan chili mac.

If you aren’t familiar with chili mac, it is basically chili, cheese and macaroni all mixed together in a pot and then eaten in gluttonous excess, usually topped with more cheese and whatever else your little beating heart desires.

I was so excited when sweet Tara decided to share her recipe with all of us on Instagram who simultaneously drooled like beggars over her creamy, cheesy vegan delight every time she posted it. I was also surprised at how simple it was to throw together, while leaving room for creativity on days that allowed such time.

The original recipe was simply a can of good-quality chili (Tara used Amy’s organic), some vegan cheese, elbow macaroni and then some additional seasoning of liquid smoke and chili powder.

The liquid smoke was really what helped this dish not “taste” like a sad vegetarian imitation of something that should’ve been rich, robust and full of deep, meaty flavor. Once again, I was happily impressed by Tara’s ability to transform simple ingredients that didn’t compromise her ethically vegan lifestyle into something that was anything but simple in flavor, texture and comfort level and that would equally please her omnivorous husband.

Fast-forward to three years later. I’m now following a grain-free, paleo-ish diet that has helped me to shed over 25 pounds of very stubborn weight gain brought on by complications from thyroid and auto-immune disease, as well as to rid myself of nearly 90 percent of often-times crippling pain, manifested by chronic inflammation.

I also have had an old soft-tissue injury and tendinitis in my right hand, as well as chronic back issues, almost magically disappear after getting off my carb- and grain-heavy veggie diet. Sadly for my taste buds, this extreme dietary adjustment translated into no more pasta for a long, dreadful while. Sniff.

I was extremely diligent about not consuming grains and too many starchy carbs in the first several months of my healing journey, but I really began to crave Tara’s chili mac. As my body adapted to using food for energy and not storing it as fat, I learned that I possessed some wiggle room to splurge on unnecessary “evils” from time to time.

Determined to enjoy this great dish again, I came up with an adaptation of the original recipe using gluten-free pasta so I didn’t cause myself any significant amount of digestive distress.

For the record, carbohydrates are not evil and are a necessary part of macro-nutrient balance. However, when one suffers from a severely damaged metabolism and slow oxidation as I do, an excess of starchy carbs can really wreak havoc on the body, even if those foods are healthy edibles.

My body thankfully processes them a bit better today, but I still have to monitor my intake to keep my weight in check. If you are thinking of testing out an elimination diet or reducing your carb intake for weight loss or other medical reasons, please work with a qualified professional, such as a holistic dietitian, rather than taking advice from the Internet. Each of our bodies is different, with unique macro- and micro-nutrient requirements.

Knowing I needed to steer clear of the beans, which have formerly been a big source of inflammation for me, and most anything from a can, since I have no control over the ingredients, I opted to simply make a meaty, bean-free chili that could be used perfectly in Tara’s recipe, leaving leftovers that I could freeze for future meals.

Since I’m not a fan of most cheese, be it dairy-based or vegan, I’ve always used a great cashew-based nacho “cheese” sauce from the “Happy Herbivore” blog in its place.

And last but definitely not least, I needed to find a suitable gut-friendly, gluten-free pasta I could use. Ultimately I ended up using Ancient Harvest’s quinoa pasta, which can be found at Whole Foods and the health sections of select grocery stores. It worked perfectly. No odd, grainy or gummy texture for which many g-free pastas are notorious.

If you are vegan and would like to enjoy Tara’s original chili mac, click here to be redirected to her fledgling and beautifully written food blog.

If you want a meatier, gluten- and dairy-free version, just follow my adapted recipe. And please feel free to use a regular wheat-based pasta and any cup-and-a-half of cheese of your liking in place of the cashew-based recipe of which I’m fond.

If you’re lazy, just slap in your favorite canned chili and call it a day. That’s what I really adore about this recipe. You can make multiple substitutions to accommodate your personal lifestyle and tastes. Tara doesn’t mind, either.

Also, save this recipe for next year’s football season. It makes for awesome football-watching party chow, as you can make it to feed a crowd.

Beefy Beanless Chili

This recipe is paleo-friendly

2 tablespoons oil of choice

2 large carrots, diced

1 large celery stalk, diced

1 medium onion, diced

1 medium green pepper, diced

5 cloves garlic, minced

28-ounce can fire-roasted tomatoes

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke

1 tablespoon red chili powder

1 tablespoon cumin

1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt, to taste

1 teaspoon dried oregano leaf

1 teaspoon cocoa powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon smoky paprika

1/4 teaspoon sugar

Ground black pepper, to taste

1 pound ground beef

In a very large sauté pan or soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat.

Add the carrots, celery, onion, green pepper and garlic plus a pinch of salt; sauté for about 5 to 7 minutes or until the veggies begin to soften.

While the veggies are cooking, place your tomatoes, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and liquid smoke in a blender or food processor and blend until the mixture is completely smooth; set aside.

Next add the red chili powder, cumin, salt, oregano, cocoa powder, garlic powder, smoky paprika, sugar and black pepper to vegetables; sauté for another minute or just until everything becomes fragrant. Start on the low end of salt, maybe just a teaspoon, so that you can adjust by adding more if needed as you go.

Add the ground beef, breaking it up with a spatula and sautéing until it is completely cooked through and the bottom begins to brown.

Add the tomato sauce mixture to the pan, stirring carefully and making sure that everything gets mixed well.

Drop heat to medium-low, cover pan or pot with lid and allow chili mixture to simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. You can even drop the heat to low and let the chili go for about an hour, developing the flavor further.

Note: This batch will yield approximately four hearty servings of chili, topped with your garnishes of choice, if you choose to use it for something other than the chili-mac recipe. Otherwise you can freeze the excess in freezer-safe containers for up to three months for future meals.

The Best Damn Chili Mac

This recipe has gluten- and dairy-free modifications

1 1/2 cups chili, either canned or from the chili recipe provided above (I suggest using either Amy’s organic or Trader Joe’s brand)

1/4 cup restaurant-style salsa

1/4 teaspoon chili powder

1/4 teaspoon liquid smoke

One batch of Happy Herbivore’s dairy-free nacho cheese sauce, or 1 1/2 cups of your favorite shredded cheese (Tara uses Daiya brand for vegan)

8 ounces elbow macaroni or shell pasta, cooked according to directions (I use Ancient Harvest gluten-free quinoa elbows)

Heat the chili over medium heat in large sauté pan or soup pot. Add the salsa, chili powder and liquid smoke; mix well.

Stir in the cheese, mixing well to make sure it melts completely if using shredded. Finally add in the cooked pasta, mixing well to make sure all the pasta gets incorporated with the chili.

Serve chili mac immediately, topping with your favorite garnishes if desired.

Trish Minton is the pastry chef and baker for Pierpont’s at Union Station. Although she has a passion and love for all things baked and sugary, she particularly loves catering to clients who need gluten-free and vegan desserts.