Last weekend, my dear old friend Bruno came to town for a square dance. I always work Saturdays. Saturday nights are just one of the things you give up when you work in a restaurant. So I had no illusions of being able to go with him to the square dance, although I desperately wanted to.
But for some reason, on Friday night while I was at work, my boss asked if I would like to have Saturday off. I tried not to appear too eager, but I'm not a good liar, and within seconds I had secured my Saturday. <Cue confetti and fireworks.>
The dance itself was a total blast. I used to go dancing twice a week, with a fervor most people reserve for chocolate and cat videos. It's quite possibly the most fun you can have while sweating, and the fact that you get to wear twirly dresses is a major plus. But really, the reason I'm even bothering to tell you about the dance is because of Bruno.
One long summer when I lived in western North Carolina, I was the luckiest girl on earth. It's very hard for me to sum up this time of my life because it was so full. Every day was a riotous jumble of events, punctuated by sweetly rolling hills and hollows, fresh goat's milk, and the best friends I have ever had. I almost hesitate to talk about it because nothing I can say will do it justice. I was working on a farm, living among the goats and hauling milk buckets, trucking cheese to the farmer's market twice a week. When I wasn't working, I was dancing or helping other farmers or fishing or watching Shakespeare in the park.
But again, this doesn't convey at all how those days felt. They weren't carefree. But the cares I did have were somehow secondary, and vastly so, to the feeling that I had found something extraordinary. Something I had not thought it was possible to find. And last weekend, Bruno said it simply and perfectly--"Those were the best days of my life."
I have always danced around saying this. Mostly because it's an admission that life isn't as good now and that perhaps it will never be as good. But hearing him say it was a relief of sorts. I wasn't the only one who had felt this way. This also sums it up neatly--They were the best days of my life, and I was surrounded by people who were having the best days of their lives. And during Bruno's visit, as we danced and talked and stayed up late, I felt that part of my heart grow full again--the part that says these are the best days of your life. And I can see that this is always happening. That though we are always moving forward into the complexities of a full life, we are capable of creating the best days of our lives all the time.
Note: We like to toast and grind our own dried chile peppers for better flavor, but you can certainly just use your favorite chili powder or your own combination of dried chiles.
Toast in a dry skillet over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 3 minutes:
2 chipotles moreños (or regular dried chipotles)
3 guajillo chiles
2 ancho chiles
Grind the toasted chiles to a powder in a spice grinder. Set aside.
In a food processor, pulse to crumble:
8 ounces tempeh
Heat in a Dutch oven over medium heat:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Add the crumbled tempeh and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and crisp, about 10 minutes.
Add and sauté until tender and starting to brown:
1 medium onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 jalapeños or serranos, seeded and chopped (leave the seeds in if you like very spicy foods)
Add the reserved ground chiles and:
8 garlic cloves, sliced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Sauté until fragrant, about 3 to 5 minutes. Allow the spices and tomato paste to form a dark brown crust (or "fond") on the bottom of the pan. This browning action will create lots of flavor for your chili.
Pulse in the food processor until chopped fine:
8 ounces mushrooms
Add the mushrooms to the Dutch oven and allow them to cook until they have released their liquid, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen the brown bits. Let the mushroom liquid boil off.
Add a little at a time, allowing most of the liquid to boil off as you add it:
One 12-ounce beer (a dark beer or lager)
14-ounce can whole tomatoes, chopped (I like to "chop" canned tomatoes by using kitchen shears to cut up the tomatoes in the can--it's less messy)
3 cups cooked beans of your choice (approx. 2 cans)
1 cup liquid--vegetable stock, bean cooking liquid, or even water will work
Let the chili simmer, covered, for about 30 to 45 minutes until it is thick and the ingredients have had time to get to know one another. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with:
Chopped green onions
Sour cream or a vegan sour cream substitute