I’ve never thought of chili as beautiful food. Comfort food in the winter, sure. One-pot lazy food, definitely. But since I’ve become more interested in food styling and food photography, I’ve come to learn that every food can be beautiful in its own way, and almost any food can be styled and photographed beautifully. I say almost any food because, as a vegan, I refuse to believe that sausage links can be beautiful. #sorrynotsorry
With some free time on my hands over the holidays, I made an effort to style this humble lentil and bean chili in a few different ways to show off just how gorgeous chili can be. Of course, having colorful garnishes like cilantro and red onions is key to making this dish attractive. Otherwise, you’d just be looking at a reddish brown gloopy blob. Gross.
This first shot below is the most basic and rustic in this series. It’s just a pot of chili with a few garnishes of green onions, cilantro, and red onions. The only food props are a dish towel and a simple wooden spoon. To me, this shot represents rustic home cooking, like the kind of food you’d be served if you visited The Pioneer Woman’s ranch house. Or, a saloon in Kentucky.
This next shot is “rustic plus,” which is exactly what it sounds like. It still has a simple, rustic vibe but we’re getting a bit fancier with some toppings and garnishes. Because cilantro is a big flavor booster for this dish, I wanted to include a bunch of cilantro to accentuate the chopped cilantro that dots the chili. And because I didn’t want to look at a reddish brown gloopy blob anymore, I also added a dollop of cashew sour cream on top of the chili and a few more garnishes. You can find my recipe for cashew sour cream here.
Following our rustic plus, we have a chili bar, or what I imagine a chili bar would be like because I have never been to a chili bar. The single pot surrounded by smaller bowls of toppings reminds me of a family-style party, where everyone eats from the same dish. The colors are fun and vibrant, and the photo says “you’re invited, dig in!” At least I think it does.
Now we have a shot that is dear to my heart – the “mama and baby” shot. It’s the same pot of chili as in photo #2, but this time we’ve added a single-serving bowl to showcase how you can customize your own bowl with various toppings.
And finally, we have a very different shot in which I’ve repurposed the chili for chili cheese fries. The chili is no longer the focus in this dish. To me, the focus is decadence. At least for most adults who try to eat remotely healthy, chili cheese fries are an indulgence. I mean, maybe. I had them twice this week and I didn’t feel guilty or indulgent. I was just like damn, vegan food is amazing.
Hope you enjoyed this brief description of how I styled my humble gloopy blob chili!
Vegan Lentil and Bean Chili
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 carrots, diced
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 small jalapeños, diced (keep seeds for heat)
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
- 2 heaping tablespoons of tomato paste
- 2 cups vegetable broth
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cup dried lentils
- 1 15 ounce can of black beans, drained
- 1 15 ounce can of chickpeas, drained
- Half of a 15 ounce can of organic corn, drained
- 1-2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar
- 2-3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- Garnishes: additional cilantro, diced red onions, sliced green onions, sliced avocado, hot sauce, vegan cheese, vegan sour cream, etc.
- Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Once hot, add the onion, carrot, celery, and bell pepper. Season with salt & pepper. Cook for 5 minutes until the vegetables begin to soften.
- Add the garlic and jalapeños, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 1 minute or until fragrant.
- Add the spices, stirring constantly for 30 seconds to 1 minute until fragrant and the spices have coated the vegetables.
- Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, broth, bay leaves, and a few pinches of salt and pepper. Stir to combine and allow the mixture to come to a simmer.
- Once simmering, add the lentils. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15-20 minutes.
- Add the black beans and chickpeas. Bring to a gentle boil. Then, reduce the heat to low and add the corn.
- Cover the pot and simmer for 20-25 minutes. Taste for seasonings.
- Once off heat, stir in the apple cider vinegar and cilantro.
- Add additional garnishes, if desired.