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January 16, 2004

Small-Time Cooks

Two things keep me warm this time of year, and one of them hangs on a hook by the door. The other runs me eight bucks a bottle. I was ready for a refill of the latter when a case burst through my door that told me I could move up to the expensive stuff.

This lackey ran all over town for a big mobster in the area, and he was afraid his wife was running all over town on him. He paid top dollar for easy info, and I was going to take my time.

Later that night, I met up with Maria at a diner up north for some good cooking. I wanted something hot, and Maria had just the thing for me…but for dinner, I had some chili and Maria had tortilla soup. We decided to make both vegetarian. Maria wanted to use Smart Ground, the vegetarian faux meat for the chili. It was so good that we could barely tell the chili was vegetarian.

Vegetarian Chili

1 (14.5-oz.) can black beans, drained, rinsed

1 (14.5-oz.) can kidney beans, undrained

1 (14.5-oz.) can garbanzo beans, undrained

1 package vegetarian crumbles (faux ground beef)

1 (14.5-oz.) can diced tomatoes

1 (14.5-oz.) can corn

1 onion, diced

3/4 cup shredded carrot

2 stalks celery, chopped

2 cloves minced garlic

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 tablespoon cumin

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

Water, as needed

Cheddar cheese

In a large pot, sautée onion and garlic with some olive oil until the onion is cooked. Add the faux meat, cook briefly, and add all spices except bay leaves. Add celery and carrot, and cook briefly. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer for an hour. Add a half cup of water if there isn't enough liquid, and add more chili powder and cumin to suit your taste. Serve hot with grated cheddar cheese.

Vegetarian Tortilla Soup

Vegetable oil

6 cloves minced garlic

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

1 onion, chopped

1 (29-oz.) can tomatoes

5 teaspoons cumin

1 tablespoon chili powder

3 bay leaves

6 cups vegetable broth (approximately 3 cans)

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 (14.5-oz.) can corn, drained

1 (14.5-oz.) can black beans, drained and rinsed

8 corn tortillas, sliced into half-inch strips

Monterey Jack cheese, grated

In a large pot, cook onion and garlic with some oil. After the onion cooks, add cilantro and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add everything else except the tortilla strips and cheese. Simmer for 30 minutes. While everything is simmering, heat about three quarters of an inch of oil in a frying pan until oil pops. Add tortilla strips, a few at a time, and cook for approximately one minute. Remove strips, then drain on plate with layered paper towels. Serve the soup with the tortilla strips and grated cheese.

If you want to make either of these non-vegetarian, here's how to do so: With the chili, substitute one pound of ground beef for the vegetarian faux meat. Use ground chuck or ground sirloin if you're mad cow fearful. Cook the meat first with some salt and pepper, and drain it on some paper towels before adding to the chili. For the tortilla soup, replace the vegetable broth with chicken broth and add a pound of shredded, cooked chicken into the soup in the last ten minutes of simmering. Leave out the black beans and corn unless you like them in there. To cook the chicken, sauté it in a pan with fajita seasoning or red pepper, lemon or lime, a little cumin, garlic, and salt. You can slice it into thick strips for cooking convenience. Shred the chicken with a fork after it is cooked and cooled.

For vegans: the faux meat Smart Ground is "Certified Vegan" by vegan.org, so have at it. Leave out the cheese in the dishes, and they're both vegan.