Chipotle Chili: I Can’t Believe it’s not Bacon!
You’d have to be blind to miss the fact that bacon is having an extended moment in the foodie scene. This past year alone I’ve come across bacon chocolate, bacon jam and bacon-chocolate-chip pancake mix on the sweet side, and bacon-everything on the savory side.
OK, I get it. Bacon is supposedly very delicious. It makes everything taste smoky and yummy. But having developed my own fair share of unhealthy food vices in the past 34+ years of bacon-free living, I’m determined not to succumb to the bacon craze and get addicted to one more thing that isn’t good for me. Especially when the universe provides such an elegant, vegetarian, healthy and bacon-esque flavor substitute in the form of chipotle peppers, whose flavor is addictive in its own right.
Chipotles are not a specific variety of pepper, but rather derive from regular, over-ripe jalapeños that have been transformed via smoke-drying into a divine new species of deliciousness: a smoky-sweet, spicy, complexly-flavored pepper that transforms vegetarian soups, stews, bean dishes, cooked vegetables and sauces into fuller-bodied, almost meaty-tasting dishes. It’s pure alchemy. Chipotle goes beautifully with beans (especially black beans), sweet potatoes (or winter squash), cilantro and lime.
Just as the nicotine patch is useful for weaning smokers from their cigarette habit, I think chipotle is similarly effective to transition hard-core meat-eaters into a more plant-based diet that still feels ‘substantial’ and hits some of the same flavor buttons found in bacon-tinged foods. Besides, unlike fatty bacon, which packs on the pounds and clogs the arteries, capsaicin-rich hot peppers, like jalapeños (and by derivation, chipotles), are super low calorie and appear to actually increase metabolism for several hours after eating them, according to the latest research out of UCLA. And while I’m not suggesting that a high-chipotle diet will promote weight loss by any means, it most certainly will not promote weight gain in the way that, say, a high-bacon diet would.
Even more interesting are some of the therapeutic benefits of regular (think daily) capsaicin intake. When eaten, the burning heat that capsaicin produces actually overwhelms nerves that transmit pain signals (particularly in the gut) when they’re chronically exposed to it, and it desensitizes them. For this very reason, a gastroenterologist colleague of mine actually recommends a daily dose of capsaicin-rich foods (he’s partial to a morning Virgin Mary drink with tabasco) to help ease the pain associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). So take that, bacon!
Making the Swap
I typically use chipotle in one of two forms: as a dried powder (I get mine from Kalustyan’s in NYC) or canned in Adobo sauce. You’ll find the latter in the Mexican section of most reasonably large supermarkets, or in specialty markets/bodgeas that carry a lot of Mexican foods. Chipotles are also sold as whole, dried peppers in specialty markets, but I tend to find that I can meet all of my chipotle needs with the more convenient powdered and canned forms.
Because chipotles have an element of heat to them that bacon does not, you’ll want to approach your substitution carefully, depending on your tolerance for spiciness. If you’re using canned chipotles in adobo sauce, you can also consider just using the adobo sauce itself rather than mincing the pepper and adding those. Since the peppers have been marinating in it, the adobo sauce (a tomato and vinegar based concoction) conveys the wonderful chipotle flavor with a little bit less heat. Whatever you use, start conservatively and taste as you go.
My Favorite Healthy Chipotle Recipes
- Chipotle-Black Bean Filling: use the “filling” from this Tamale recipe from the Mod Mex cookbook as I do: in omelets, breakfast burritos, tamales… or even as a bean dip for raw veggies. I strongly recommend that you double or triple it; it’s
- Beluga Lentil Salad: substitute the chorizo that the recipe calls for with 1 tsp of dried, powdered chipotle. Hard-cooked eggs are optional (I usually leave them out). This is a fantastically delicious, sophisticated bean salad with a substantial kick to it owing to the roasted poblanos and the powdered chipotle I substitute. (To read more about my favorite variety of lentils–belugas– check out this previous post.)
- Sweet Potato Salad with Chipotle Lime Dressing: I’m so over those heavy, mayonnaisey summer potato salads. This is a super-simple potato salad alternative that uses Vitamin A and fiber-rich sweet potatoes and a bright, lively chipotle dressing that adds some kick. Stick to just 1/3 cup olive oil; it’s plenty.
- Chipotle Lime Marinade/Sauce: Every once in awhile, you stumble on a random internet recipe that just rocks your world. I’ve been using this one for years, though I cut down the oil it calls for by at least half (3/4 cup is a bit excessive, no?). I love this fiery, bright orange sauce on fish tacos, or as a marinade for grilled fish or shrimp. (It would work great for chicken breast or tofu as well.) For the fish tacos: I just grill some firm white fish fillets with olive oil, salt and pepper (wild-caught Alaskan/Pacific Halibut, Pacific/Alaskan Cod or Sea Bass are sustainable choices that work well), and serve it with some shredded cabbage for crunch, chopped red onions (optional), chopped cilantro and diced avocado alongside warmed organic corn tortillas with the sauce on the side. I let people build their own tacos to spec.
- Collard Greens with Chipotle and Garlic: Just because traditional southern collards are typically made with ham hock, bacon or pork fatback, doesn’t mean you can’t achieve an equally appealing smoky flavor without the pig. You’ll see what I mean after tasting this lovely and simple preparation.
- Pumpkin and Yellow Pepper Soup with Chipotle: OK, so the recipe technically calls for Smoked Paprika, but I substitute powdered chipotle instead for a little more of a kick. It’s a little out of season now, but you’ll want to file this one away for Thanksgiving time… trust me.