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Bring on the beans: Spicy Peppers with Beans (Chili)

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I was using a soup spoon to scrape the shallow puddle of spicy, rich, dark red gravy from the bottom of a deep bowl. "How could anyone even miss meat in this chili?" I posed the question to my husband as we sat at the table finishing our meal of a bean-dominated piquant chili.

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"In Texas, they wouldn't call this chili," said my carnivorous dining partner. He was right. True chili in Texas is abundant with meat and devoid of beans. It is best described as peppers with meat, or chili con carne.

Yes, I'll admit some may withhold the chili label from this well-seasoned tomato-based concoction of peppers and beans. But, it definitely merits the "healthful" tag. You could also file the recipe in the categories of flavorful and satisfying.

In my quest to make 2012 a year of good food, good health and good life, I asked a few health-conscious friends what one food they recommend I add to my menus. I didn't have to wait long for a suggestion from registered dietitian Kelly Jo Zellmann. "Beans," she said. "There are many to choose from, they are versatile, economical and available throughout the year. And, beans pack a powerful punch when it comes to nutrition."

Common beans, such as red, kidney, black and cannellini beans, fall into the plant category called legumes. The beans are actually the seed of the plant. With the nutrients and energy capable of creating a new plant, it's no wonder that beans are so nutrient-rich, packed with protein, dietary fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals.

I asked Zellmann if she would share a recipe for one of her favorite ways to use beans. She gave me a recipe for chili that she found at AllRecipes.com. That recipe used some beans along with corn and vegetarian burger crumbles. I modified that recipe by leaving out the corn and crumbles and adding more beans.

The generous protein content of beans makes them a great substitute for meat in many dishes, allowing you to avoid the concentrated fat and cholesterol contained in many animal foods.

Since beans are a rich source of dietary fiber, they can contribute to maintaining a healthy weight. Fiber promotes a sense of fullness after a meal. Because fiber promotes bowel regularity, beans are a food that can help reduce risk of colon cancer. Legumes are low-glycemic foods, making them a smart choice for those who must stabilize blood sugar levels.

If you are in charge of the chili pot for the Super Bowl game this year, do your friends a favor. Serve Spicy Peppers with Beans (Chili). I can't believe anyone will miss the meat in this robust and satisfying blend of peppers, beans and heat.

My meat-eating husband had his second helping of Spicy Peppers with Beans (Chili) about five days after his first bowlful. He topped it with a small dollop of sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese and chopped red onions. "Wow, this is good chili," he said. Based on his reaction, I suggest you prepare Spicy Peppers with Beans (Chili) a few days before serving and store it in the refrigerator. The flavor gets better with age - even without the meat.

Spicy Peppers with Beans (Chili)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 medium onion, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

2 jalapeno peppers, minced

4 cloves garlic, chopped

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon ground cumin

2 tablespoons dried oregano leaves

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 cup chili powder

1 tablespoon ground black pepper

2 (4-ounce) cans chopped green chile peppers

3 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, crushed

2 (15-ounce) cans red beans, rinsed and drained

2 (15-ounce) cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained

Heat oil in a 6- to 8-quart pot. Add onion, celery, green pepper, red pepper and jalapeno peppers and sauté until vegetables are tender. Add garlic, bay leaves, cumin, oregano, salt, chili powder and black pepper and sauté for 2 or 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover the pot and cook for 3 minutes. Stir in chopped green chile peppers, tomatoes and beans. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer 45 minutes. If you like, serve with light sour cream or non-fat plain yogurt, shredded cheese and minced red or green onions. Makes 8 servings.

Tips from the cook

--Pinch dried oregano leaves as you sprinkle them into the pot to release more flavor.

--I like to put the canned whole tomatoes into the blender to puree them before adding to the pot. I am careful to leave little chunks of tomatoes in the blended mixture.

--If you like thick chili, add just 2 cans of tomatoes. You can always add the third can later, if needed.

--Kelly Jo Zellmann, RD, LD, reminded me that although canned beans are fast and easy to use, dried beans can be used in any recipe that calls for canned. One cup dried beans yields about 3 cups cooked. A 15-ounce can holds approximately 1 1/2 cups of beans. Cook up a bunch of beans and freeze in quantities equal to can size.

--Remember that you can eliminate some of the beans and add ground meat, chopped cooked chicken or vegetarian burger crumbles.

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