Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili

Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili
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black bean and sweet potato chili
A hearty dinner!

We were looking through Modern Jewish Cooking, by Leah Koenig, the other day, when we spotted a recipe for Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili. Normally, we wouldn’t really give such a recipe another thought — after all, we know how to make chili, and we can figure out how to add sweet potatoes to our chili — but this one was different. It called for a number of ingredients that we’ve never thought of putting in chili, so we thought, hey, why not try it?

Oh, and just so you know, this doesn’t really seem like a Jewish recipe, other than by being Kosher, provided that you use Kosher ingredients, of course.

So, what are those special ingredients? Well, cocoa, balsamic vinegar, and brown sugar. All of which make some sense; after all, vinegar and brown sugar go in barbecue sauce, and cocoa (and chocolate) is often used in mole sauces, so why not have them all in a batch of chili?

We did change the recipe slightly, cutting the oil and garlic in half, using only cumin seeds instead of ground cumin, and using two sweet potatoes instead of one, so, if you change those back, you’ll have the version in the book.

Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili

Yield: 4-6 servings

Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili


  • 2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely diced
  • 2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1 Tbs brown sugar
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 Tbs chili powder
  • 1/2 Tbs cumin seeds
  • 1 Tbs cocoa
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne (or other spicy) pepper, or to taste
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 2 Tbs balsamic vinegar
  • 2 cans black beans, drained, liquid reserved
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tsp kosher salt

Abbreviated Instructions

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, sweet potato, and brown sugar. Cook, stirring often, until vegetables are slightly tender, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, chili powder, cumin seeds, cocoa, and cayenne, and cook, stirring often, until fragrant, 2 minutes.

Add tomatoes, vinegar, beans, 1/2 cup reserved liquid, and water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer partially covered and stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 30 minutes.

Add salt, stir, taste, and adjust seasoning, if needed.

Ingredient discussion:

chili ingredients
Brown sugar? Balsamic vinegar? In chili? Yes!
spice mixture
Sometimes we measure all our spices into a little custard cup so we just add it when the time comes.

Of course, we used black beans that we cooked ourselves. It’s not difficult, and, from a pound bag of dried beans, we get the equivalent of four cans. We have about half of the beans we made in the freezer for quick, easy meals. Making beans from scratch isn’t any less expensive, but they do taste better. If you want to make your own, we give the best recipe we know right here, although, for this, you can omit the addition of seasonings at the end. While we often use better-quality balsamic vinegar for salads, etc., we think any kind will work in this recipe.

Procedure in detail:

making chili
Stir everything around to get the brown sugar broken up, then cook until the potatoes are beginning to soften.

Cook vegetables. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. When hot, add the diced onion, carrot, sweet potatoes, and brown sugar. Break up the brown sugar and stir everything around to coat. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are beginning to soften. You can err on the timing here since you’ll be simmering everything later.

adding spices
The cocoa adds a nice dark color to this chili.

Add seasoning. Once the potatoes have softened a bit, stir in the garlic, chili powder, cumin seeds, cocoa, and cayenne pepper. Remember that cayenne pepper is pretty spicy, so err on the side of too little; you can always add more later, but if you add too much now, you might be suffering through dinner. Stir everything to coat, and cook for about 2 minutes, or until you start smelling the garlic and cumin.

adding balsamic vinegar
To us, this might have been the oddest addition, balsamic vinegar, even though we often add a touch of vinegar to soups, beans, and other dishes.

Add tomatoes and beans. Ah, smelling good? Good! Add those tomatoes, vinegar, beans, and a half-cup of the reserved bean liquid. For the water, we generally swish out the tomato can and add that. We paid for all those tomatoes, so we’re going to get them all. Plus, we have to rinse the can before recycling, anyway. Once all that’s added, stir and bring to a boil.

simmering chili
After 30 minutes, the chili will thicken up as some of the potatoes and beans break apart.

Simmer. Lower the heat to a simmer, and cook, partly covered, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender and the flavors have melded, about 30 minutes or so. You’ll have no trouble keeping this simmering longer, if needed, or even turning off the heat and rewarming it later. We actually think chili is better the next day, anyway.

Season. Add the salt, but we would, and did, use the amount listed as a guide. Taste your chili and add salt as you see fit, stirring and tasting until perfect.

Serve. We like to have our chili with a bit of something else, so, with our first meal, we had brown rice, and the next day we had the leftovers with a bit of elbow macaroni.

While this was pretty good, it was odd to taste the balsamic vinegar in it (when we season with vinegar, you can’t taste it as a separate ingredient). You really couldn’t taste the cocoa, so that seemed as if it just darkened the sauce, making it seem as if you cooked the chili for hours. The brown sugar added too much sweetness along with the sweet potato, but, maybe that’s because we doubled down on the orange tubers. Finally, to us, it seemed as though something was lacking, but we couldn’t really figure our what. It was as if the dish was missing some spice or flavor that we normally associate with bean chili. Overall, we’re glad we tried it, and, if we make it again, we’ll be omitting the balsamic vinegar (still using just a touch of white wine vinegar at the end for seasoning, of course), and the sugar. Three stars.

Worth the trouble?

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