Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans


Sweet Potatoes Make Great Vegetarian Chili

Cold weather has returned here in St. Louis  — so naturally I’m craving a hearty dish.

When the temps turn chilly, I turn to chili.  But with sweet potatoes?  Sounds weird, I know.  They work brilliantly though, as I discovered.

Most of us know that the naturally sweet flavor of sweet potatoes is enhanced by even more sweetness.  Think Thanksgiving candied sweet potatoes with marshmallows.

Less well known is the sweet potato’s affinity for spicy flavors, particularly dried chilies.  To see what I mean, try adding a dusting of ground cayenne pepper to the top of those candied sweet potatoes.  It’s an amazing combination — and a revelation.

Sweet potato chili perfectly showcases the marriage of spicy and sweet.  The first bite will make your tongue smile.

The second bite?  You’ll probably decide this is the best vegetarian chili you’ve ever eaten.

Recipe:  Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans

This is really nothing more than a basic chili recipe — except that I substitute sweet potatoes for ground beef.  If you’ve ever made chili, you already know how to make this dish.  Even if you’ve never made chili, you’ll still find this dish is pretty easy.

The most important decision you need to make when preparing this dish is what kind of chile powder to use.  There’s no need to buy something special if you don’t want to.  I discuss this in more detail in the Recipe Notes section below.  (If you want to read even more about chile powder – and the difference between chile and chili powders – you may want to read my Vegetarian Chili recipe.

This recipe yields 5 – 6 quarts.  If you’re going to make chili, I figure you might as well make a lot of it.  It freezes quite well.  You’ll need a pot big enough to hold everything – I usually use a 6 – 7 quart Dutch oven.


  • 3 sweet potatoes (2 – 3 pounds) peeled and diced into ½ inch cubes
  • 2 large onions (~2 ½ cups) diced
  • 3 large jalapeno peppers diced fine
  • 3 – 5 garlic cloves diced fine
  • 2 – 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 2 – 3 tablespoons mild or medium chile powder, or a mix of the two (see Recipe Notes for discussion and alternatives)
  • 2 teaspoons chipotle powder (or to taste; may omit if too spicy)
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • water 
  • 3 15-ounce cans black beans rinsed and drained
  • 3 – 4 cups frozen corn

To decrease cooking time, I blanch the sweet potatoes in the microwave.  This is an optional step; see Recipe Notes below.

  1. Wash sweet potatoes, peel, and dice in cubes of about ½ inch.  Place in microwave safe dish with cover, and microwave for 4 – 5 minutes (you’re trying to soften them, not cook them completely).
  2. Meanwhile, peel and dice onions.   Stem and deseed jalapeno peppers and dice fine.  Peel garlic cloves and dice fine.
  3. Turn heat to medium and place Dutch oven or large pot on heat.  When hot, add oil.
  4. When oil is hot (it will shimmer; this takes just a few seconds) add onion, garlic, and jalapeno pepper.  Season with salt and pepper.  Turn heat down to medium-low.
  5. Meanwhile, rinse and drain black beans in a strainer.
  6. When onion mixture is soft (5 – 7 minutes) add sweet potato cubes and stir to mix.
  7. Add chile powders, cumin, and coriander.  Stir to coat sweet potatoes and sauté for about a minute.
  8. Add tomatoes and black beans.  Add water until mix is as liquid as you like (I usually fill an empty 28-ounce tomato can with water and add the whole can).  Increase heat to high and bring chili to a simmer.
  9. Reduce heat to medium low to maintain chili at a simmer.  After 10 minutes, taste and add more chile powder if you wish.  Then simmer for an additional 50 minutes (longer if you wish; this will hold well on low heat for an hour or two).
  10. After an hour, the potatoes should be tender and the chili tasty.  Adjust seasoning.  Stir in the corn and cook until done (3 – 5 minutes), and serve.

Recipe Notes

  • Blanching the sweet potatoes in the microwave isn’t strictly necessary.  I suggest doing so because you will be cooking them with tomatoes, which are acidic.   When you cook anything in an acidic solution, it can take longer — and sweet potatoes can be particularly problematic.  This isn’t an issue if you don’t mind testing the sweet potatoes from time to time to see how they’re coming along.  But by partially cooking them in the microwave first, you eliminate some of the guesswork as to when they will be finished.  Roast sweet potatoes are awesome in this dish, but they will take a little extra time.
  • Chile Powders.  You don’t need to get a particular chile powder for this recipe.  I use both mild and medium Hatch chile powders, as well as chipotle powder.  An online source for both is The Chile Shop.  But you can use any chile powder(s) you prefer (or that are readily available).  Ancho chile powder (which is sold in many supermarkets) has great taste and is fairly mild.  If you can’t find chipotle powder, use half as much cayenne pepper, or just leave it out.  Chipotle powder has a nice smoky flavor that adds an interesting dimension to this dish, but it’s not essential.  For a more complete discussion of chile powder substitutions, see my vegetarian chili recipe.
  • When I make this recipe, I use 2 tablespoons of medium chile powder and 1 tablespoon of mild.  This produces a batch of chili that I regard as mild in flavor, with just a slight ping of heat to it.  But that’s my palate; your taste will differ.  You may know from experience that the quantities of chilies I call for are too much or too little.  If you are concerned about the heat level, use half the amount specified, and then taste after the chili has been simmering for about 10 minutes.  This is a good point to adjust the chile level.  Don’t wait until the end to adjust, because chilies need time to simmer in order to develop the full depth of their flavor.
  • You can substitute chili powder for the chile powder(s) in this recipe.  In that case, use 3 – 5 tablespoons of chili powder.  Reduce the amounts of cumin and coriander by about half, or eliminate them altogether.  The flavor won’t be as crisp if you use chili powder, but this will still be a pleasant dish.
  • Black beans.  Black beans go particularly well in this dish and I recommend them.  But you could substitute dark red kidney beans, pinto beans, or a mix of beans.  Canned beans are easy to use and have acceptable flavor, but make sure you wash off the gunk they’re packed in.  If you wish, you can prepare dried black beans for this dish – the texture of the beans will be somewhat better – but that will increase the preparation time.
  • You can easily cut the quantities of everything in half if you want to prepare a smaller batch.  I like all the leftovers, so I never do.

Serving Suggestions, Variations

  • Minced scallions or cilantro would make a nice garnish for this dish.  Just scatter a bit on top of each bowl, and serve.
  • If you particularly like the flavor of fresh cilantro, you can also mince a handful or two of cilantro leaves and stir them into the chili just before serving.
  • Oyster crackers always make a nice addition to chili.
  • Cooked rice, stirred into the chili towards the end of cooking, will make this hearty dish even more substantial.
  • Cinnamon goes well with sweet potatoes and chilies.  Think Moroccan cuisine.  Although I have yet to try it, I suspect adding 2 – 4 teaspoons of ground cinnamon would add a new dimension to this dish.  If you add cinnamon, you might also want to increase the amount of ground cumin and coriander, and probably lose the chipotle chile powder (replace with cayenne if you want more zing).  Substituting chickpeas for black beans would complete the transformation, making the dish taste more Maghreb than Mexico.  

The King Is Dead.  Long Live the King!

I used to think my Vegetarian Chili was my best chili recipe — the King.  Nothing against meat, mind you — I love a meat chili, too.  But the flavor of meat chili is in-your-face, while veggie chili is more nuanced.

And I wasn’t planning to revisit chili so soon after writing about my veggie version.  But recently I’ve been thinking about new ways to use sweet potatoes (like Sweet Potato Soup), and the weather has been conducive to chili making.  So of course I had to see whether sweet potatoes would work in chili.

Do they ever!  This dish is so good that I had to jump it to the top of my recipe queue so I could share it with you.

My veggie chili?  Really good.

Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans?  The new king.


♡Nina said...

When I first found out about this recipe I thought that there was ground beef in it, but this recipe above that I just read dont have any meat in it because the sweet potatoes was substituted for the meat, so I was going to make it with meat tomorrow. And I think I still will cuz I mean, chili without meat unless you're vegetarian okay but I'm not a vegetarian so I'm going to put ground beef in it and I think it would taste just as good. But this recipe sounds very delicious too so I'll probably try it. Someday.I love
Sweet potatoes. And I'll love them in this recipe. With meat. Yummo!

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Nina, we usually use meat when we make chili, but obviously not always. :-) Beef would be good in this dish, but pork would be even better. In fact we have a similar recipe that uses pork: Thanks for the comment.