Vegan Chili with Avocado Mousse


Having been vegetarian from the ages of seven to 20 and spending my entire life in the kitchen, I thought creating a contest-ready vegan chili would be a fairly simple task. But transforming a tried and true recipe for Paleo Pumpkin Chili, in all its meaty, bean-free glory, into more than five gallons of a meat-free, soy-free fall favorite turned out to be the most difficult cooking challenge I’ve ever taken on. When I heard about the Wild Willow Farms 5K & Chili Brew Fest during a local gathering of Rad Women in the Food Movement, I was inspired to enter the chili-cooking contest. I’m always looking for ways to get involved in the local community, and Wild Willow is a farm committed to local, sustainable and organic growing principles and education - causes close to my heart. Right around the same time, I connected with Christina Sanini of Pavona Dolci. She’s a badass entrepreneur committed to creating delicious food no matter the dietary restrictions. Her Gluten Free and Paleo desserts are out of this world. And she has a critical and refined palette, not to mention a creative and competitive spirit – the perfect ingredients for a cooking contest partner.

For the past three weeks, we’ve best testing and refining recipes. We started with a taste test of the base Paleo Pumpkin Chili recipe. This meat-forward dish is a fall favorite, balancing sweet pumpkin with tangy roasted tomatoes, spicy cayenne and a savory mole spice blend. Topped with a bright and creamy Avocado Cream Sauce, the chili is complex and satisfying. Based on Christina’s practiced knowledge of balancing flavors, we made some critical notes on this first batch and agreed to another round of testing using 100% vegan ingredients.

My cooking style has always been more heart-centered than technical. I understand the basics of food science, but when it comes to creating a dish, my M.O. is to tune into the resonance of the food and work to bring out their combined essence. I transform independent ingredients into a combined creation on a plate (or in a bowl) through a process that is just as much feeling as it is thinking. Christina also brings a heaping of heart and passion to every dish she designs, but her technical acumen is also very well refined. Creating Gluten Free and Paleo desserts that are consistent in flavor and texture requires consistency and attention to exact detail in measurements. I was grateful for her knowledge base on this one!

We both used the same base recipe for the second round and ended with results on opposite ends of the chili spectrum. We both began by researching meat alternatives. I wanted to steer clear of all soy products (I am sensitive to soy), so I went with a combination of diced eggplant and chickpeas to replicate the meaty texture and add in some plant protein. I kept the spice profile of the original version, and ended up with a tomato-forward stew similar to ratatouille. Without the fattiness of the meat, the acidic tomatoes buried a lot of the mole spice, and the eggplant was just too “eggplanty.”

On the flip side, Christina created a chunky and rich rendition with garbanzo and cannellini beans, shiitake mushrooms and soy sauce to replace the meat, paired with all roasted vegetables. Her dish’s flavor profile was rich and deep, best described as umami, but also lost most of the savory-sweet flavor of the spice blend. After a taste test with friends, we all agreed that neither recipe was exactly what we were looking for. We took our new insights back to the drawing board and put our heads together to reconfigure the ingredients list once again.

We talked through each ingredient and weighed it merits based on its texture and flavor profile. It was strategic planning in the kitchen – one of my favorite things! Once we landed on the ingredients list, we did some multiplication to produce five gallons. That’s a LOT of chili. Christina went out to buy a big-ass pot, and we were on our way with the preparations.

We agreed upon a less umami (no soy sauce), less tomatoey, and spicier iteration.  We really wanted to highlight the sweet/smoky/spicy mole flavor, so we roasted the vegetables – organic sugar pumpkins, butternut squash, cherry and heirloom tomatoes, and red and yellow chili peppers. We kept the original spice blend, agreeing that the balance of cumin, cinnamon, coriander and cacao was a highlight of the dish. For the meat substitute, we combined just enough shiitake mushrooms for a little meaty texture with garbanzo and navy beans. And our secret ingredient? Walnut oil, for its fat content and nutty richness. To top off the dish, we amped up the Avocado Cream Sauce with blended soaked cashews and orange zest to make a Creamy Avocado Mousse. The tangy citrus and silky avocado brought brightness that balanced out the heat of cayenne in the chili.

At the Chili Brew Fest, contestants are judged not only on the flavor and texture of their chili but also on their spirit. Bringing out our goofy and creative sides, we agreed to dress as monsters for the contest. Because who wouldn’t love being served a bowl of chili by a monster?! We wound up with a full body blue monster and sheep onesie, thanks to the generosity of Christina and her housemate’s robust costume closets. With some creative thinking we had a playful name for our spicy dish: Ewe Monster Chili. And Christina, with her graphic design skills, whipped up an adorable sign to promote the dish.

Christina Sanini and Kathryn Rogers dressed up to present their Vegan Ewe Monster Chili at the Wild Willow Farm 5K and Chili Brew Fest
Christina Sanini and Kathryn Rogers dressed up to present their Vegan Ewe Monster Chili at the Wild Willow Farm 5K and Chili Brew Fest

After hours of brainstormng, prepping and eating more chili than I ever wanted, the end product was something we were both really proud of. A true labor of love and nourishment that a hearty, well crafted, nearly 100% organic dish provides. And while we didn’t win any prizes at the contest (not even the Spirit Award, which was admittedly a little disappointing after sweating into a monster suit for three hours), the opportunity to share a collaborative dish with our community made it worth the effort. Not to mention the gallons of leftover chili that will get us through any crazy winter weather!

Up until today, chili has always been a simple dish. But when we started thinking about its potential to be award winning, it changed everything. It was a good reminder of how the pressure we put on things can amplify them into something more complex than their native state. Lessons learned from making gallons and gallons of chili.

My takeaways from our first cooking contest?

  • Every chili is different – really different.
  • 5 gallons of chili is a LOT. Having BIG pots is important.
  • Finding meat substitutes is much harder than it seems.
  • Working in partnership is always more fun than doing things alone.
  • Monster onesies are worth every ounce of sweat they invoke.
  • And the excitement that comes from sharing a dish prepared from fresh, mostly organic ingredients, that is a solid representation of combined palettes and cooking styles, and is a gift of love from its creators, is the best prize of all.

A big thanks to everyone who stopped by our table and sampled our recipe during Saturday’s event!

Hope ewe enjoy this monster of a recipe!

ewe monster vegan chili with avocado mousse

  • YIELD: 8 Servings
  • PREP: 2 hrs 0 min
  • COOK: 2 hrs 0 min
  • READY IN: 4 hrs 0 min

A spicy and sweet vegan chili with roasted winter squash, tangy tomatoes and a smoky spice blend, topped with a creamy and cooling Avocado Mousse.



  1. Cut heirloom tomatoes in half, then place on baking sheets alongside chili peppers and cherry tomatoes. Roast under the broiler for 10-15 minutes or until blackened to your taste. Remove from oven and let cool.
  2. Put roasted cherry tomatoes aside. Pull tops off roasted chili peppers and remove seeds. Put de-seeded chilis and roasted heirloom tomatoes in food processor and puree until smooth. Set aside.
  3. Cut pumpkin and butternut squash in half lengthwise and scrape out seeds and pulp. Roast, face down, in 375 degree oven for 40-45 minutes or until skin is soft. Remove to cool.
  4. Once roasted squash is cool, peel of skin and dice into 1/2 inch cubes. You can also puree some of the roasted squash if you prefer a more creamy than chunky chili.
  5. Heat 1-2 Tbsp of walnut oil in large pot over medium heat, then add diced onion and sauté until clear and soft. Add diced mushrooms and stir to coat.
  6. Add entire spice mixture except 1 tsp coriander and 1/2 tsp sea salt to onion mixture in pot and heat while stirring for 1-2 minutes or until fragrant.
  7. Add roasted pumpkin and squash, tomato and pepper puree, canned tomatoes, roasted cherry tomatoes, and beans to pot. Stir and cover to simmer over medium-low heat. Add vegetable broth as desired for chili thickness. Add in additional walnut oil to taste.
  8. Simmer for 25-35 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.
  9. To make the Avocado Mousse: While chili is cooking, cut, peel and de-seed the avocados and put them in a food processor with the zest of the orange, plus its juice, along with juice of 1/2 lemon and 1/2 lime. Add 1 tsp coriander, 1/2 tsp sea salt and 1/4 cup soaked and drained cashews and puree until smooth and silky.
  10. Remove chili from heat and serve in bowls with a big scoop of avocado mousse on top. Enjoy!