Beans, squash, and corn are the three sisters, the main agricultural crops of many Native American people. Combined with four different peppers, cumin, sage and oregano, they create a deeply flavored, satisfying dish. While looking for a great plant-based chili recipe, I was inspired by the essays and recipes in Fernando and Marlene Divina’s wonderful book, Foods of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions (Ten Speed Press, 2004). When I first developed this recipe I was still using canned beans but I have since changed my ways and now I use those delicious Rio Zape beans from Rancho Gordo. I also added roasted sweet red peppers. I like this version better. This recipe uses masa harina, which is cornmeal processed with lime juice and it has a distinctive flavor. If masa harina is unavailable, plain fine-ground cornmeal can be substituted. This recipe looks long and complicated but it goes together easily.


  • 2 cups of Rio Zape beans or another pinto-like bean
  • One bay leaf
  • 2-1/2 cups of diced red or yellow onion
  • 4 cups of quartered Cremini mushrooms, approx. 2/3 pound
  • 2 tbsp. of thinly sliced garlic
  • ½ cup of white wine (or stock or beer)
  • 1 teas. black pepper
  • ½ teas. cayenne pepper
  • 1-1/2 teas. smoked Spanish paprika
  • ½ teas. crushed red peppers
  • 1 teas. ground cumin
  • 2 cups of corn kernels
  • 4 cups of winter squash, peeled, seeded and quartered
  • 1 cup of roasted sweet red peppers, chopped
  • 3 cups of low-sodium vegetable stock
  • 2 tbsp. sage leaves, minced
  • 2 tbsp. oregano leaves, minced
  • 3 cups of diced tomatoes
  • Juice and zest of two lemons
  • 1 tbsp. kosher salt
  • 3 tbsp. masa harina


Put the rinsed beans in a large dutch oven with five cups of water and bring to a boil. Uncover the pot and let the beans boil for three minutes and then turn down the heat to medium. Add the bay leaf and let the beans start cooking while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Saute onions in a dry pan until they start to soften and stick to the pan. Add the garlic and the mushrooms and a few spoonsful of the wine (stock or beer) stirring to bring up the sticky brown bits. Do this a couple of times until the mushrooms wilt and the onions are soft. Add them to the beans.

Combine the cayenne pepper, paprika, red pepper flakes and cumin in a dry sauté pan over medium-high heat. Carefully toast for 3-5 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Transfer toasted seasonings to the pot with the vegetables and beans. Add more water if necessary to keep the water just above the beans and vegetables. Let the mixture simmer, uncovered, for an hour or two to let the beans start to soften. Check the water level occasionally to make sure it doesn’t get too low.

(This is a good time to prep the corn, squash and peppers and to make some cornbread, polenta or rice to go with the beans.)

When the beans have softened, add the corn, squash, stock, sage and oregano to the bean pot. Keep the pot at a simmer and cook for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are cooked and the beans are soft.

Remove one cup of broth and mix in the masa, stirring the mixture to make a smooth paste. Spoon the paste into the pot. Add the tomatoes, lemon juice and zest and salt and let it simmer for another 30 minutes. Taste the chili and adjust the seasoning as needed. Serve with corn bread or polenta or rice. Top with some chopped avocado or serve with some corn chips and guacamole.

This makes about 4 quarts of chili or approximately 8 servings.


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