This crispy, fried secret ingredient is the best way to upgrade homemade chili

My dad doesn't have many rules in the kitchen. This is one of them

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published August 22, 2022 6:45PM (EDT)

Cornbread Dumpling Pinto Chili (Getty Images/Carin Krasner)
Cornbread Dumpling Pinto Chili (Getty Images/Carin Krasner)

Weekday Plants is a weekly recipe column from Salon Food that centers on easy-to-make and adaptable vegan meals.

Like most home cooks, my dad has a reliable, if predictable, list of recipes from which to choose on the nights he makes dinner. If you see him in the kitchen on a weeknight, it's likely going to be chicken noodle soup — made with thick, dried egg noodles and no celery — or pizza made using Boboli crust, shredded mozzarella and spicy Italian sausage. Maybe oven-baked chicken with steamed broccoli or baked spaghetti, like his mom used to make. 

But if it's the weekend, especially if the weather indicates that our corner of the world is finally lurching into autumn after stalling out in the summer heat, nine times out of 10 he's making white chicken chili

I don't know where he originally got the recipe, or if there even was one. The chili, after all, continues to shift through time. For a while, he used only yellow and orange bell peppers, since they were sweeter than their bitter green counterpart. At some point in time, he switched to a mix of red bells and jalapeños.

In the early days, dad swore by low-sodium chicken broth, but now he told me he's using "fancy stock" (meaning that it's probably the Kroger Private Selection variety). He's cycled through canned, dried and jarred beans, but I still don't think he's nailed down a preference. 

Oh, and don't get me started on the spices and how their combination has been a never-ending decision matrix built from pinches, teaspoons and eyeball measurements. The only point on which he never wavered was that the chili had to be served with cornbread, made crispy by tossing it in spitting hot oil. 

Since I still sometimes tend to get in my head about whether what I'm doing is technically "the right way," his overall lack of rigidity in the kitchen has long inspired me. As the weather dipped below 65 degrees one evening this weekend, and I felt what can only be described as an autumnal breeze whip off the lake, I knew it was chili weather. 

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Like my dad, I kind of winged it based on what was in my pantry and crisper drawer. I was lucky that I had leftover salsa ingredients — onion, jalapeños and cilantro — that I needed to repurpose. I had a few cans of pinto beans in the cupboard, as well as a fully-stocked spice rack and some diced tomatoes. Dad always loved swirling sour cream through his bowl before he started eating, so I thought I'd do the same with some coconut cream. 

Smoked paprika, caramelized tomato paste and soy all combined for a punch of umami.

But what really takes this recipe over the top are the cornbread croutons. I guess some rules shouldn't change, after all. 

Smoky Pinto Bean Chili with Fried Cornbread Croutons
6-8 servings
Prep Time
20 minutes
Cook Time
45 minutes

Smoky Pinto Bean Chili

  • Olive oil
  • 1/2 white onion, finely chopped 
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped 
  • 1 to 2 jalapeños, finely chopped 
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper 
  • 2 teaspoons smoked paprika 
  • 2 teaspoons coriander
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes  
  • 1 14.5-ounce can corn
  • 32 ounces vegetable stock 
  • 30 ounces pinto beans, canned or fully-cooked dry beans with liquid reserved
  • 1/3 cup cilantro, finely chopped 
  • 2 tablespoons coconut cream 
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Fried Cornbread Croutons

  • Olive oil 
  • 2 cups roughly-torn cornbread 

Optional Garnishes 

  • Sliced radish
  • Chopped scallions
  • Avocado
  • Lime slices
  • White rice
  • Additional coconut cream, for serving


  1. In a large pot, add a thin coat of olive oil and increase the heat to medium-high. Add the finely chopped white onion, red bell pepper and jalapeños. Salt generously and stir the vegetables until they're soft and the onion is nearly translucent, about 5 minutes. 

  2. If the pot looks dry, add another coating of olive oil before adding the tomato paste, cumin, cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, coriander and brown sugar. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir the mixture occasionally until the tomato paste is more brown than red, about 5 minutes. 

  3. Add the soy sauce, diced tomatoes, corn and vegetable stock to the pot and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add the beans, making sure to include the liquid from the can if using canned beans. If using freshly-cooked dry beans, add 1/2 cup of reserved cooking liquid. 

  4. Give everything a good stir, then allow the mixture to simmer uncovered for at least 30 minutes. My dad, meanwhile, would say that a good soup or chili needs at least 4 hours. If you decide to go that long, check on the pot occasionally to make sure the chili hasn't reduced to the point of needing additional stock. If it does, no big deal — just add a splash at a time. 

  5. About 10 minutes before you plan to pull the chili off the heat, add the cilantro and coconut cream. Take a moment to taste and adjust seasoning. 

  6. As the chili finishes cooking, it's time to make the cornbread croutons. It's incredibly simple. Add 2 cups of roughly-torn cornbread — either homemade or store-bought — to a large, flat-bottomed skillet. Drizzle the cornbread with enough olive oil for it to be very lightly coated, then give the pan a good shake. Turn the heat up to medium and gently stir the cornbread over the heat until the exterior gets brown and toasty, about 10 minutes. Remove the croutons from the pan and set aside. 

  7. When you're ready to serve the chili, feel free to do so over white rice for a heartier meal. Regardless, top it with some of the suggested garnishes, including sliced radish, chopped scallions, avocado, a lime slice or some additional coconut cream. Just don't forget the cornbread croutons! 

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By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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