I forget sometimes that my spice cabinet is awesome. I mean, I know that I’ve got everything I need, and that’s great, but a friend will be over for dinner and I’ll open it up to grab some fennel seed and if my dinner guest is a foodie, I’ll hear a little gasp coming from behind my left shoulder.

“Oh!” I say. “Right. Isn’t it pretty?”

It’s wonderful what old baby food jars and your co-op’s bulk spice department can do.

When I started cooking with any intention, I rigorously measured my spices. I think that when you’re trying to get your feet under you in the kitchen, this is a good idea – follow the recipe to the letter the first time you make it, then open yourself up to variations. I remember the first time I made a curry without a recipe. It was lousy. The second time I made a curry without a recipe, it was better. The third time, I nailed it. Since then I pull out my teaspoon set only occasionally, just to check up on myself and my estimating eye.

Chili for me is a very loose recipe. There are a few important things: scallions, lots of garlic, beer, and cumin. After that, it can take a million directions. I’m going to point out what may be obvious and say that I didn’t actually measure the spices I put in here. If you want to, please do, but really, it’s a dash of this and a bit of that, plus a whole lot of cans from my pantry. Don’t have white beans? Use chickpeas. The only constant I’d keep from that list of legumes is the black beans. But I love black beans.

I’ve fancied it up by making polenta cakes. This is a fun way to impress people and takes only a little finesse. This chili will be delicious by itself in a bowl, but if you’ve got an extra minute, make it special with this fun touch. The cakes aren’t vegan, but the chili is – and it’s all gluten free.

1 cup coarse-ground cornmeal
4 cups water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 oz grated sharp cheddar
1 tablespoon butter

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne or to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1 small onion, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
5-6 scallions, white and green parts, sliced
at least 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 chipotle, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup beer
1 15-oz can diced tomatoes
1 15-oz can black beans
1 15-oz can kidney beans, drained
1 15-oz can white beans, drained
1 15-oz can corn kernels, drained
1 small can diced green chilies
1 12-oz package Mexican-spiced soy crumbles

Grits first. Put cornmeal, water, olive oil, salt and pepper in a medium saucepan over high heat. Bring water to a boil, then turn down to simmer, whisking often, until liquid is fully absorbed, about 15 minutes. (The thing with polenta is that it looks like it’s taken up all the water quite quickly, but keep cooking and stirring it for awhile longer and you’ll be rewarded with a much silkier texture.) Stir in cheese and butter; taste for seasoning. Spoon polenta out onto a plate and spread it about 1/2″ thick. Refrigerate while you start your chili.

In your favorite soup pot heat olive oil, cumin, coriander, cayenne, cinnamon, and pepper. When spices are fragrant, add salt, onion, scallion, garlic, chipotle, oregano, and cocoa powder. Cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes or until onions are softened and just barely starting to leave brown bits in the bottom of the pan. Turn up the heat and as soon as things start to sizzle but not burn, add beer and scrape up all those lovely brown bits. Cook until you no longer get a big whiff of alcohol when you stick your nose in the steam, then add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer at least 30 minutes.

About ten minutes before you’re ready to serve, take the grits out of the fridge. Turn out onto a board and cut into desired shapes. The key here is to use a metal spatula, not plastic or silicone – you’ll need something a bit sharper to really dig under your grits cake, otherwise you’ll get reheated mush instead of nicely browned cakes. (I learned this the hard way.) Heat a good layer of olive oil – better too much oil than too little, in this case – in a skillet over medium-high heat until it’s almost smoking. Gently lay 2-3 cakes in the pan and fry 2-3 minutes, then decisively get your (metal!) spatula under and flip. 2-3 minutes more on the other side, then pull them out to rest on a roasting rack set over a plate. This is better than setting them on paper towels, because air will be circulating all the way around them.

Plate it up! Garnish with cilantro and some diced avocado. Queso fresco? Yum.