Prize-Winning Sweet Heat Vegan Chili

Three women stand outside holding trophies

Photo Credit: Tom Simon (above), Big Spoon Roasters (below)

When Orange County Living Wage announced plans for an inaugural chili cookoff fundraiser this spring, my first thought was that our area has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to amazing chefs, restaurants, and home cooks who will undoubtedly bring their A-game to support living wages in our community. There would be an open (amateur) division and a professional division, as well as panel of judges that included a local food writer, a town council member, and Division 1 basketball players from UNC. What fun! 

My second thought was about whether we could enter the competition with an original recipe (we could, in the pro division, gulp). I had a chili in mind that I had adapted from an old cookbook of Oaxacan recipes, which I had borrowed from a friend and returned over 20 years ago. I’ve been riffing on this chili ever since, and I knew it would be wonderful with the addition of our Sweet Heat Peanut Butter, which, as its name suggests, balances the sweetness of raw organic cane sugar with unique elements of heat from three different chiles – Ancho, Guajillo, and Habanero. My version of this chili is vegan, and I thought the peanut butter would add a richness that most vegan chili recipes lack. 

Much to our amazement and delight, our Sweet Heat Vegan Chili won the professional division!

For the event’s bake sale, Megan also made her famous Peanut Pecan Butter Oatmeal Cookies and homemade Nut Butter Cups using 60% Dark Chocolate and Big Spoon Vanilla Caramel Almond & Cashew Butter. Huge thanks to all the other bakers, chili competitors, volunteers, sponsors, and attendees who made the event possible!

13oz jar of Sweet Heat Peanut Butter on a black table cloth surrounded by peanuts, chilis, sugar, and a golden spoon with Sweet Heat Peanut Butter on it

Most importantly, the event was a true community collaboration and a win for living wages. Read more about the event and its amazing sponsors here. When making any purchasing decision, we hope you consider supporting Certified Living Wage businesses in your community. 

Here’s the winning chili recipe. Enjoy! 


(16-20 servings)  

  • 4 large or 6 medium dried ancho chiles 
  • 2 dried guajillo chiles 
  • 2 dried pasilla chiles 
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 
  • 1 Package Gardein Ultimate Frozen Ground Be'f Crumbles – 14 oz 
  • 2 large yellow onions, chopped 
  • 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped 
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin 
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano 
  • 1 can 14.5 oz fire-roasted crushed tomatoes 
  • 1 can 6 oz can tomato paste 
  • 2 jars of your favorite salsa (we used Desert Pepper Trading Co. Medium) 
  • 3 cups cooked Garbanzo beans, drained (we love Rancho Gordo) 
  • 1.5 cups cooked red beans, drained, such as Pinto or Domingo Rojo 
  • 6 oz (3/4 cup) Big Spoon Roasters Sweet Heat Peanut Butter 
  • 3 tablespoons coconut sugar (or sub dark brown sugar) 
  • 4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (optional) 


  1. Toast dried chiles.  
    If you can do this in a pan outside on your grill or outdoor cooking station, do it. The chiles release a lot of hot, volatile compounds in the air as they toast and some people in your house might be sensitive to this. You can also toast these in your oven, which should help vent the volatile compounds.  
    Remove seeds and clean chiles with a damp paper towel. 

    In pan: Heat up a skillet to medium-high heat. Then use a spatula to toast the chile pieces about 15-30 seconds per side.

    In oven: Arrange on a baking sheet and toast in a pre-heated 350 F oven until just fragrant and puffed (about 6 minutes). 

  2. Soak toasted chiles.  
    Place chiles in a medium bowl. Pour in 3 cups boiling water and cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap; let sit until chiles are softened, 20–25 minutes. Transfer chiles and soaking liquid to a blender or food processor and blend on high until smooth, about 1 minute; set aside. 

  3. Brown vegan crumbles 
    Heat oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium-high. Season crumbles all with a dash of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 8-10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. 

  4. Cook aromatics 
    Reduce heat to medium; add onions and garlic to pot. Cook, stirring often to loosen browned bits from bottom of pot, until onions are translucent and very soft, 6–8 minutes. Add cumin and oregano and cook, stirring, until the spices start to stick to pot, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, beans, Sweet Heat Peanut Butter, salsa, and brown sugar and scrape bottom of pot to loosen spices. Bring to a strong simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until much of the water has evaporated and the consistency has thickened. 

  5. Bring it all together. 
    Add cooked crumbles and reserved chile purée; season with salt and pepper. Bring to a low boil, reduce heat, and simmer gently, uncovered, until liquid is further thickened, about 1 hour. Taste chili and season with more salt and pepper if needed.  
    Optional: To add a pleasant, contrasting note of acidity, stir in apple cider vinegar.  
    Divide chili among bowls and top as desired. 

  6. Garnishes. 
    We love this chili served simply with finely diced red onion and Fritos on the side. Step up the umami with fried shallots! 

Make ahead? Sure thing – we did.  
This chili can be made 4-6 days ahead. Let cool; cover and chill. Reheat gently over low, stirring occasionally, and adding a splash of water or salsa to loosen if needed. 

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