High school senior Lucila Flores created a vegetarian dish with an LA story baked right in. She tells the story that when her mother was still expecting her, her mother experienced cravings for Kung Pao chicken from a local Chinese restaurant. Years later, the whole family regularly visited the restaurant, and Flores has good memories of sneaking behind the counter to watch food being prepared.

“Cooking for other people is about sharing experiences and sharing memories,” says Flores, a student at John Marshall High School in Los Angeles. “It’s how I express myself.”

Clearly, Flores expresses herself well. Her Kung Pao Chili recently won over a culinary competition's  judges with its meatless mix of Asian flavors. It begins with sesame oil, garlic and ginger, as many great Asian dishes do. Many veggies make up the bulk of the chili: zucchini, carrots, mushrooms, bell pepper and more. The use of Hoisin sauce, Chinese black-bean paste and Vietnamese chili-garlic paste take the chili way out of the realm of the traditional Tex-Mex seasonings. Black beans and water chestnuts give the chili body and crunch.

The recipe also calls for the intensely flavorful Chinese Five Spice Powder (typically cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, Szechuan peppercorns and star anise), which is said to be based on the Chinese philosophy of balancing the yin and yang in food (from The Culinarian by Barbara Ann Kipfer).

Judging was based on originality, flavor, healthfulness, ease of preparation and recipe writing.

“Our goal is to motivate aspiring chefs to create tasty and healthy meatless meals,” says Sid Lerner, founder of the Meatless Monday movement.

Thousands of high school seniors participated in the contest, working with their culinary arts teachers to come up with original meatless chili recipes. They were encouraged to use the contest as a way to explore new uses for fruit, vegetables, grains and legumes.

Flores won a $5,000 scholarship. She plans to attend the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) and is looking forward to a culinary career.

Here is the recipe for the prize-winning meatless chili:

Kung Pao Chili

YIELD: 6 servings

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 Tbsp. sesame oil
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
1 Tbsp. freshly grated ginger
8 oz. diced onion
8 oz. diced carrot
8 oz. diced zucchini
1 lb. trimmed and diced mixed mushrooms
8 oz. diced bell pepper
2 tsps. Chinese Five Spice powder
2 Tbsps. mirin
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
½ cup Hoisin sauce
3 Tbsps. Chinese-style black bean garlic paste
2-4 Tbsps. Vietnamese-style chili garlic paste
2 (15 oz.) cans black beans, drained
1 (5 oz.) can sliced water chestnuts, drained
1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice with 2 tsps. cornstarch dissolved into it

For garnish:
3 oz. coarsely chopped, roasted, salted peanuts
6 sliced green onions
6 Tbsps. coarsely chopped cilantro leaves

1. In a large pot over medium flame, heat the vegetable oil and sesame oils Add the minced garlic and fresh ginger to the oil. Stir until fragrant; do not let it burn.

2. Add the onion, carrot, zucchini, mushrooms and peppers to the pan. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are tender. Stir in the Chinese Five Spice Powder and continue to cook and stir for 3 minutes more, or until it has become fragrant.

3. Add the mirin, vinegar, hoisin, black bean and chili pastes to the pan. Stir in the drained beans and water chestnuts. Stir in the orange juice-cornstarch mixture. Simmer, stirring frequently, for about 7 to 10 minutes or until chili has thickened. Add peanuts, green onions and cilantro to garnish.

Recipe: Lucila Flores, John Marshall High School, Los Angeles, CA