Some recipes just don’t work out. This is especially true when the recipe is one you are making up on the spot, cobbling together from multiple sources. Sometimes it’s a total flop, the kind that can only be dumped in the garbage before ordering takeout. Too much salt, ingredients-gone-bad, poorly calibrated baking experiments. But most “failures” are just somewhat off. Under-seasoned, dominated by one flavor; in other words: salvageable.
I get home on a workday in the spring with enough light left to take pictures. The goal is to end up with a pot of white chili. I have some semblance of ingredients – chicken, stock, white beans, green chile peppers – plus a vague idea from looking at a few recipes. Peppers and onions are chopped, spices poured, ingredients sautéed and then simmered. After blending some of the ingredients to make a thicker stew I realize the chili is no longer white; it’s turned a vibrant shade of green. No matter, I cross off white in the recipe title, replace it with green and move on.
It thickens beautifully and then thickens too much, becoming more like porridge than stew. Still not a problem to me. Instead I scrap the plans to serve it over rice and just ladle it into bowls, topping with sour cream and cilantro. But one bite in, it’s clear the problem is more than texture or color. The spiciness is so intense that it’s just barely edible. Jeff only manages a few bites; I soldier through a bowlful but have no idea how I could eat the leftovers. It’s at this point that a normal person would likely throw in the towel. We’d laugh or cry over the failed attempt and then rummage through the house for something else for dinner.
But instead, after eating I return to the stove. I turn the heat back on, gather up some liquids to thin out the chili and counteract the spice. A pot of rice is set to cook and I stand and stir. A few more seasonings, an extra glug of beer and stock, and the flavors of the chiles start to emerge from the intense heat. It starts to taste like a flavorfully layered dish rather than just HOT. Containers of rice topped with chili are packed for the next day’s lunch and another is put in the freezer to supply dinner during a more hectic week. Eating leftovers at my desk at work, a coworker stops by to see what’s for lunch.
The real confirmation came a few weeks later, sorting through weekly meal planning. We searched through the kitchen to see what could be used up during an especially busy week. Moving aside frozen peas and ice cubes I noticed the green container of chili. “Oh yea, that was really good.” It was, wasn’t it?
Makes about 8 servings of chili
This is my no means an authentic chili. The vast majority of the recipe is made up. But it is rich and warming and stick to your ribs good, and tastes like chiles without being mouth-searingly hot. And if chili sounds ridiculous in June where you live, come visit San Francisco. We’re just getting into soup and stew weather around here.
Also, a good tip for working with chiles: there’s no real way to know how hot they’ll be until you taste them – each one is different. So taste a small slice of each chile you cut up to see how hot it will make the final dish. If the chile is mild leaving in the stems and seeds will up the spice and if the flesh is spicy, the seeds will only make it hotter. There’s no shame in leaving out part of a too-hot chile and using milder one in it’s place.
2 tbs oil (or bacon fat, which is what I used here)
1 medium-large onion, cut into large dice
2-3 chile peppers, diced – I used a mixture of poblano, anaheim, and jalapeno. Other options include serrano, New Mexico (or hatch), or pasilla. Remove the seeds and stems for a less spicy chili
4-6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small can diced mild green chiles with their juices
1 15-oz can white beans, drained
1 12-oz beer, preferably something dark and malty
2-3 cups chicken stock or water, divided
1/4 cup cornmeal
2-3 tsp kosher salt
1 tbs ground cumin
2 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded*
To serve: cilantro, sour cream, cheese, rice (all optional)
In a large heavy-bottomed pot heat up the oil over medium heat and add the onions, chiles, and garlic and cook them slowly. You want them to get soft and onions to get translucent but don’t let them brown. At this point, you can add up to a teaspoon of salt to help them release liquid and soften in the heat. Once the vegetables are cooked, add the canned green chiles, the beans, beer, and 1 cup of stock/water. Simmer this for 10-15 minutes.
Using a blender or food processor, puree about half of the vegetable/bean/liquid mixture. Add the puree back to the pot so you end up with a chunky stew – you want the chile to be more stew than soup but also to have texture so don’t blend everything. Add the cornmeal, a teaspoon of salt, and the cumin. Let it cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, until the cornmeal is fully cooked, stirring often. At this point, check the stew for both spiciness and texture. If it’s too spicy or too thick you can add some or all of the remaining two cups of liquid. Then taste it again to see if it needs more salt. If it’s not too spicy, you can leave it thick enough to eat without rice, or you can thin it out so that it’s more soupy and the rice can soak up the extra liquid. When it’s reached the consistency you like, add the chicken, turn the heat down to low and add the shredded chicken. Let the chile sit over low heat for at least 15 minutes and as long as an hour before serving.
To serve, ladle it into bowls, with or without rice, and top with cilantro, sour cream, or cheese. Serve it hot but you can also refrigerate it for up to two weeks or freeze it for up to two months and just reheat it when you need it. It gets better after a day or two so making it ahead is a plus.
*I had some leftover chicken for this recipe. If you don’t, then poach or roast the chicken breasts, or just buy some pre-cooked, and then shred them.