Sunday, July 30, 2006

Slow simmered chicken chili

A few months ago I posted our baked macaroni and cheese recipe, reporting that "I learned to love macaroni and cheese thanks to my mom, as it was one of two dishes we would cook together whenever my stepfather was out of town." Chili is the second dish, and my mom's chili is still what I think of whenever I think of chili.

Chili is the quintessential hearty tex-mex dish, and is great for a food pickmeup. It smells delicious while simmering on the stove.

I was heartbroken when, early in our relationship, my SO reported disliking chili. Images of a life without chili flashed before my eyes, and I wasn't sure it was a life I wanted to live. But then I discovered that my SO had only eaten canned chili, and so one day I whipped up a batch of homemade chili, much like this one. Love flourished thereafter. (story exaggerated for dramatic effect)

If all you've ever had is canned chili, I encourage you to make this recipe; you might find a new love in your life. We made a batch of this last weekend, and thus it's this weekend's second end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

1 1/2 to 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken (we use thigh meat)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded, deveined, and finely chopped
2-4 ripe chili peppers, seeded, deveined, and finely chopped (use whatever variety you like; see notes)
6 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
3-4 tablespoons chili powder (use 3 if your chili powder is new and strongly flavored, 4 otherwise)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon smoked paprika (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ancho chili pepper (optional)
1 teaspoon epazote (optional)
1/4 teaspoon cloves (optional)
2 28-oz cans whole, salted tomatoes
4 cups cooked, drained kidney beans (about 3/4 pound dry with 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt added during cooking, or about 2 16-oz cans)
2 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Sour cream, chopped raw onion, and/or cheddar cheese for topping (optional)

0a. If you're using dry kidney beans, cook them first: rinse the beans, cover them with water by a couple of inches in a large pot, and then simmer for approximately 2 hours (or until they're completely soft throughout; we add about 1/2 tablespoon of kosher salt halfway through the cooking). You can cook the beans ahead of time and keep them in the fridge until you're ready to cook the rest of the chili.
0b. Sometime before step 7, you'll need to prepare the tomatoes. We puree one can in our food processor and then squeeze the other can's tomatoes by hand (to create chunks of varying sizes); prepare yours as you wish.
1. Chop the chicken into small cubes (about 1 cm3); this is easier if the chicken is somewhat frozen (we use frozen boneless, skinless chicken thighs and only partially defrost them in the microwave before chopping).
2. Heat the oil in a large nonstick pot over high heat.
3. Add the chicken to the pot when the oil is hot, and sautee, stirring constantly, until the chicken is well-browned, about 5-10 minutes. If the chicken releases a lot of juice, you'll need to boil it off before the chicken will start to brown. There should be lots of little browned chicken bits in the pot at the end of this step.
4. Add the onions and continue cooking over high heat, stirring constantly, until they're soft and have started to brown at the tips, about 5 minutes.
5. Add the chopped peppers and cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes.
6. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for another 1-2 minutes.
7. Add the spices (chili powder, cumin, chipotle pepper, black pepper, smoked paprika, ancho chili pepper, epazote, and cloves) and cook, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds.
8. Add the tomatoes, cooked kidney beans, water, and salt. Stir to mix.
9. Simmer, covered and stirring occasionally, for 3 hours. We stir the pot every 15 minutes or so.
10. Serve topped with sour cream, additional chopped raw onion, and grated cheddar cheese, if desired.


The above recipe makes enough chili for a small army, which is great because leftovers store and reheat exceptionally well. We often make a batch of chili and then have many meals from it during the subsequent week; coworkers are often envious.

The chicken and onions can release liquid that produces lots of steam during frying, which can cause your stirring hand to get extremely hot. We remedy this by either trading off stirring duty or by covering our stirring hands with a hot pad.

We use ripe peppers because they tend to be sweeter and more fully flavored than unripe ones. Unripe peppers are almost always green, while ripe peppers can be red, orange, yellow, or purple (and probably other colors as well). We grow our own peppers, and thus when we make chili during the summer we use whatever we can pick from our garden. During the winter, we use dried peppers that we saved from summers past. If you can't find ripe chili peppers, using unripe ones should be fine.

As we've written elsewhere, we prefer to use canned whole tomatoes because we like being able to customize how chunky our tomato sauces are (and we find it convenient to be able to stock up on one kind of tomatoes). Feel free to use a 28-oz can of tomato sauce and a 28-oz can of chopped tomatoes in place of the two cans of whole tomatoes, or use all chopped or all pureed tomatoes. It's up to you.

As you have probably gathered by now, chili is an extremely flexible dish. Customize this recipe to your liking: if you want it spicier, add more peppers or crushed red pepper; if you want it soupier, add more liquid; if you want it tomatoier, add more tomatoes; if you want it meatier, add more meat; if you want beef chili, use beef instead of chicken; if you want vegetarian chili, leave out the chicken.

This recipe is based on one from Penzey's Spices, though it's similar in style to the one my mom and I made way back when (except that my mom used ground beef and a chili spice packet).

Penzey's Spices, 2005. Good Basic Chili.

[Updated October 2007 to add the cloves, epazote, ancho chili pepper, and smoked paprika, which we added to our last batch of chili. More spices can't hurt, right?]

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