If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn’t our most inspired in terms of cooking. We’re all suffering from the post-election blues — the sole upside being Oliver’s decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he’s trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It’s half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there’d been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week’s end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn’t remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can’t quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Now chili tends to be one of those things people have really strong opinions about. Some say vegetarian chili isn’t real chili, others insist you must use dried beans versus canned. Purists insist you can’t include many vegetables or you should just call it a stew and leave chili well enough alone. When I realized I’d never posted a chili recipe on the site, this is probably why: like elections, impassioned culinary debates can be exhausting. That said, we can’t just talk brussels sprouts all month long; maybe, just maybe, a good, hearty three bean chili is just the kick we all need to get us through these busy weeks ahead.
I’ve been making a version of this chili since my college days in Boulder, CO. There were lots of beans and legumes in those days as they were inexpensive and easy to come by and, as a pretty strict vegetarian at the time, they were my primary source of protein. Since then, the recipe has grown up a bit with a more delicate balance of spices, colorful cubes of butternut squash, and a blend of three beans. The base is a really rich and simple tomato sauce spiked with a little chipotle pepper and smoked paprika. Once the chili’s served, we load it up with avocado and a little cheese, sliced green onions and sour cream and if I’m feeling really productive, I’ll even throw cornbread into the mix.
But when to actually find the hour to bust out this chili (or any chili. Or any dinner, really) is, of course, a question for the ages. Three days a week Sam’s sister comes over to watch Oliver while we go about our workday. Usually I head out to my office at Marge to oversee things there, which leaves me trying to jam in recipe development work or meal prep for our own family in stolen moments in the mornings or evening. And the thing about those stolen moments is they become seriously abbreviated (and downright stressful) if I’m trying to clean up and wash dishes as I go. So when method reached out and encouraged me to free up some time in the kitchen this holiday season by just cooking, letting the mess happen, and coming back to it later — I hopped on board.
We’ve been using method’s dish and hand soaps at home for a long time — the spare, simple design looks great on the countertop, but they’re also non-toxic (which is even more important to me now that I’m a mom) and they actually smell subtle and clean (with over 70 different scent options, people) — like cucumbers, say, not chemicals.
The takeaway to their challenge? Sure, the dishes obviously didn’t disappear and we clearly had to do them later that night, but creating a concentrated period of time in the day to get back in the kitchen and cook a meal without all the tidying and cleaning and obsessing over polling results and what sense pundits can (or cannot, as it turns out) make of it all was actually quite freeing. Less hustle, less stress and a little more play — which we could all use more of right now.
With a rich and flavorful tomato base, a good hit of garlic, soft bits of butternut squash and a combination of three beans, this chili is colorful, hearty comfort food. Beyond the initial chopping, it comes together relatively quickly and is largely inactive cook time, so if you shop for the ingredients the day before, I think it could definitely be a weeknight dinner contender. The jalapeno does add some heat, so if that’s not your thing or you’re cooking for smaller palettes, feel free to just omit it. Make sure you use fresh, fragrant spices for the best flavor and stock up on a few things to dress it up: sour cream, avocado and thinly sliced green onions are key.
In a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion, red pepper, squash and a generous pinch of salt and cook until onions are transluscent and peppers are tender, about 7 minutes. Add the jalapeno, garlic, chili powder, cumin, smoked paprika and cayenne pepper. Stir to coat, and continue to cook for additional 1-2 minutes.
Add the diced tomatoes and their juices, beans, chipotle chiles, tomato paste, salt and one cup water. Stir well. Bring the mixture to a low simmer and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the squash is tender, about 30 minutes. Reduce heat if chili begins to boil. Taste and add additional seasoning, if desired. Serve with your favorite garnishes. Leftover chili, if covered and refrigerated, is good for 4-5 days.
* Note: If you don’t have an immediate use for the leftover chipotle chiles, blend them up in the food processor or blender and freeze the paste to season future chiles and soups.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.