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.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.