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.
Winter Soups and Stews
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.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.