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.
Glimpses of Spring
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).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
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.