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.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
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.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.