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Saturday’s Feast: Chili, It’s not Just for Winter Anymore

May 12, 2012

Now that we are basking in the warmth that comes with late spring, (at least for us in the Northern hemisphere) it might seem an odd time to write about chili.  After all, nothing beats a nice bowl of chili on a cold winter’s day.  As true as that is, there is much more to chili than that and relegating it to the dark days of winter denies you the opportunity to this rich, flavor-filled dish.  So, sit back, relax, and let me take you on a chili extravaganza!

The logical place to start when discussing chili is, well, with the chili pepper.  There are literally hundreds of different chilies around the world.  Regardless of where we now geographically associate a particular chili, they originated from Central and South America.  Christopher Columbus added the word “pepper” to the chili, as both black pepper and chilies add heat to a dish, but that is all they have in common.  They are very different plants.

Archeologists have found traces of chili cultivation going back over 6,000 years making it one of the first crops humans sought to control[i].  While there are many theories on just why we are attracted to chilies, for this post, let’s just accept that we are fond of their heat.  Chilies today have crossed all cultural lines and now add their influence to national dishes far removed from their roots in the Americas.  We think of paprika as Mediterranean but it is nothing more than ground up peppers of the chili family.  The cuisine of India would be very different if the chili had not been imported and cultivated there.  It terms of impact, it trails only salt and black pepper as the most influential of all spices worldwide.

OK, so what we here in the United States call “peppers,” like bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, Habanero peppers, etc. are all varieties of the chili plant.  As we know, there is a huge variance in the relative “hotness” of these varieties.  So much so, they have their own scale, the Scoville Scale[ii], it ranges from zero to 16 million units.  All right, some of you might know

Scoville Scale

the scale really does not measure heat in peppers.  It measures the amount of capsaicin in a substance.  Capsaicin is the compound that creates what we perceive as being spicy-hot.  For instance, bell peppers rate between 0 and 100 and jalapeños come in around the 6,000 to 8,000 range.  Habanero peppers range between 100,000 and 350,000 on the scale.  There are hotter peppers, but they are reserved for those individuals that like to go beyond what an average human can tolerate.

On a side note, capsaicin is the active ingredient in the pepper-spray that adorns many a lady’s key chain and is used by police departments around the world.  It has a Scoville rating between 1.5 and 2 million.  Now you know just why it’s called pepper-spray.  

With this variety of chilies to choose, it is understandable how so many dishes incorporate them in and produce such diversity in results.  Growing up, when asked if I wanted chili for dinner, my mind went to the ubiquitous chili that involves ground beef, an onion, some kidney beans and a packet of spices from the grocer’s shelf.  It was meaty, to say the least, but like most ground beef dishes, it lacked the depth achieved with putting in just a bit more effort.

Now days, I tend to make all chili from scratch.  If I have to feed a herd quickly, I might resort to some sort of mix but I will change it so much in the process there is no need to even read the instructions on the pack.  Regardless, the end result must have flavor to spare, which is the point of chili – flavor, not heat.

About now, your mind might be telling you “this guy is nuts, chilies add heat,” and you are right in most cases, but there is more to it than that.  The part of a chili that holds the vast majority of the heat is the seeds.  The internal ribs can be hot too but tend to be on the bitter side so I always remove them.  Knowing that the seeds add the heat lets you control it by simply adding more seeds to heat it up.  It is the meat of the chili that holds the flavor and each variety has its own unique flavor to add.  It is by mixing various chilies you can create a recipe that is unique to you.

With that in mind, here is a nice chicken chili recipe to use as a starting point for your own personal modifications.  It leverages everything that three types of chilies have to offer.  I started with a version found at the America’s Test Kitchen website.  If you are not a member and are looking for a good cooking website, I do highly recommend this one.

The recipe is packed with flavor and will drive your local natives wild as they are forced to suffer its wonderful aromas as it cooks.  By the time dinner rolls around, they will be sitting, pounding the table with clinched fists while chanting “Bring Chili Now!” as if they were medieval knights demanding a meal.   At any rate, try this one.  It will open the door to just how different chili can be.  It will make you wonder just how ground beef became the go-to protein for chili in the first place.

 

 

White Chicken Chili

 

Ingredients

 

  • 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken breast halves , trimmed of excess fat and skin
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3 medium jalapeño chilies
  • 3 poblano chilies (medium), stemmed, seeded, and cut into large pieces
  • 3 Anaheim chili peppers (medium), stemmed, seeded, and cut into large pieces
  • 2 medium onions , diced
  • 6 medium cloves garlic , minced or pressed through garlic press
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 (14.5-ounce) cans cannelloni beans , drained and rinsed
  • 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from 2 to 3 limes)
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro leaves
  • 4 scallions , white and light green parts sliced thin

Instructions

 

  1. Season chicken liberally with salt and pepper.  Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until just smoking.  Bown chicken, skin side down, and cook without moving  for about 4 minutes. Turn chicken and brown on other side for about 2 minutes.  Transfer chicken to plate and let rest for a minute or two.
  2. Remove and discard skin.
  3. Remove and discard ribs and seeds from 2 jalapeños;then mince.  In food processor, process half of poblano chilies, Anaheim chilies, and onions until consistency of chunky salsa, ten to twelve 1-second pulses, scraping down sides of work bowl halfway through.  Transfer mixture to medium bowl.  Repeat with remaining poblano chilies, Anaheim chilies, and onions; combine with first batch.
  4. Pour off all but 1-tablespoon fat from Dutch oven, add vegetable oil if necessary, and reduce heat to medium.  Add minced jalapeños, chili-onion mixture, garlic, cumin, coriander, and 1/4 teaspoon salt.  Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften, about 10 minutes.
  5. Remove pot from heat.
  6. Transfer 1 cup cooked vegetable mixture to now-empty food processor work bowl.  Add 1-cup beans and 1-cup broth and process until smooth, about 20 seconds.  Add vegetable-bean mixture, remaining 2 cups broth, and chicken breasts to Dutch oven and bring to boil over medium-high heat.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until chicken registers 160 degrees (175 degrees if using thighs) on instant-read thermometer, 15 to 20 minutes (40 minutes if using thighs).
  7. Using tongs, transfer chicken to large plate.  Stir in remaining beans and continue to simmer, uncovered, until beans are heated through and chili has thickened slightly, about 10 minutes.
  8. Mince remaining jalapeño, reserving and mincing ribs and seeds (remember to use the seeds to control the heat), and set aside.
  9. Shred chicken into bite-sized pieces, when it is cool enough to handle.  Discarding bones, they will not be useful for a stock.
  10.  Stir shredded chicken, lime juice, cilantro, scallions, and remaining minced jalapeño (with seeds if desired) into chili and return to simmer.  Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper and serve.


[i] Perry, L., R. Dickau, S. Zarrillo, I. Holst, DM Pearsall, DR Piperno, MJ Berman, RG Cooke, K. Rademaker, AJ Ranere, JS Raymond, DH Sandweiss, F. Scaramelli, K. Tarble, and JA Zeidler. “Starch Fossils and the Domestication and Dispersal of Chili Peppers (Capsicum Spp. L.) in the Americas.” American Association for the Advancement of Science, 16 Feb. 2007. Web. 12 May 2012. <http://www.sciencemag.org/content/315/5814/986.short>.

[ii] Peter, K. V. Handbook of Herbs and Spices. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2001. 120. Print.

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One comment

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