White Chili

Though not as robust and lacking the rugged mystique of Texas red, white chili is a great any cold night.

If chili were an authentic Mexican dish, then white chili would be fraught with as much ethnic tension white American cheese. But as any Mexican will tell you, chili is an American concoction, more specifically Texan. And any Texan will not only tell you that chili is a Texas dish, but he’ll also elaborate at length and in considerable detail on the proper way to make a great bowl of red. He’ll also likely denounce white chili as the grotesque brainchild of some East Coast chef manqué, though it’s more likely a dish from the Nebraska State Fair that somehow made it into Ladies’ Home Journal and from there to bourgeoisie kitchens across the country.

Many people don’t even consider white chili to be chili in the first place, saying it’s nothing more than chicken and bean soup with cumin and oregano, peppers (albeit chili peppers), white beans and chicken, but I’d be one to argue that white chili is indeed chili because of the cumin. While cumin has varied uses all around the globe, in my part of the world, using cumin invariably involves a chili recipe. And yes, chicken. Let’s settle this once and for all: pork is not “the other white meat”.

For six generous servings, cube about a pound of boneless chicken or (better) turkey breasts, and sear in a skillet until done through with one large white onion chopped, a couple of cloves of garlic, minced (or to taste), two thin-skinned mild peppers (I use poblanos) diced. Add an 8 oz. can diced green peppers, two 15 oz. cans of great northern or navy beans and two cups chicken broth. Season with about a tablespoon ground cumin, a teaspoon dried oregano and white pepper to taste. Some people add basil, but don’t. Cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, until you get a heavy consistency. You shouldn’t have to add any thickener; the starch from the beans should do the job. And for Pete’s sake, DO NOT add any dairy. Serve with bread: not rice, not pasta, but bread, warm and crusty. Cornbread is fine, yes.

A Yankee in the Kitchen

Syracuse, New York is hometown to Tom Cruise, Grace Jones, and Jake, who says his ancestors were involved in Greek shipping. Every now and then he’ll offhandedly mention “Uncle Ari and Aunt Jackie.”

Jake sniffs at my Southern heritage, reminding me that his parents contributed to programs for eradicating hookworm and pellagra in Mississippi. He came to Jackson over two decades ago as the result of a convoluted series of circumstances I’ve long since quit trying to unravel. He says he stayed because he likes the weather, and indeed his recollections of lake-effect snow are indeed horrific.  Even after twenty-plus years, however, people still ask him where he’s from. It drives him nuts.

With a few notable exceptions—chicken and dumplings foremost—Jake loves Southern food, so in an effort to reciprocate charity, I decided to learn how to make good Yankee baked beans using the sturdy pots he brought back from Maine last year, which of course had been made by the ancestors of exceedingly sweet people in a religious community near Bangor.  (No, I didn’t go; he was meeting his mother to visit an aunt, and I was better off here with weed and cable.)

I used a pound of dried navy beans, a cup of diced ham with rind instead of salt pork, and since I was out of black strap, a half cup of sorghum molasses had to do. The beans, pork, and syrup went into the (2 quart or thereabout) pot with a cup of chopped onions and a bay leaf. I covered them with water to about an inch of the top, seasoned with a teaspoon of black pepper and a heaping tablespoon of dry mustard. Once in the pot and covered, they went into the oven at around 250, and there they stayed for a little over three hours. I added water as needed. The beans were damn good, almost buttery; the mustard cut the syrup just enough to let the beans make a statement.  Of course Jake credited the results to the pots, so I whacked him with a wooden spoon. Twice.

Creole Shrimp and Beans

You’ll find dishes with beans and seafood across the globe, and while this recipe is styled “Creole” a very similar Italian recipe uses diced tomatoes. You can use tomatoes in this as well, simply add them with the shrimp.

Put a pound of dried white beans (Navy, northern, or baby limas) in a heavy saucepan, add three cups of water, cover, and place in a 300 oven for about two hours, until cooked through A bay leaf or two is a nice touch. Sauté a large white onion, a cup of diced celery, and a diced ripe sweet pepper with a couple of minced cloves of garlic in olive oil. When the vegetables are soft, add a pound of peeled, medium-count shrimp and cook over medium heat until firm. Combine the shrimp and vegetables with the beans. Add the diced tomatoes, if you like. Season with dried basil and thyme, ground black pepper, chopped fresh parsley, and salt to taste. You can make this as soupy as you like by adding weak stock. Some people add diced smoked sausage or ham, and the dish is usually served over rice.