I’ve said many a time in this space that I am a really lazy cook for someone who likes to think of herself as being fairly cook-ish. I have a tendency to let myself spiral downward into protracted bouts of lethargy and dullardliness, until Pookie slaps me a few times in the face and says, “Snap out of it woman!” This past December, as it turns out, was one of my bottoming-out periods, and to start the New Year, I have been issued a challenge to cook a new recipe — from one of my many cookbooks — at least once a week, for as long as I can sustain the energy. And to start off the year, I dipped into my Christmas loot, which included Steve Sando’s (of Rancho Gordo) Heirloom Beans cookbook. The recipe of choice? White turkey chili.
The cookbook itself is a mouthwatering collection of deceptively simple recipes that showcase the ridonkulously delicious heirloom varieties you can get from Rancho Gordo and other such purveyors of fine beans. It also offers up all kinds of suggestions for bean substitutions, so you can easily match recipes to whatever types of beans you might have on hand, which is a good thing considering how not exactly easy it is to find heirloom beans. What I find most appealing about the recipes, though, is that they are all about straightforward combinations of good, stalwart ingredients to make the kind of food that you can enjoy any day, whether it’s a run-of-the-mill worknight or a fancy holiday.
Now, before I get into this recipe and my take on it, let me give you a rundown of the ingredients:
12 tomatillos, husks removed
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds ground turkey
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 poblano chiles, roasted and diced
3-5 serrano chiles, seeded and finely sliced
2 tsp coriander seeds, toasted and ground
3 tbsp cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
1 bay leaf
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup homemade or purchased chicken broth, or more if needed
3 cups cooked cellini beans, in their broth
See? Nice, straightforward ingredients, the kind of stuff you know is going to taste great together.
Of course, somewhere in the course of the last year, I’ve become the kind of person who looks at this recipe and, instead of just trying it once as written, is all, “I have all kinds of little modifications I’m going to make!” Not because I’m trying to make it taste better than I think it would as written, but because I’m lazy and have certain things on hand instead of what’s called for.
For starters, let’s talk beans. Now, up until early 2008, I was terrified of dried beans. I used canned beans for all my bean purposes, and if a recipe really desperately called for dried beans, I just didn’t make it. Then we decided to plant some soup beans in our garden, picked a variety that’s all flashy and heirloomy, and in our research into what they would taste like, we discovered Rancho Gordo. Reading about all the histories and flavors of the heirloom beans they sell, I was hooked. I ordered a hodge-podge of bean types, and discovered that the modicum of extra effort that goes into cooking dried beans pays off in spades with the massive improvement of flavor and texture over canned beans. And if you go the slight extra mile of getting heirloom beans, you get to experience tastes that go so far beyond the standard five or six types of beans that dominate the average American bean-eater’s options. It was a world-altering, mind-blowing discovery, and we decided well before the year was over that BY FAR the best food event in our lives in 2008 was finding Rancho Gordo.
Over the last few months I’ve enjoyed a few Rancho Gordo shopping sprees, and have selected types of beans that sound good, regardless of what I think I’m going to do with them. And what I’ve learned is that beans are beans. They’re interchangeable. They all taste different, but still delicious. So when I read the note about the beans in this recipe, “Any of the white beans such as marrow or runner canellini will work here. For something different, you might try yellow eye or European soldier beans,” the fact that I had none of those beans on hand didn’t faze me at all. Nope. I just riffled through my stack of Rancho Gordo bags and pulled out the only white bean on the shelf: tepary beans.
To cook them, I just soaked them overnight a few days before chili night (I think you’re supposed to optimally soak beans for, like, four hours, but the only way I can manage to soak them is if I think to do it the night before), then put them in a pot with their soaking liquid, added a little more water to cover them, brought the pot to a boil, covered, and simmered on very low heat until they were soft. These beans were pretty fresh and pretty small, so they cooked in a hurry (about an hour!). When they were done, I put the whole kit and caboodle — beans and liquid — into a large tupperware and tossed it in the fridge for a couple days until I was ready to use them. The “Rancho Gordo way” of cooking beans involves sauteing some diced carrots, celery and onions in olive oil in the bottom of your bean-cooking pot, then adding the beans and water and proceeding with the boil and simmer. Sometimes I do this, sometimes I don’t. Heirloom beans are so tasty, they really don’t cry out for additional flavors, but if I was using regular dried beans from the grocery store, I’d probably want to zazz them up a bit.
(Now, here’s the thing about this recipe: while I love, love, love delicious heirloom beans, you could totally make this with canned beans. Just… don’t tell anyone I said that, okay?)
The next note is the poblanos. I suppose you could use canned green chiles here, but it’s so simple to roast and peel peppers yourself that I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t. We don’t have gas lines on our street, so I have all electric cooking appliances (sigh…), so no roasting peppers over the flame of a burner for me. Instead, I just put the whole peppers all on a baking sheet, stick them under a hot broiler, and turn them periodically until the skins are all blistered and charred. This takes about five minutes. Then put the peppers in a bowl and cover the bowl with a plate to steam the skins off, and after letting them sit for about fifteen minutes, the skins will all just rub right off. Then you can take off the stems and scrape out all the seeds and you’re good to go. It’s simple as pie, and totally delicious!
So, beans cooked and poblanos roasted, we’re ready to get started. The very first thing I did with the recipe was depart from it completely.
The recipe says this as its first step:
Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Add the tomatillos and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold running water, and then chop.
Obviously, this is not a difficult step, but I was possessed by some strange demon of productivity in September and actually picked my weekly share of tomatillos at the farm. Since we very rarely eat tomatillos (despite how delicious they are), it was kind of a strange thing for me to do, and even stranger yet, I didn’t just compost them. Nope. I roasted them until they were soft and browning a bit in spots, and froze them whole. I figured the worst thing that would happen would be, next September, digging them out of the freezer and composting them then. But how serendipitous to have found a recipe already that calls for tomatillos! I skipped the boiling and just thawed out my bag, digging out the equivalent of 12 big grocery-store tomatillos, and chopped them up. (They were outrageously delicious, so my advice is if you have a chance to pick a quart of tomatillos at the end of the summertime, go ahead and do so — you never know when you’ll find a use for them.)
The next step I was totally on board with:
In a soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the turkey and cook, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until it has lost its pink color. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Then: Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes.
It should be noted that I used way more than three garlic cloves because I was going with some of the garlic we grew this summer. The cloves are eensy-weensy, so it takes, like, 20 of them to equal one normal garlic clove.
Next: Return the turkey to the pot and add the poblano and serrano chiles, coriander, cumin, cayenne, oregano, and bay leaf.
Okay, I deviated a little here. For starters, I did not toast and grind my own coriander. And the only reason I did with my own cumin is that I didn’t have any ground cumin on hand (I grind my own cumin for chili powder, so I’ve got the spice grinder and whole seeds sitting around. If I had pre-ground, I would have used it here). Also, instead of fresh chopped serrano chiles, I chipped away at the giant bag of minced hot peppers I froze in September. I think it’s safe to say that the chopped chiles of your choice will suffice. Oh, and I only used 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne instead of a full teaspoon because Boomer’s not into super-spicy food.
Back to the recipe: Season with salt and pepper. Add the tomatillos and 1 cup chicken broth.
Then: Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, and cook, uncovered, until the flavors blend, about 45 minutes.
I… may not have waited the full 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, in another pot, I got my brown rice started. I always have brown rice with chili, because it’s a great way to stretch a pot to make dinner for all of us and then lunches for Pookie and me for much of the work week. I am currently deeply enamored of brown basmati rice, which just calls for two parts water to one part rice, and a smidgeon (or heaping slab) of butter.
You combine everything in a pot (for three dinners and seven lunches, I tend to do about 2 1/2 cups of rice and 5 cups of water), cover it, bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and let it simmer for about 50 minutes, until all the water is absorbed and the rice is soft. Then fluff with a fork and enjoy!
Going back to the chili, once you’ve let everything simmer for 45 minutes (or 30, if you’re me): Gently stir in the beans, adjust the seasonings, add more chicken broth if a thinner chili is desired, and cook for about 30 minutes to blend the flavors.
And that’s it! The cookbook recommends serving this with chopped fresh cilantro, sliced green onions, crumbled queso fresco, sour cream and lime wedges. We just ate it straight-up on brown rice. And it was scrumptious. I made it again a few days later, because I only used half the beans I’d cooked up and half the tomatillos, and the second time we topped ours with grated cheddar cheese. That was also scrumptious. Really, though, how can you go wrong with all the stuff that goes in this? I’m looking forward to making this time and again, and trying different beans to see how they work out. So the first recipe of my New Recipe Challenge turns out to be a keeper! WOO HOO!