It’s chili cook-off time here in Cincinnati. I don’t compete, but the steady social media stream of January calls-for-entry always gets me itching to make a big pot of spicy goodness.
Red meat isn’t really my thing, so even though I do make a mean batch of chili, it was a once-a-year meal. At most. Followed up with a week of guilty twinges and extra time on the treadmill.
Once a year, that is, until I decided one day to sub the beef and pork in my go-to recipe with humble chicken. Because here’s the thing: the secret to really great chili isn’t in the meat.
It’s in the chili. As in, chili peppers.
Most chili recipes are beef-heavy and seasoned with liberal doses of chili powder (or powders, plural). The problem there is that if you’re using chili powder from the grocery store, you have no way of knowing how long ago those spices were ground and bottled. Ground spices begin to lose their potency immediately, and are little better than flavored dust within six months.
And so, my chili secret: chili paste made fresh from a combination of rehydrated dried chili peppers, tomato paste, plus extra spices like pimenton and cumin.
Then, early on in the cook, the chili paste is heated in the pan, along with onions and garlic, to bloom the fragrance and flavors of the peppers and spices. By the time the paste is fully blended into the tomato sauce base, the kitchen smells like the best restaurant you’d ever want to visit on a cold winter afternoon.
I keep a stock of dried peppers, mostly for grinding fresh into spice blends (like homemade chili powder). Stored dried and whole, chili peppers retain the best of their flavors for a very long time. My preferences lean toward smoky over heat, so my favorites are New Mexico, guajillo, ancho, and chipotle. At the grocery, bags of dried chili peppers are usually kept in the international/Mexican section. You can also purchase from sources like Penzeys.
A quick word about texture: mouth feel is a really important quality in chili, and chili aficionados staunchly defend their preferences. Overall chili texture is heavily influenced by the preparation of the meat: ground beef produces a different chew than does shredded or cubed, and the same applies to chicken. For the batch I photographed here, I used a rotisserie chicken that I broke down and shredded. You can also try ground chicken, or cook up boneless breasts or thighs and cut them into cubes or strips.
Finally, I have to mention that this chicken chili is totally healthy. Without the fat and calorie burden of beef (and/or pork), there’s not a single health-objectionable ingredient in the batch, yet it’s probably the most flavorful dish I’ve made all winter. Black beans add another hit of protein and texture, although feel free to replace them with other beans (kidney, white, etc.), or leave them out altogether.
With all the healthy goodness going on inside, you have lots of wiggle room to get creative with the toppings. I really love homemade guac, a spot of sour cream, and chopped green onions on this healthy chicken chili, but I’m also a fan of a really good shredded sharp cheddar and Fritos. (Yeah, Frito pie in a bowl. Good stuff!)
This chili could easily be made vegetarian/vegan by using meatless crumbles or more beans instead of chicken — it doesn’t matter because the key is all in the chili paste. BTW, the chili paste can be made a couple of days ahead of time (frozen, for longer) for a super easy weeknight meal.
Healthy Chicken Chili
for the chili paste
- 1 to 2 ounces whole dried chilis, 6 to 8 pods (guajillo, New Mexico, cascabel, ancho, chipotle are nice; add a chile de arbol for heat - I used 2 guajillos, 2 anchos, and 1 chipotle)
- 2 cups very hot/near boiling water
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika pimenton
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
for the chili
- 1/2 cup diced onions
- 1 small red bell pepper diced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 can about 14 ounces diced tomatoes
- 1 can about 14 ounces tomato sauce
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon BBQ sauce use your favorite
- 1 can about 15 ounces black beans, drained
- 8 ounces cooked chicken leftover or rotisserie chicken is great
prepare the chili paste
- Cut off the tops and slice open the dried chilis and remove the seeds. Place the chilis in a bowl and pour the near-boiling water over them to cover. Let soak for 20-30 minutes, until soft. Drain (reserving the soaking liquid), and transfer the chilis to a blender. Add tomato paste, both paprikas, salt, cumin, black pepper, and 1/4 cup of the reserved liquid. Blend until smooth, stopping as needed to scrape down the blender. You might also need to add a tablespoon of extra water (I recommend using fresh water - don't worry about diluting the paste; you won't) with each scraping to create a volume through which the blades can slice. Depending on the competency of your blender, you might want to push the finished paste through a wide-mesh sieve, to catch any large slivers of chili. Set the paste aside. (Makes about 1/3 cup, depending on how much liquid you added during blending).
prepare the chili
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the chicken stock in a 4 quart stock pot or dutch oven until the stock begins to sizzle. Add the onions and peppers, and saute until soft (about 5 minutes). Add the garlic, and stir briefly.
- Add the chili paste and continue stirring until the chilis become fragrant. Add the diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, chicken stock, BBQ sauce, black beans, and chicken. Increase heat and bring to a light boil, then reduce to maintain a simmer. Cook for at least 15 minutes (longer, if you have the time). Let rest 10 minutes before serving (chili will continue to thicken).
- To serve, ladle into bowls and top green onions and other garnishes as desired. Suggested toppings include sour cream, guacamole, green onions, sliced fresh jalapeños, shredded cheese, crumbled Fritos.