Close your eyes. Let your mind float upstream and imagine a world in which all beans are tender, all chicken is juicy, and all chili is white. Let it envelop you in its warm, creamy broth, tingle you with its layered spices, and taunt you with its hint of lime and cilantro.
You there yet? Good. Now open your eyes, because you've got some words to read.
It's really easy to get yourself in trouble when it comes to talking about chili. It's a hard cold fact that a good 15% of the total economy of Texas comes from the manufacture and sale of pitchforks mass-produced for the sole purpose of chasing off anyone who dares slip a bean or two into the pot. In the past, I've written about all kinds of chili, from the hardcore Texas variety to a kitchen sink version made with beans, chilies, and chocolate, to classic New Mexican-style Chile Verde and all the way to [gasp!] not one, but two recipes for 100% vegan chili (I'm pretty sure I've broken at least a half dozen county ordinances around the country in doing so).
This week I'm getting even bolder and exploring a chili that's not only made with beans, but it's made with white beans. In place of beef, we've got chicken. And in lieu of the classic dried red chilies in a chile con carne, we're starting with fresh green chiles. It's as if the whole world has turned upside down and inside out Matrix-style, we've planted our feet squarely on the inner walls of our brains and found our minds in a brown paper bag within, and it speaks to us saying: don't worry. All is still delicious.
To be frank, I'm not 100% certain where this dish of tender chicken and white beans bound in a creamy, fresh green chili sauce topped with shredded cheese comes from. I first tasted it back in 2007 when a colleague at Cook's Illustrated was working on a recipe. Since then, I've sought it out in numerous forms. Most recipes seem to be of the open-a-can, dump-and-stir variety. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the recipe actually originated on the back of a wrapper from a can of Old El Paso chopped green chilies.
But we can do better than that. Much, much better.
Let's break it down.
The vast majority of white chicken chili recipes out there start with canned chopped green Anaheim chilies, occasionally supplementing them with jalapeños. Some foods are better in cans. Winter tomatoes and, er... OK. One food is better in cans, and it's not chilies. Fresh it will be.
I experimented with different green chili varieties, including jalapeños, Serranos, poblano, Anaheim, and bell peppers and settled on a mix of three: jalapeños for their heat, poblanos for their fruitier, earthy flavor, and Anaheims for their brightness and grassy flavors.
Next question: how to incorporate them. Canned chilies come pre-cooked, either roasted or more often steamed to remove the skins. Incorporating them into a dish is as simple as dumping and heating. With fresh chilies, I knew I'd have to soften them and concentrate their flavor somehow first.
Recipes that call for fresh chilies, like the one from Cook's Illustrated, invariably have you chop the chilies and sauté them in a Dutch oven before deglazing with stock and simmering them down.
You end up with a liquid that is bright green in color and, well, pretty bright green in flavor as well.
I don't know about you, but when I think of chili, whatever the color, I think of campfires and rich, smoky, deep flavors, not a bright green stew.
To get that flavor, I decided to take some notes from my Chile Verde recipe and roast the chilies until the skins were completely blackened. Anyone from New Mexico will tell you that this is the best way to work with them.
The flesh underneath gets nice and tender, while the skins char, infusing the rest of the chili with a rich, smoky flavor. If you want to be really hard core about it, you can char the chilies individually over an open gas flame or on top of a hot coal grill, but a broiler does the trick pretty nicely.
I also decided to add most of my other base vegetables—onions and garlic—directly to the same pan to be broiled. This not only enhances that sweet smoky flavor, it also means that I can cut back on my prep—no need to chop those onions or mince those garlic cloves like I'd have to if I were to sauté them.
After a stay under the broiler with frequent turning, the chilies should be blackened with the skins wrinkled on every surface. Look out for that skin wrinkling—it's an indication that it has separated from the flesh underneath, which is essential for when we peel those chilies.
Wrapping them up in foil as soon as they come out from under the broiler also helps steam those skins off.
Chili Tea, Anyone?
As any chili-head will tell you, now comes the most frustrating part of roasting chilies: removing that skin. The easiest way is to just run the under water and the skins will slip right off. This method is not advisable if you a) enjoy flavor and b) enjoy having your body un-harmed by the angry mob that will pitchfork you if they catch wind that you've washed chili flavor down the drain.
You could do it the old fashioned way and painstakingly peel every little fleck of blackened skin off with your fingertips on a cutting board.
But here's an even better method that I came up with when working on this braised chicken recipe last year: submerge the chilies in a bowl of chicken broth and peel them directly in the bowl. The skins will slip right off.
What's more, that chicken broth will now be infused with smoky chili flavor. Not only does it make peeling easier, but it also makes the final dish more flavorful (don't worry—the skin and seeds get strained out later). I'd call that a big win.
To incorporate the chilies into the stew, I purée them with a hand blender— remember, they're already cooked so no need to chop and sauté again.
The one thing you do need to sauté? The spices. With my red chili, I use a variety of spices to build up powerfully layered flavors. In this case, however, keeping it mild is better than going all out. I use a simple combination of ground cumin and coriander seed.
Sautéing them in fat (A.K.A. blooming them) not only develops flavors in them by triggering chemical reactions to take place, but it also helps those flavors meld more fully into the dish.
After about 30 seconds of blooming, the pureed chili mixture goes in.
And once it was in, I strained the chicken stock into the mix as well, squeezing the skins to extract any last bits of flavor.
Things were smelling pretty good now with our sauce, and tasting it side by side with the simpler sautéed version I'd made confirmed that flavor-wise, there's no contest: roasted chilies all the way.
Time to move on to the other elements.
Slow-cooked chicken thighs seemed like a natural choice for a dish like this, but I found that the texture and flavor of the dark meat actually made the dish a little too heavy for what it was supposed to be. Instead, I decided to go with chicken breasts.
Normally I'm a skin-on, bone-in kind of guy. I fully expected a batch I made by searing the chicken first and browning the skin before deglazing it with sauce would end up with more flavor than a batch I made with boneless, skinless breasts I simply poached, but remarkably, the flavor was not all that different: there's so much else going on here that the browning chicken steps are largely unnecessary.
Instead, I just dropped the chicken into the simmering pot of sauce (I added some store-bought chicken broth to the sauce base to bulk it up into a soupy mixture).
The only real key to tender, moist chicken? Use whole breasts and cook them just until they hit around 150°F before taking them out. Any hotter and they turn chalky and stringy.
Shredding the chicken meat by hand after it's cool enough to handle produces nice natural chunks and also minimizes knife work (so far all you've had to do is chop an onion in half and slit a few cooked chilies!). I reserved the chicken meat off to the side until the stew finished cooking.
There are a number of white bean varieties on the market. I made the stew with both dried cannellini and small white beans and both worked out just fine, though I lean towards the latter for their shorter cooking time. With certain beans (black beans in particular), soaking is completely unnecessary and actually detrimental. In this case, however, soaking the beans overnight improved their texture significantly without impacting flavor.
You've probably heard that you aren't meant to salt your beans until they're done cooking. Doing so would cause their skins to toughen or perhaps the universe to implode in a bad way. This is not true. In fact, soaking the beans in salted water (essentially brining them) can have the opposite effect, helping them to soften more easily as they cook and become creamier. Salting the cooking liquid also helps this process, though you shouldn't salt too heavily—it's gonna reduce down a bit as the beans cook.
I cooked mine directly in the sauce, letting them soften over the course of about an hour.
You can use canned beans if you want to lose even more street cred (don't worry, I'm not judging—I do it all the time myself), but this is really the kind of dish where every little bit of extra effort ends up making a big impact in the finished product.
So far, the chili is pretty green, right? So where does it get its white color from?
We take some of those beans...
...and purée them until they're completely smooth before stirring them back into the pot, turning what was a deep, roast-y green broth into a rich, creamy, pale green stew.
We're on the home stretch here, we just have to reintroduce all of our players. At this stage, the chicken goes back in.
After simmering for another five minutes just to heat everything straight through, I gave it a taste. Certainly a huge improvement over the earlier sautéed versions I was making, but it still needed a bigger kick of flavor. One thing that commonly gets overlooked in soups and stews? Acid. When used right, acid can be just as important a final seasoning as salt or heat.
I added some in two different forms. Lime juice was the obvious first choice, but the pickling liquid from a can of pickled jalapeños was even better, giving the stew brightness and heat at the same time. It was so good that in subsequent batches I actually decided to puree a few directly into my chili mixture.
Almost there, I thought. It just needs a touch more richness.
I tried stirring in dairy elements in a number of forms: sour cream, Mexican-style crema ágria, yogurt, heavy cream, even Middle Eastern labne. They were all fine, but non stood out to me.
Until I reached for the box grater and the block of cheese.
It's traditional to top your chili with some shredded pepper Jack cheese to melt into the stew as you stir. But if melted cheese is so good in the stew, why leave it to someone as untrustworthy as the diner to do it? Why not just incorporate some in the first place?
I added a big handful of grated cheese and stirred it until was completely melted into the broth. Bingo.
Topped with some more grated cheese, some chopped cilantro, sliced scallions, and extra lime wedges, this was the white chicken chili I'd been dreaming about my whole life, even if I never knew it.
Tender, creamy, spicy, and bright, this is the stuff even a dyed-in-the-wool chile con carne traditionalist will dip their finger into when they think nobody is watching.
And if you're wondering what you can possibly do with leftovers (if there is such a thing), here are two quick suggestions: Layer it with corn tortillas into a cast iron pan that just fits them. Top with more cheese and bake. Or even simpler, WHITE CHILI NACHOS. Yes.