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Let’s Cook Some Green Chicken Chili, The Easy Kind

Jalapeno, Anaheim, and Poblano peppers, chopped in bowls
Photo: Albert Burneko/Illustration: Chris Thompson

The strictures of pandemic life lend themselves to fussy pursuits. People never before the least bit curious about the baking arts nor even particularly passionate about crusty bread have found themselves fretting over sourdough starters in these interminable months, if only to have something to do, some undertaking that can succeed—if only to feel that they have transmuted the purgatory of practical house arrest into some kind of new accomplishment. If you are going to have bread, the thinking goes, you may as well combine it with the resources—time, anxiety, unspent attention—you now have in genuinely terrifying superabundance. If you are going to have bread, you may as well also have an exorcism.

Chili—the red kind, the regular kind, chili con carne—lends itself to this. Once upon a time, maybe you just browned some ground beef, threw in some onions, dumped some store-bought chili powder and cooking liquid and canned beans over it, simmered it for a while, and ate it with some shredded cheese out of a bag. But there has always been a stricter, more strenuous, more fundamentalist way to do it, involving rehydrating dried chilis and rendering them into a pastelike base; involving, if you so choose, homemade stock and hand-ground and toasted spices; involving some impossible standard set by crazy persons who literally make chili for a living. Involving fussiness, is the thing, an infinite whirlpool of fussiness, down and down forever. Chili, like so many other things right now, can be a trap; you—I—can spend two days stuck in it.

If you are like me, like I have discovered I am during all these long months effectively confined inside these walls, first of all I am so sorry, but also, the trap is baited with the simple question, Do I actually have to cut that corner, or can I do more? And then it is impossible—actually impossible!—to just, like, whip up some chili. I cannot even have the thought “I would like to have some chili” later than noon on the same day as I eventually just eat some chili; it takes longer than that. Because if I am doing it conveniently, if I am not making a ludicrous Winchester House out of the undertaking, then I am not doing enough. Then all I will taste in a bowl of chili will be the cut corners. This is madness. My brain is absolute foam.

So the nice thing about green chicken chili, by contrast, is that it actually is possible for me to just make and eat some on the same day as I decided I wanted some. Partly this is due to facts about me, but mostly it is due to facts about green chicken chili, namely that it is just a lot simpler to make. That’s bad when what you really want is something to obsess over for 48 hours; it’s good when you already are fixated on something but you and your family require nutritive sustenance in order to continue living. It’s just a much less pressurized type of deal all around, is what I am saying. I am also saying: Make some. Let’s make some! Let’s cook some green chicken chili.

Here are some things that you will need.

You will need some chicken. Personally I recommend the noble boneless, skinless chicken thigh. It’s easy to work with compared to its, ah, boneful and beskinned counterpart; it’s relatively cheap as chicken pieces go; and, most crucially, chicken thigh meat is 11,000 times more delicious than any other part of the chicken. I especially recommend an organic, humanely raised variety of boneless, skinless chicken thighs, for moral reasons and because “organic” is also a proxy for methods of chicken-farming that yield a tastier chicken thigh.

As for how much, oh, let’s say two pounds. They’ll shrink as they cook, and I’ve decided that you’re cooking for, like, five reasonably hungry people. You’ll probably have leftovers!

You will also need lots and lots of green chili peppers. I will look the other way while you decide which kind or kinds. In the photo up there at the top, you are looking from left to right at jalapeños, Anaheims (a milder cultivar of the New Mexico variety), and poblanos; all of these went into the pot on the day this photo was taken, and the resulting food was extremely damn good.

I do not want to shame a fellow food enthusiast by name, but I saw a recipe out there online for green chicken chili where the list of ingredients has a line that is like “one (1) jalapeño, seeds removed for less heat.” That is the only listing for any variety of capsicum annuum in a recipe that calls for like three pounds of chicken breast and two whole cans of beans. Now, it is not for me to tell anyone what to like or not like, or what to call their food; it is not for me to condemn anyone’s effort at making food the way they like it. If you want to submerge a strip of bacon into a puddle of purple grape jelly and call it “green chicken chili,” that is your business. God be with you. I do not give a damn. But at that recipe’s ratio of (de-heated) jalapeño to chicken and beans, you would scarcely notice a difference if you dropped that jalapeño down the garbage disposal. I implore you, as your longtime friend, to ask more of your palate than this. Not for the sake of boasting that you have made some absurd chesty XXXtreme chili so spicy that it can melt steel—by all means, take the seeds and the white flesh out of your peppers if you want to reduce their heat!—but because it is good for your eventual bowl of green chicken chili to have lots of green chili peppers in it, because then it will taste very strongly of green chili peppers, and green chili peppers are very good. You can have literally just a bowl of chicken some other time!

What I’m saying here is that I recommend getting quite a few green chili peppers. How about, say, enough to fill, oh, let’s say three decent-sized cereal bowls, as in the photo above! Chop them up into strips or dice them or whatever. Wear gloves as you do! Decide for yourself whether and/or how much of their seeds and interior flesh you want to remove.

You will also need one or two big white or yellow onions, and a couple of cloves of garlic. While you are chopping the peppers, chop these also. I guess “mince,” in the garlic’s case.

Another thing that will go very nicely in your green chili is tomatillos. Ordinarily I would say that these are essential, in fact, except that during these weird pandemic times they’ve been harder to track down, even at the Latin grocer and the H-Mart, and I do not want to be like, Well forget it, asshole, no green chicken chili for you. If you can find a handful of fresh tomatillos, great: Boil them briefly, peel their skin off, pulse them in a blender or food processor a few times. If you can find jarred or canned tomatillos, they’re probably peeled already, just pulse them in a blender or food processor a few times. If you can’t find any tomatillos, that’s OK. It’s OK! You can still have a perfectly tasty pot of green chicken chili, I promise.

(In a pinch, if you can score a jar of salsa verde, check the list of ingredients; it probably contains tomatillo. Ordinarily I would probably lecture you against using this, and hit you with an overstated guilt trip about, like, Don’t you want to be the creator of your own food, don’t be the ninny who is afraid to leave the big-box supermarket in search of actual tomatillos, or whatever! But these are strange times, and it’s smart to limit the number of places you enter in search of groceries. It’s fine to just get a jar of salsa verde with tomatillo in it. It’s also fine to not do that. It’s all fine.)

A few last things. You need chicken stock; at least a quart of it, probably two if you can’t find any tomatillo action. You need ground cumin; naturally you also need salt, which dignity and respect will not allow me to boldface. You need some small amount of cooking oil. You do not quite need but I heartily recommend, say, a couple of cans of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed with cold water to get the weird bean-y can-juice off them. And then later when this stuff is cooked and ready to eat you will want some chopped cilantro, sliced scallions, tortilla chips, and, what the hell, maybe some queso fresco and/or sour cream or whatever, for topping it.

Done shopping? Let’s cook this stuff.

Get a big heavy pot or Dutch oven nice and hot on the stove, add a tablespoon of your oil in there, and brown your chicken thighs in batches over medium-high heat. This is mostly to render out some of their fat; the attractive brown color will fade quite a bit when you braise them later. Move each batch to a big rimmed plate or bowl as it comes out, and let the pot heat back up before you add the next one.

Eventually all your chicken will be browned—on both sides!—and you will have a hot pot with some amount of sizzling chicken fat and probably some stuck-on browned bits down there at the bottom. Chuck, oh, a couple teaspoons of ground cumin in there and move it around with your trusty implement for just a few seconds as it heats up; don’t let it burn. Now dump your diced onions in there (you can hold out a little if you like to garnish your bowl of chili with some raw diced onion), sprinkle them with salt, and move them around for, oh, five or ten minutes, until they’ve sweated out much of their water and are translucent and soft. Now add the minced garlic and toss it around; as soon as you can smell it, add the chopped chili peppers and salt this stuff generously. You added the peppers later than the onion because, while it’s perfectly OK for the onion to dissolve away to nothing between now and when you serve this stuff, it will actually be something of a bummer if the peppers are just bits of mush when you are eating a bowl of your green chicken chili. Just get them fragrant, for now.

Hey, that big pot of diced what-have-you smells pretty great! The fragrance of the cumin sort of curls around the aromatics and brightens them; it makes your mouth water. Return the chicken to the pot, and now begin adding your chicken stock, as well as whatever tomatillo substance you have (if you have any!). I recommend dumping in all of however much tomatillo substance you’ve got first, and then adding chicken stock on top of this until all the solid stuff in the pot is submerged by, oh, an inch beneath the liquid. Stir the pot a few times as it comes up to a low boil, then lower the heat to settle it down to a low burbling simmer and cover it most of the way with a lid, so that it can evaporate some as it cooks. Set a timer for an hour, and walk the dang hell away.

You’re, like, 95 percent of the way finished already. After that hour, taste a spoonful of the liquid in the pot. Does it need some salt? It very likely needs some salt. Add some salt! Also, if you are using them, dump your beans in there. Also, reach in there with a pair of forks and just gently tease the chicken apart into whatever gauge of strips it wants to settle on. That’s it, buddy! You’re done. You have cooked green chicken chili. Ladle it into bowls.

Serve this stuff with all the various garnishes and toppings a few paragraphs back up the page, particularly the cilantro and scallions. It’s heat-warm but also chili-warm, sustaining and rich but also bright and green-tasting, gently tart, pleasingly balanced. It makes you feel like a million bucks. And you did not have to rehydrate anything. You will have to expend your insanity on something else; at least you are well fueled for the job.