More spice than fire: White Chili

by Terry B on November 28, 2007

A mix of traditional and non-traditional ingredients—fresh ginger, bay leaf and oregano, for instance—give this White Chili a satisfyingly big flavor. Recipe below.

Easy to make, this white chili recipe is lively, robust and flavorful without being obvious. Lots of spices and herbs come together to create a satisfyingly complex taste without too much heat. I used to make it a lot, but it had fallen off the radar screen for reasons unknown. With chili season upon us, though—well, it’s always chili season at our house, but around late fall or early winter, it gets serious—it was time for it to make a comeback.

For the most part when we’re thinking chili, we stick with two takes on it, Marion’s and mine. Which gets made depends on which flavor we’re craving and who has the time and inclination to cook. What made me remember this big-flavored white chili was a recent bowl of ersatz white chicken chili from a restaurant near my office. The restaurant chili would have been fine had they called it soup. It had lots of clear broth, a definite sign of soup to me. And it had no cumin, a definite sign of, well, not being chili.

This recipe is definitely chili. It has a robust flavor and packs a little heat. There’s no mistaking the cumin presence. And—sorry, Texans—it’s got beans. But just like our two mainstay chili recipes above, it’s got some decidedly non-traditional touches too. Fresh ginger, for instance, and mushrooms. Bay leaf and oregano. And the only tomato you’ll find in it is a little used for garnish at the end. Based on a recipe from the Chicago Tribune’s excellent Good Eating section, it is hearty and satisfying—and the perfect antidote to a cold winter’s evening.

With this recipe just bursting with herbs, both fresh and dry, how could I not include it in Weekend Herb Blogging? This week, it’s being hosted by WHB’s founder, Kalyn, over at Kalyn’s Kitchen. Be sure to check out her complete round-up Sunday night.

White Chili
4 servings

1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped [about 2 cups]
1 jalapeño pepper, finely chopped
[with or without seeds and ribs—see Kitchen Notes]
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1/4 inch thick piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
[about 2 teaspoons—see Kitchen Notes]
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into bite-sized chunks
4 ounces mushrooms, quartered
1 tablespoon flour
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cans [15 ounces each] white beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup chopped cilantro [plus 2 tablespoons for garnish]
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons cumin
1/2 teaspoon each, salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small tomato, chopped
2 green onions, thinly sliced

Heat a large dutch oven or sauce pan over a medium flame. Add olive oil. Add onions and jalapeño pepper and cook, stirring occasionally to avoid browning onion, for 5 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add chicken and mushrooms. Drizzle in more olive oil, if needed. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to brown chicken on all sides.

Sprinkle in flour and stir to coat. Cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add broth, beans, 1/4 cup cilantro, bay leaf, oregano, cumin, salt and pepper. Cover, reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are tender and chicken is cooked through, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Discard bay leaf and adjust seasonings. Spoon chili into bowls and garnish with tomato, cilantro and green onion. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

Adjusting jalapeño heat. The heat found in this and other peppers is from capsaicin and is found in the seeds and veins, or ribs—the whitish ridges inside the pepper. By removing the seeds and ribs, you take away virtually all of the fire. Sometimes, I’ll slice the pepper in half lengthwise and remove the seeds and ribs from just one half; this reduces the spiciness but still lets some heat come through. Other times, I’ll just chop up the whole pepper for a full blast.

Handling the heat—-gloves or no gloves? The first time I made something with a jalapeño pepper, I carefully followed the warnings in the recipe to wear rubber gloves while slicing and dicing it. A quick aside—older daughter Claire wandered through the kitchen while I was doing this and asked what exactly I was expecting them to eat that required me to wear gloves while preparing it. Now I dispense with the gloves. A couple of caveats if you follow my cavalier lead: First, if you have any tiny cuts on your fingers, this is a great way to find them. Second, wash your hands like crazy after you finish handling the peppers—and then wash them again. You will rub your eyes or nose at some point, and if you don’t wash thoroughly, you will regret it.

Ground ginger for fresh ginger? In a word, no. Unlike most herbs and spices, you can’t substitute ground, dried ginger for fresh. Dried ginger lacks the citrusy brightness of fresh ginger, for one thing. So buy fresh ginger. You’ll find lots of uses for it at epicurious.com and wonder why you never cooked with it before. If you absolutely can’t find fresh ginger, just skip it and double the cumin; it won’t taste quite as complex, but will help add to the bigness of the flavor.

Mincing ginger. Ginger is very fibrous, not unlike wood. And like wood, it has a grain—a direction in which the fibers align. So trying to mince a large chunk is a thankless task. That’s why to cut it into 1/4-inch slices. Once you’ve peeled the slice, quarter it and bash each piece with the side of a knife. This will pulverize it into little 1/4-inch threads, easy to separate with a quick mince. You can also grate fresh ginger—just peel the piece you’re grating first.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Lydia November 28, 2007 at 11:13 am

Ginger is a really unusual chili ingredient — I’ll have to try it! If you are lucky enough to find very fresh gingerroot, you don’t even have to peel it before grating.

Charlie November 28, 2007 at 11:55 am

I was making salsa with Poblano and other assorted hot peppers one day when i made a mistake. I was grilling them because i think it makes for a much improved salsa. After i grilled them i let them cool a little and then started to pull the seeds and stems out . In a moment of unconsciousness i touched my face and some how i got it under and round both eyes. It was not a fun couple of minutes. If i had been wearing gloves i might have thought before i touched my face. But it was enough that i still don’t wear gloves but you can bet that i don’t touch till i wash twice.

Kalyn November 28, 2007 at 1:42 pm

Lydia said just what I was thinking. I like the sound of the ginger, but haven’t seen it in a recipe like this before! I really like white chili, maybe better than the traditional kind.

ann November 28, 2007 at 1:44 pm

This would be a great way to use up leftover turkey too! What a nice recipe, thanks for sharing. I’m an obsessive glove-wearing chile chopper. I’ve had one too many bad experiences with rubbing my eyes, I mean, sometimes the chiles actually make my fingers feel kind of numb.

Patricia Scarpin November 28, 2007 at 2:26 pm

Your chili sounds and looks wonderful, Terry – and with chicken instead of minced beef, you’ve won my heart (and stomach) big time. :)

Jennifer Hess November 28, 2007 at 3:02 pm

This sounds just delicious – I’m definitely going to experiment with adding ginger to my next batch of white chili.

Terry B November 28, 2007 at 3:19 pm

Lydia—You know, I’ve read that somewhere. I think you need a more direct source than my supermarkets or produce markets to get it that fresh, though. When you slice a section of ginger [at least what I'm able to buy], you can actually see a slightly darker ring around the outer edge. I peel all of this away.

Charlie—Ouch. At least it sounds like you’re a quick learner, though. Me too, generally. I feel that with so many wonderful new mistakes out there just waiting to be made, why waste time repeating any.

Kalyn—As I said, we’re big chili fans. White chili is more of a nice break than a regular rotation item for us.

Ann—Leftover turkey would be great in this. Given that this post went up almost a week after Thanksgiving, though, I assumed leftovers had already been consumed, frozen or tossed. I really do need to work up an editorial calendar to be more timely with ideas like this.

Patricia—Thanks! Chicken can also be used in regular chili, either in chunks like this or ground. I’ve also used ground turkey, which gives it a subtly lighter taste—although, interestingly, if you’re using ground sirloin, it probably contains less fat than ground turkey.

Jennifer—Do try it. It doesn’t scream ginger—it just gives it a subtle, indefinable extra touch that will have people asking you, “What did you put in here?” And I mean in a good way.

Katie November 28, 2007 at 6:18 pm

I have never made white chili…silly woman!
Now I have both a recipe and an inspiration… I live the idea of fresh ginger in it!

Katie November 28, 2007 at 6:19 pm

That would be ‘love’ the idea… wish I could blame the bad typing on an azerty keyboard… Oh wait, I can, no one can see!

Terry B November 28, 2007 at 6:43 pm

Katie—I was going to fix your typo, a little courtesy service we’re happy to provide here at Blue Kitchen. Then I saw your own correction and found that much more charming than an invisible repair would have been.

Aaron L November 29, 2007 at 1:27 pm

I made this dish last night for my wife and I. Was a little unsure about the ginger b/c I don’t cook with it very often but it was a great addition. This recipe was also very quick and easy. We have a white chili recipe that we have been using for a few years and it has now been replaced with yours!! Thanks for sharing!

Terry B November 29, 2007 at 2:58 pm

Aaron—Thanks! One of the joys of cooking, at least for me, is discovering new things. New recipes, new techniques or even new ways to explore an interesting ingredient a little more.

Laurie December 3, 2007 at 2:41 am

Very interesting spicing in your recipe — but interesting in a very good way. As for gloves, I’m a wimp but I always use them because I have a bad habit of rubbing my eyes, which is not a good idea for bare chili-choppers!

A scientist in the kitchen December 3, 2007 at 4:19 am

Whew!!! All my favorite spices/herbs are in this recipe!

neuesausderkueche December 3, 2007 at 9:21 am

I love the idea of white chili, and I like to boost it up with herbs, and thanks for the lot of info you give. I´ll read it later on. :)

Lori January 16, 2008 at 11:48 pm

2 things I’ve learned with handling most peppers.
1) If you don’t wan to wear gloves, make sure to do most of the work on the actual pepper with only one hand. Keep the knife in one and don’t touch the pepper. Since you normally use the hand you “rub”with, you won’t have as much of an issue.
2) Put some type of oil on your hands before you wash them with soap and water. The oils from the peppers will “bind” more easily with the oil and then will wash away more easily with the soap.

Hope that helps.

Otherwise, awesome recipe. Thanks..

Lori January 16, 2008 at 11:52 pm

OK, some clarification. (Don’t type replies while tending other items on the stove..my brain can’t handle it..)

1) Only handle the peppers with your non dominant hand. Hold the knife in the dominant hand so that you don’t get tempted to touch the pepper with both of them. You can use a spoon for the seed removal and then instantly pick back up the knife.

Hope that helps -splain what

Chris March 25, 2008 at 5:41 am

Terry — thanks for posting this recipe!
We made this last night:
http://www.weheartfood.com/2008/03/white-chili.html

I [heart] your photography.

Hallie March 26, 2008 at 1:14 am

http://babablacky.blogspot.com/2008/03/white-chicken-chili.html

We made it too and it was very very good. We made a few changes, but the basic recipe is still there and so yummy. Thank you!

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