The White Chili That Wasn't

It was supposed to be a white chili supper. I had visions of white beans seasoned with rosemary and garlic whispering sweet nothings to ground turkey and pearl barley. It would be lighter (i.e. lower in fat) than a classic red chili yet hearty enough to satisfy an urban cowboy and with plenty of fiber to feel virtuous.

The inspiration originally came from a recipe that appeared in Bon Appetit magazine about 10 years ago, with the barley catching my eye. I asked myself out loud why I rarely use barley, one of the easiest, no-fuss grains to work with in one-pot dishes.

Ground turkey and barley make for a compelling chili. (Kim O'Donnel)

The original plan was to share the work with my beloved domestic co-pilot, who considers himself a chili expert. "Okay, meet you after yoga," I said, "and you can pick up the ingredients at the store." Check. "See you at home." Check check.

Well, life had other plans for us, and for the chili. Co-pilot got saddled with last-minute work chaos and was unable to do the grocery shopping or join me in our kitchen project. I picked up the slack, making a detour to the store that was near a bus stop. No problem.

By the time I arrived at the store, I checked the watch: 7:10. If I quickly gathered my vittles and took a cab home. I could be cooking by 8, I thought. Not ideal, but still feasible to eat by 9:30.

As I perused the aisles, I discovered there was nary a can of white beans in the store. There goes my white chili idea. I had plenty of garbanzo beans at home, but could I make a make a chili solely from garbanzos? Sigh.

I moved on to the next item on the list -- ground turkey -- and headed to the meat counter.

I was batting 1.000. No ground turkey in the house. "Okay, don't fret yet," I said under my breath. I looked for signs of turkey sausage before throwing in the towel.

Negative. Damn.

Now it was 7:30. No turkey, no white beans, no car. This was not going to happen. But before I declared the evening a complete chili whiteout, I walked through the frozen aisle. There, my luck seemed to turn around. I found a box of frozen, unseasoned turkey burger patties. Let's give this a shot, I decided.

I got home by 8, as planned, and realized I never did anything about the white bean deficit. I rooted around the cabinets and found some pinto beans. Not exactly the stuff of white chili, but hey, at this point, I'll be lucky to eat by 10.

I chopped an onion, some garlic and a fresh chile and cooked all that in oil. And because this experience was already in improv mode, I thought, what the heck, let's add some cocoa powder with the cumin, cinnamon and chili powder. So far, so good, and the house smelled great.

Meanwhile, my turkey patties were defrosting in the microwave, and I drained my cans of beans. Turkey went into the pot, and my friend Leslie called from Seattle. "I hear cooking going on," she said. "Yeah, well, it's a big experiment tonight," I replied. "I have no idea how this is going to turn out." And in saying those words, I realized that it was more than okay to go with the kitchen flow and see what happens.

Once the turkey was browned, I added the barley and a combination of canned chicken stock and water (I used what I had on hand). As the barley began to open up and tenderize, I tasted my brew and decided it need more depth. In went some tomato puree I had in the cabinet. A little smoke from a chipotle chile was thrown into the mix as well.

By 9:40, the chili was done. Beans were added at the end, getting a brief warming and a chance to talk to all the other ingredients.

Far from white -- and a long stretch from the original plan -- the chili turned out better than fine. It was a work of improv beauty, and a good reminder on how to ride the ever-changing wave that is "Life."

Below, amounts from my experiments, but by all means, adjust when life calls for it. And if you've got a chili tip or story to share, do so in the comments area below.

Kim 's Improv Turkey Chili

3 tablespoons vegetable oil (I used olive oil)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 fresh chile, seeded and deveined, diced
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 teaspoons cumin
½ teaspoon chili powder
1 pound ground turkey
½ teaspoon salt, to taste
6-8 ounces pearl barley
Chicken stock or water, at least 3 cups
Tomato puree, up to 15 ounces (KOD note: I used nearly one box of Pomi brand strained tomatoes)
1 chipotle chile in adobo sauce, finely chopped (optional)
1 sprig fresh rosemary, needles removed from branch and finely chopped
1 15-16 ounce can of garbanzo beans, drained
1 15-16 ounce can pinto beans or cannelini or northern beans, drained
salt to taste

Optional add-ons:
Shredded sharp cheddar or Monterey jack
Chopped scallions
Chopped fresh cilantro, parsley

Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pot and add onion, garlic and chile. Cook over low-medium heat and occasionally stir, cooking until soft. Add cocoa powder, cinnamon, cumin and chili powder and stir as a paste forms. Add ground turkey and cook at least five minutes, until turkey is no longer pink. Add salt to season meat.

Add enough barley and then enough liquid to just cover everything. Bring up to a boil, then partially cover pot and allow to simmer, until barley is tender, about 40 minutes. Add tomato puree as needed, for liquid and extra depth of flavor.

If using, add chipotle chile and rosemary. Then add beans and allow to heat at least 15 minutes until warmed through. Season with salt to taste. Serve in bowls, with shredded cheese or other garnish; better the next day reheated.

Makes at least 8 servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  December 28, 2006; 9:13 AM ET Dinner Tonight , Kitchen Musings
Previous: Bites of 2006 | Next: A Toast to Toast


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Hummm, I'm stuck on my own white chili. No tomato, plenty of cumin, no barley. I can imagine between the cocoa and the tomato that the color is murky. Sometimes that creates issues with children.

I like it with cornbread muffins that's got green chilies baked into it, topped with Monterrey jack cheese and a fruit salad.

Posted by: roseg | December 28, 2006 10:44 AM

It's great to hear someone else who puts cocoa and cinnamon in Chile, white or red. Rarely do I see chile recipes with it and I always put pinches of it in. I figure if it's good enough for a mole, it's good enough for chile.

Posted by: BB | December 28, 2006 11:06 AM

Sounds delicious. But you were 'batting zero'. Not 1000. If you were 'batting one thousand', you would have found every thing you wanted. Instead you 'struck out' at the grocery store.

Thanks for trampling the baseball metaphor. Try catching a few Nats games in 2007. :-)

Posted by: mapgirl | December 28, 2006 11:16 AM

you sure batting a .1000 wasn't an attempt at being facetious or sarcastic? I say I'm batting .1000 sometimes when I mean the exact opposite. Of course when you're saying it most can discern the sarcasm from your tone, which isn't present in the written form.

Posted by: bigdaddy | December 28, 2006 12:08 PM

as to the white chili I cooked some this week. I cook a whole chicken in the rotisserie for starters. That's my source of meat. I put ground turkey in red chili, but not white. It's always chicken. I use a mix of great northern, small white, and any other kind of white bean I have around the house. I use chicken broth instead of water. I add chopped green pepper, onion, garlic, various and sundry spices, including cumin, chili powder, black pepper, dash of sugar, crushed red savina habanero and a teaspoon or two of Dave's insanity sauce. Let it simmer for a couple of hours and I'm good. I use a 16 quart pot that is to the top or close to it each time. I don't measure spices, I just "eye" them. It's quite tasty. I'm having some for lunch as a matter of fact. I can usually achieve what I consider to be the perfect spice level for chili, which is it doesn't start to get "hot" until you're close to the bottom of the bowl. It's a gradual heat thing.

Posted by: bigdaddy | December 28, 2006 12:13 PM

I keep a jar of green tomatillo salsa on hand for jazzing up white chili. Adding it right at the end, the vinegar doesn't all cook away and keeps me from reaching for the salt shaker.

Posted by: John | December 28, 2006 1:14 PM

I want John's recipe for chili and Rosegs' for cornbread if they are willing to share.

Posted by: not that I cook but.. | December 28, 2006 3:38 PM

What a great blog! And of course the other comments as well. You allhave inspired me to make with ideas the next time I make venison chile! Thanx!

Posted by: Stan | December 28, 2006 3:46 PM

A few years ago, my co-workers and I were engaged in the annual office chili cook-off. I entered my smoked duck-breast, roasted yellow-pepper, cilantro, pearl-onion, and white-bean chili, which I adore (and so do most of my guests). The winner was a concoction of French's powdered chili mix, ground beef and canned tomatoes.

Posted by: Brian | December 28, 2006 3:55 PM

Here's what I call my "white stew":
One pound of sausage, cooked, crumbled, and drained. Throw it in a large pot with two cans of white beans (include the liquid), a chopped onion, garlic, 4 or 5 medium potatoes peeled and diced, a cube of chicken bouillion, some cumin, and about 1/4 cup of water. Simmer until the potatoes are soft. Delicious, and it freezes well.

Posted by: Mary | December 28, 2006 3:56 PM

Great, now I'm hungry!!! Awesome blog...

Posted by: martine | December 28, 2006 4:29 PM

For my white chili, I always throw in a chopped carrot or two for color and, if I have it around the house, a handful or two of fresh spinach. Serve with a dollop of sour cream.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 28, 2006 4:42 PM

There's the easy - ie. cheating! way, and the slow-cooked way.
Easy way:
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 can chicken -approx 12 oz-, drained
1 large can garbanzos, drained and well rinsed
1 can white navy or other white beans, drained and well rinsed
1 can sweet corn, drained
Saute the onion in vegetable oil until it's transparent. Throw everything else in the pot with some chicken stock. Add a pinch of chili powder and a few flakes of crushed red pepper, as well as 1 tsp sugar. Bring it to a low simmer for 15 minutes, then add tomatillo salsa (I use Trader Joe's salsa verde) to taste and serve.

Slower method.
1/2 onion, diced
1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut up into small chunks.
1 lb white navy, great northern, or garbanzo beans (or comibination), dried
1 can corn, drained (or use frozen or fresh if available)
Soak the beans overnight. Then drain and add to a slowcooker with sufficient water to cook and 1 tsp salt. Cook on low for about 4 hours or until al dente.
Saute the onion and chicken together until the onion is transparent and the chicken is cooked through.
Drain the liquid from the beans and return to the slowcooker with the chicken, onion, corn, and seasoning (chili powder, sugar, crushed red pepper flakes as above), as well as a scant cup of chicken stock. Cook for another half hour to 1 hour until the flavors have blended, then add tomatillo salsa and serve.

Posted by: John | December 29, 2006 9:57 AM

John--how generous of you to share both recipes. They sound terrific!

Kim's columns, chats, and blog sure get the ideas flowing.

Posted by: sen | December 29, 2006 5:10 PM

Just made Kim's Improv Turkey tonight, and I have to say, it was a hit!...even my picky (and I mean PICKY husband) loved it! Kim, your posting spurred me to get all of those patties in my freezer (2 turkey, 1 chicken, and 1 that turned out to be salmon) used up, and in such a tasty way! I've never used cinnamon in chili before, but I have to admit it was wonderful. The chipotle is a must (I only have chipotle paste, not whole peppers and sauce), and didn't have garbanzos so used Great Northern and Cannelini beans. And I love the way it uses barley, one of my favorite grains. Thanks, Kim, for a keeper!

Posted by: chrishpl | January 13, 2007 8:32 PM

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