(Note: this post was originally published on February 20, 2019. It was one of the earliest recipes on The Rogue Brussel Sprout! (Hence the awful photos... sorry!... I promise it's on my list to rephotograph this soon). The date above reflects migration to the new platform.)
Chili: A Love Language
Chili is to food what a blank canvas is to art. It has the potential to become a masterpiece, and is just waiting to be filled with delicious inspiration. It truly is one of my favorite things to make.
Chili is also a labor of love, or at least it is in my opinion. This is not a "set it and forget it" slow cooker recipe (sorry!!). To be honest, I don't generally find slow cooker stews to be all that exciting because all of the ingredients have been cooked the same way. Life gets much more interesting when you caramelize, roast, toast, and char; after all, that's where the flavor comes from.
This chili is a project for a cold winter afternoon when you want to have fun in the kitchen, sip a margarita two, and watch the magic happen. Creating all these levels of flavor is a hands-on process, so make a big batch and savor your leftovers for days!
A Balancing Act
In my mind, one of the most important aspects of chili is balance. Chili that is one-note (for example, super spicy) or one texture (uniform slow-cooker mush) can feel boring. When I make chili, my goal is to achieve a diverse array of flavors and textures.
In this version, I bring in some non-traditional flavors with one of fall/winter's most iconic ingredients: squash! The combination of the delicate sweetness of the squash with the spiciness of the peppers and chili powder is magical. I've found that the key to bridging the gap is to use pumpkin puree instead of tomato paste as the base, sort of an orange chili rather than a red chili if you will.
In this recipe, I try to hit on all the flavor notes. There's sweet (squash and pumpkin), spicy (peppers and spices), roasty (grilled corn, caramelized onions, fire-roasted peppers), nutty (wheatberries), warming (cinnamon and ginger), and fresh (lime juice at the end). Hitting all of these categories ensures a well-balanced and interesting final product!
Make It Work for YOU
Good news: chili is a really easy dish to customize in many different ways! You'll see in the ingredient list that I suggest a range of amounts for each spice so that you can choose how spicy you want things and how many other flavors you want to highlight. You can also vary the heat level by using different peppers. I suggest adding a fire-roasted poblano at the beginning and a few fire-roasted bell peppers at the end, but you could easily add in some jalapenos instead of or in addition to the poblano if you like heat, or stick with all bell peppers for no heat.
Additionally, while I suggest butternut squash in this recipe, any winter squash will work great. Just remember to adjust the cooking time accordingly. Kabocha is one of my favorites and would be wonderful here!
Finally, we can all admit that the garnishes and toppings are one of the most fun things about chili, right?? This is a great way to make it your own. I like to have some crunchy garnishes (pepitas, tortilla chips, etc), some fresh ones (cilantro, lime slices), and some creamy ones (e.g. cheese, avocado). And cornbread on the side is always a good idea!
Chili is a make-ahead wonder. It actually gets better over time! If you want to make this ahead of time, which I definitely suggest, you have a couple options:
For a partial make-ahead approach, you can cook the wheatberries and roast the squash a day or two before. This will still give you the feel of cooking the chili on the stove all day (which makes the house smell amazing... bonus points if you're having guests!) but will cut out some of the time and dish-washing on the day you're planning to serve it.
For a full make-ahead approach, make the whole recipe except for adding the lime juice. When you're ready to serve, just reheat the chili, either in the full batch or in a smaller batch. Add the lime juice right before serving for the best flavor.
Let's Talk Ingredients
Here's what you'll need for this recipe, as well as some thoughts, tips, and possible substitutions. If you make any substitutions, I'd love to hear about it in the comments section below.
Wheatberries. Feel free to use farro or barley instead. But if you do, I suggest adding it a bit later in the process so that it doesn't get too soft.
Salt and pepper
Butternut squash. Or use Kabocha squash or even pumpkin for a different flavor.
Onions. I love to use sweet onions, since their delicate sweetness helps to balance the spices. But you can use yellow or white onions if you prefer.
Ancho chili powder
Whole cumin seeds
Cinnamon. This definitely isn't a traditional chili ingredient, but I love the warmth it brings to the dish, and it makes so much sense with the squash and pumpkin.
Ginger powder. Same as above!
Poblano peppers. Feel free to use jalapenos instead for additional heat, or just bell peppers for no heat.
Dash of tequila. Optional but awesome... for deglazing the pot!
Pumpkin puree. Either canned or homemade is fine. If canned, just make sure it's 100% pumpkin and NOT pumpkin pie filling!
Corn. Given that chili is usually a winter food and corn isn't in season, I suggest using frozen; it's much better than canned.
Colored bell peppers
Garnishes of choice. See ideas above. Whatever you love on your chili is great!
Imagine the most perfect winter Saturday. For me, it involves a long walk outside... and then an afternoon making this chili! We really enjoy the end product, but also the process itself. Cooking a big pot of this chili can really make a winter day feel special! I like to do some of the prep work early, then we listen to some music and sip a couple margaritas while I fire-roast the veggies and do the stove-top work. It's the best sort of date night!
I hope you love this recipe as much as we do. Cheers and happy chili making!
It makes me so happy to hear from you and see your creations! Please leave a comment below and let me know what you think about this recipe. If you post a photo on Instagram, hashtag #TheRogueBrusselSprout and tag me (@TheRogueBrusselSprout) in the post text so that I'm sure to see it.
Butternut Squash, Black Bean, and Wheatberry Chili
My absolute favorite thing to make on a cold winter weekend, this chili is loaded with sweet butternut squash, hearty black beans, chewy wheatberries, and some delicate heat. This is a really easy recipe to customize based on your tastes and is perfect for a winter party!
Precook the wheatberries by boiling them for at least an hour until tender. You may want to do this the day before since it takes a while. They (approximately) double in size, so a cup dry will yield about two cups cooked.
Preheat the oven to 425. Peel and dice the butternut squash, then roast at 425 until golden and medium-soft, about 20-25 minutes. (Or you can do this the day before for ease!).
When you're ready to start cooking the chili, begin your flavor base by dicing and caramelizing the onions in a dash of oil. Salt and pepper liberally. Caramelize them deeply so that you allow all those delightful toasted flavors to develop!
Mix up your spice blend (chili powders, cumin powder, cumin seeds, coriander, cinnamon, ginger, cayenne, plus more salt) and set it aside. You can always add more later but can't take away, so be delicate at first so you can taste and add as you go.
Fire-roast your poblano pepper(s), either directly over a gas flame or under the broiler, until charred. Remove the seeds if you wish and dice finely, since you want this delicate heat to spread evenly throughout the dish.
Once the onions are caramelized, add the finely diced poblano and the dried spice blend you mixed previously. Toast for a few minutes to bloom the flavor of the spices.
Deglaze the pan with a few shots of tequila and allow the onions, pepper, and spices to steam for a minute.
Add some water (about 4 cups to start) and the pumpkin puree. This is your base liquid that will develop into the flavorful broth that will eventually bring everything together. Bring it to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
Add in about half of the butternut squash (you'll add the other half later). This will allow some pieces to break down more fully and others to remain as visible chunks.
Add the wheatberries since they can stand up to a lot of cooking and will absorb all the great flavors of the broth. Simmer for half an hour to keep developing the flavor.
While the wheatberries continue to soften and absorb all the great flavors you're creating, grill your corn (probably on an indoor grill pan during the winter!) and get some good char on it.
Add the beans and grilled corn to the chili.
Taste and adjust! Do you want more heat? Then add more cayenne and/or chili powder. Do you want more depth without adding heat? Add chili powder (if yours is relatively mild) and cumin. Feel like you need more zing in general? Add a bit more salt. Keep simmering and letting the magic happen, and keep tasting.
About 15 minutes before you're ready to eat, add the remaining butternut squash.
Fire-roast your bell peppers, either directly over a gas flame or under the broiler, until charred. Dice them coarsely, and add them about ten minutes before you want to serve so they maintain some texture.
Right before serving, add the lime juice in order to keep it fresh and bright.
Serve and garnish as you desire, or make up a toppings board so that everyone can customize their own.