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JeanMarie Brownson: A kettle of homemade chili is the gift that keeps on giving

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Homemade chili is economical to make and easy on the cook, and leftovers taste even better than the original batch.

I make grilled short rib chili when the weather proves warm enough for the grill sentry. In the fall, a harvest of vegetables inspires a meatless chili. Early on in the year, during the winter, this lean version, based on chicken and butternut squash, helps us stick to healthier resolutions.

Chile — red, green, fresh, dried or powdered — provides the principal flavor component. For long, slow-cooked chilis, I chose dried pods of deep red, richly-flavored ancho and bright guajillo chiles. For green versions, I use roasted hot and sweet fresh green chiles. For fast cooking kettles of red, chili powder made from ground dried red chilies, seasonings and salt works well.

Read labels when selecting a chili powder — avoid those with preservatives, msg and artificial flavors. I seek out local chili powder blends when possible. If your blend is spicy, start with the smaller addition in the recipe below. You can always spice things up, but it’s difficult to tone down a pot of chili. If the spice gets away from you, add more canned beans to compensate.

As with any protein purchase, buy the best available. I look for responsibly-raised chicken — without antibiotics in conditions suitable for quality of life. To raise chicken this way means it costs more at the meat counter. I think it’s worth it — for flavor, for the earth and to make a statement with my purchases.

For ground chicken, you can make your own in a food processor from a combination of boneless skinless breast and thighs. I like a ratio of 50/50 for leanness with moisture and flavor. Partially freezing the cubed meat will make it easier to grind in the food processor.

If purchasing ready-ground chicken, opt for a version that is minimally processed and at least 8% fat. Keep all ground meats thoroughly chilled up to the time of cooking. Ground turkey or lean ground beef, or a combination, works in this recipe as well.

Frozen diced or refrigerated diced fresh butternut squash make cooking speedy. If using fresh butternut, cut in half at the bulbous end. Peel the long neck portion and cut it into 3/4-inch slabs, then cut the slabs into 3/4-inch cubes. For the bulbous portion, cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and peel it. Cut into 3/4-inch slices and then into ¾-inch pieces.

Customize the chili to suit: Stir in sliced fully cooked chicken chorizo or andouille sausage before seasoning with salt, if desired. Use black beans in place of white beans. Swap out half of the butternut for small cauliflower florets. Diced green chiles can be added along with the tomatoes for heat, flavor and color.

Leftover chili keeps well in the refrigerator for several days. Or freeze it packed into small containers for up to a few months.

Chipotle Chicken, Butternut Squash and White Bean Chili

Makes 6 servings

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large sweet onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 pound ground chicken (or turkey)

3 to 4 tablespoons mild chili powder, to taste

2 to 3 teaspoons pureed canned chipotle in adobo or 1/2 to 1 teaspoon chipotle powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

4 cups (16 ounces) 3/4-inch dice fresh or thawed frozen butternut squash

1 can (14.5 ounces) diced fire-roasted tomatoes

1 can (15.5 ounces) cannellini or small white beans, undrained

3 to 4 tablespoons tomato paste

Salt to taste

Garnishes:

Chopped fresh cilantro and green onions

Corn tortilla chips

Shredded cheese

Plain yogurt or sour cream

1. Heat oil in large 5-quart saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and cook until golden, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook 1 minute. Stir in chicken. Cook and stir, breaking up any lumps, until chicken is no longer pink, about 10 minutes.

2. Stir in chili powder, chipotle and cumin; cook and stir 2 minutes. Stir in butternut squash, tomatoes, undrained beans and tomato paste. Reduce heat to low. Simmer, partly covered, stirring often, until butternut squash is tender when pierced with a fork, about 20 minutes.

3. Season with salt; heat through. Serve hot in deep bowls with garnishes.

(JeanMarie Brownson is a James Beard Award-winning author and the recipient of the IACP Cookbook Award for her latest cookbook, “Dinner at Home.” JeanMarie, a chef and authority on home cooking, Mexican cooking and specialty food, is one of the founding partners of Frontera Foods. She co-authored three cookbooks with chef Rick Bayless, including “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.” JeanMarie has enjoyed developing recipes and writing about food, travel and dining for more than four decades.)

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