Canyon Cooking: Westwater Chili

On Thursday afternoon I arrived home from Utah and spent a few quiet hours alone in our apartment praying my brain wouldn’t catch up to my body too soon. I closed my eyes that night and dreamed of big skies and canyon walls, missing the desert, and the river, and my friends – boys who have grown into men during the time we’ve been in each other’s lives.

An early morning press check on Friday brought me back to reality and soon enough I was settled into my Brooklyn life again. Brad and I are both crunching on deadlines this weekend which means I’m also back to staring at computer screens instead of up at the stars. But there has been a hot date, an art show, meals, drinks and conversations with friends since I’ve returned, and it does feel good to be home.

During my time out West there was road food and camp food. There was melon cut with a pocket knife, shared as we hiked through Arches National Park, and peanut butter and jelly prepared and passed as we floated downstream. Tired after long days on the river, there were meals cooked on an open fire and eaten by the light of the rising moon at our campsite. In nature and the company of friends who are more like family, nothing could have been more satisfying.

One night I made a vegetarian chili that took shape from what was on hand. I had planned to include acorn squash, but there wasn’t a sharp enough knife to cut it so zucchini went in instead. I discovered some cinnamon intended for French toast in the camp kitchen and added it for a subtle undercurrent to the other spices. Poblano chilies were roasted over the fire and cornbread was baked in a dutch oven with hot coals. Eventually the ingredients in our big pot simmered into a smoky, spiced stew that warmed us up to the night.

Yesterday I picked up some of the last zucchinis and tomatoes of the season from the Greenmarket and set to recreating the chili at home. I traveled back in my mind as I cooked, and inhaled the memory of that magical meal as we sat down to eat. Brad asked me if it held up to the original. I told him it was missing the campfire, and the sound of the river rushing by. But it turns out this dish is a satisfying farewell to Summer and a warm welcome home to Fall in Brooklyn, or wherever you might be.

Westwater Chili

Serves 8-10

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium or 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 can (15 oz. / 2 cups) crushed tomatoes *or use 2 tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 cans (15 oz.) pinto beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 can (15 oz.) black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 3 cups stock *I used some water and veggie bouillon when camping
  • 3 medium or 2 large (about 12 oz.) zucchini, cut into 1/2″ pieces
  • 4 Poblano chilies, fire roasted
  • Handful of cilantro, coarsely chopped
  • Sour cream and cornbread for serving

Prepare the Poblanos by roasting over an open flame (use a grill, or the flame on your stove burner) until charred all over. Remove to a brown paper bag (rolled closed) or a bowl covered in plastic wrap and allow to steam. When cool enough to handle, rub off the blacked skins and cut the chilies into 1/2″ x 1″ strips. You can discard the stems and inner ribs, but keep the seeds if you like the heat.

In a large pot, cook the onions in oil over medium heat until soft (about 10 minutes), add the garlic and spices and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes until fragrant. Add the tomato, beans and stock – increase the heat and bring to a bubble, then add the zucchini and chilies and reduce to a simmer. Cook until the zucchini is just tender, 15-20 minutes.

Stir in the cilantro, and serve. I recommend a dollop of sour cream and a side of cornbread for sopping.

*If you want to sub the zucchini for acorn or butternut squash (I plan to this Fall season) – simply peel, discard the seeds and cut it up, then increase the simmering time to allow for the squash to become tender.

Homestyle Westwater Chili

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