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Spicy Chicken Chili

Halloween night traditions persisted for years. My two eager brothers and I, in our costumes and makeup, masks on the table, hurriedly wolfing down a dinner of tomato soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and carrot sticks. That orange-hued dinner was meant to celebrate the occasion, we knew. And we cleaned our plates, but our minds were on the pillow cases we’d be filling and the super-hero, cowboy, and ghoulish friends we’d be meeting on our street, comparing our various “takes” for the night and sharing the secret of which house was giving out the best candy. It was the same for you, right?

Years later, with my own daughters all Raggedy-Anned or their broad faces smiling in fantastic clown make-up, I still didn’t question the traditional Halloween dinner I’d grown up eating. Were I to get a second chance though, THIS would be the dinner I’d serve them. But I’d include some bright wedges of orange and a few slender carrot sticks. Even some of the littlest traditions are worth holding tight to.

~ ~ ~

Since finding this recipe in a Nordstrom cookbook several years ago, it’s become a family favorite. Different from most chilies I’ve tried, it’s not a homogenous stew. The individual ingredients stand out and shine; it’s highly aromatic and  has an almost brightly spicy, lingering flavor.

It’s said that we taste first with our eyes. I think often that’s true, and visually this chili doesn’t disappoint. Scarlet red tomato, bright green bits of jalapeño and cilantro, petite, deep mahogany black beans and the larger, softly-shaded pintos, with flecks of chili powder and cumin swimming about. It IS kind of pretty. But I think the NOSE of this chili hits you first and wakens your appetite. It doesn’t do it all by itself though. There’s help from the cornbread baking in the oven. They’ll come out together, ready to feast upon! It’s a perfect chili for a chilly autumn night.

(Hint: For the best flavor, if your chili powder is a year or more older, it’s best to start with new.)

Spicy Chicken Chili

( serves 6 to 8 )

  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 to 1½ pounds of boneless skinless chicken thighs cut into very narrow strips (see NOTE)
  • 4 teaspoons chili powder (or more according to your taste)
  • 1 Tablespoon ground cumin – or toasted cumin seeds, ground (see NOTE)
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano leaves
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt (unless you’re using an unsalted broth, in which case it will need more)
  • 2  jalapeño chiles, seeded, de-ribbed, and minced (each about a man’s fat thumb size)
  • 1 can (14½ ounces) diced tomatoes in juice (fire-roasted are wonderful)
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 can (15 ounces) pinto beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 can (15 ounces) black beans, rinsed and drained
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro stems and leaves


  • diced onion – yellow, red or green
  • shredded cheddar cheese
  • extra chopped cilantro
  • sour cream (optional)
  • diced avocado (optional)
  • lime wedges (optional)

NOTE: on chicken – 1 pound is adequate, but if your tastes run to a meatier chili, you may want more.

NOTE: on cumin – ground cumin is fine. I prefer to dry roast cumin seeds for several minutes in a skillet & then grind them. It brings out a deeper almost-smoky flavor that we love at our house. (Skillet on medium, stir/shake the seeds until medium-brown. Then grind and measure 1 Tablespoon.)

Using a 6- to 8- quart saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Toss in the onions and garlic and stirring occasionally, cook until mellow and softened. (About 7 minutes.)

Add the thinly-sliced chicken and stirring constantly, cook until no pink remains. (Another 7 minutes.) Add the chili powder, cumin, oregano, and salt and stir to coat the chicken and onion mixture. Add the jalapeño peppers, tomatoes with their juice, and broth, stir well, then cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the pinto beans, black beans, black pepper and cook, uncovered, until the mixture has thickened and the flavors have blended, about 15 minutes or so longer.

(If the cornbread isn’t out of the oven when the chili is done, I like to just turn the heat off, put the lid on, and allow it to steep until the bread comes out of the oven.)

Remove from the heat and stir in the cilantro. Serve in individual bowls or in a warmed tureen.

~ ~ ~

(This recipe slightly adapted from Nordstrom Entertaining at Home Cookbook.)

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is a fantastic looking chilli! I simply adore your bowl thingy too!

    October 23, 2011
  2. Hey, thank you!

    October 23, 2011
  3. Ma, I may just steal your meal idea – as I often do – and make this for Halloween night. What a great idea, and so pretty too! And your descriptors — how do you do that?

    October 23, 2011
  4. Thanks for that tip about old chili powder. I did buy a humongous 18 ounce bottle a few years ago and have been able to use only about half of it. I’ll put what’s left in the bucket for Portland’s new curbside food scraps recycling and somebody somewhere down the line will have some very spicy compost.

    October 23, 2011
  5. What a wonderful chili and cornbread recipe!

    October 23, 2011
  6. Ali #

    Yes, Halloween dinner it is. If we all make it….it will be like we’re eating it together, right?! xoxo Again, adore this recipe!!

    October 23, 2011
  7. Pete Clemente #

    Your recipes are always accompanied by tastefully constructed narratives, the two go hand in hand for you. I enjoy reading them and always look forward to your next gastronomical adventure.

    October 24, 2011
    • Pete, thanks so much! Happy you’re here.

      October 24, 2011
  8. Susan D #

    Ok…was looking for a meal to do on Halloween as tradition and this will defiantly be it. Also, I have been using Bobs red mill cornmeal, as it’s whole grain/all natural and a better option than conventional, but I feel like it’s sandy and a bit “mealy” ….which cornmeal do you use? I also use BRM whole wheat pastry flour, which I like. I like your idea of using half of each flour! I am SO enjoying this blog!!!

    October 24, 2011
    • Susan, thank you so much! Delights me that you’re enjoying it! I like all the Bob’s Red Mill products I’ve tried. But I agree on the cornmeal. Only recently was I able to find their fine-ground cornmeal, and it’s an improvement for sure. I used to use Albers but opted for organic, whole grain and made the switch to BRM. I believe King Arthur Flour makes a fine-ground whole grain cornmeal, but I’m not sure I’ve seen it in our local stores, I don’t think it’s organic, and I don’t know if we’d like the texture any better. But I’ll be looking for it (or ordering on line) and will let you know what I discover. Thanks for the question. And Happy Halloween!

      October 25, 2011
  9. deb #

    Well, this puts my macaroni & cheese and carrot & raisin salad tradition to shame!! Did you ever buy the black & orange Thriftway bread for sandwiches? Loved hearing about your trick-or-treat days, for yourself and your girls 🙂

    October 28, 2011
  10. carolyn #

    This looks like a hearty bowl of love! Can’t wait to serve it up!

    November 4, 2011
  11. Its so yummy! I will surely try it out. Thanks for posting this recipe!

    March 20, 2012

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