Big Little Recipes

A 5-Ingredient Chicken Chili That Tastes Just Like Mom's

This week's Big Little Recipe—a weeknight dinner with no shortage of oomph—is inspired by one of the column's most popular recipes from last year.

October 15, 2019

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re cooking up a chili for when you’re feeling chilly.

Photo by Julia Gartland. Food stylist: Samantha Seneviratne.

Growing up, one of my most-requested dinners was chunky chicken chili, not to be mistaken with regular chicken chili. It was halfway between brothy and stewy, heady with spice, loaded with vegetables, and so chock-full of tender chicken hunks, you might mistake it for a braise.

A few months ago, I asked my mom if she had the recipe (or if she remembered where it was from). But no luck. In all likelihood, it was a throw-together meal that she made on repeat because it made me smile. And I think that’s just how chili should be, as fuss-free and crowd-pleasing as possible.

Last fall (actually, almost a year to the day!), I developed a weeknight bean chili for this column. While many chili recipes call for a dozen-plus ingredients—from carrots and bell peppers to many ground spices and as many types of canned beans—we whittled that list down to five (kidney beans, chili powder, onions, poblanos, canned tomatoes), and reaped all the same cozy rewards.

So, what would happen if we took that same template and gave it the chunky chicken treatment? Let’s find out.


A New Way to Cut Vegetables

One of the best parts about chili is texture—or should I say, textures, plural. Chilis often achieve this crumbly-chewy-slurpy-creamy-soupy vibe with a big ingredient list. In our case, though, we’ll take two powerhouse ingredients (savory-sweet yellow onions and sorta-spicy poblanos) and cut them two different ways: half, finely chopped, and the other half, in chunky chunks. The smaller bits break down to help thicken and flavor the broth. Meanwhile, the bigger pieces stay snappier and juicy.

No More Dry Chicken

If you’re making a meaty chili, you’ll probably use a braising method: brown the meat (flavor! texture!), then simmer it in liquid (buttery! tender!). And if you’re making chicken chili, this is also true—but only sometimes. Chicken breasts would end up stringy and overcooked. Cubed-up chicken thighs, on the other hand, are fatty enough to kick back and hang out—becoming lusher, spicier, saltier, savorier—until the chili is ready to serve. And speaking of fat…

Chili Powder, but Bolder, Bigger, Better

Some might consider chili powder—a spice blend containing powdered dried chiles, plus other ingredients like ground cumin and crushed oregano—a cop-out compared to grinding your own dry chiles, then adding freshly ground spices to taste. But weeknights need shortcuts. I need shortcuts! And if the biggest complaint about chili powder is that its flavor has dulled over its shelf life, here’s an easy solution: Pan-fry the chili powder in fat. This method is indispensable in Indian cooking (it’s called many things, including tadka), for example, because it hypes up the flavor. This method works with any spice and any fat, from ghee to vegetable oil, but rendered chicken fat is just, whoa.

The Most Magical Liquid There Is

Hint: It’s not chicken stock or vegetable stock even the tomato juice from the can (which we’re also using here, in addition to the tomatoes themselves!). The most magical liquid there water. While stock adds another element of flavor, yes, it’s not needed for an already-punchy dish like ours (imagine painting a room with three coats when two was just fine). Here, the sautéed vegetables, browned chicken, schmaltz-fried chili powder, and tangy tomatoes are more than enough to transform water into a pseudo-stock, chili-broth, whatever you want to call it.

Add all this up and you get a highly cozy dinner that’s simple enough to execute on a weeknight, even when you have two little kids asking, “When’s dinner?” every 10 minutes. And while it may not be my mom’s exact recipe, it is a throw-together meal I’ll make on repeat because it makes me smile.

Now, pass the sour cream.

What's a childhood dinner you still crave? Share your memories in the comments!
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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

1 Comment

Hannah January 6, 2020
The chili of my youth looked a lot like this recipe, but swap out the poblanos for two cans of spicy Rotel and add a 28 oz can of stewed tomatoes, whole. That was one of my favorite meals because Mom would also bake cornbread to sop up the mess.