My last year of college was a time of many firsts. The most important being living off-campus in my first apartment. An apartment that almost made my mother cry when she came to see it the summer before I moved in -after I had already signed the lease (a planned move on my part). It was the kind of standard multi-decker apartment house that remains a familiar backdrop in many New England towns where factories once drew thousands to work in the mid-19th century. There is something decidedly blue-collar about them. Picture a movie with Ben Affleck playing a salt-of-the earth everyman down on his luck but training for his next big fight...maybe Mark Wahlberg would be more fitting...you get the idea.
Our apartment house was on the corner of a tight street that wove around the back of campus. It was just far enough away to be considered no man's land to those students in the know, who had put their names in for the prime off-campus housing (before freshman orientation).
It was huge and totally unremarkable: washed out grey siding, a broken down front porch with a missing second step, and a large wooden front door riddled with nicks, gashes, long hash marks - a haphazard history of comings and goings writ small. I saw such markings as "character", my mother saw "911." The apartment door on the second floor one down from us was outfitted with an impressive collection of NRA, "David Lee Roth For President," and International Brotherhood of Teamsters stickers. We were the first students to ever rent there, and as far as I know, the last, after that one year.
Of course, none of this mattered to us. It was ours. It had an enormous kitchen with sunny windows and a gas stove that also had a heating element on one side of it. We each had our own bedroom, there was ample parking, and there was this adorable little window between the kitchen and dining room to pass in and out food. These were the things that mattered! We thought up dinner parties and danced happily around the big rooms in awe of our new found freedom and our liberation from dorm issue beds and dining hall seating politics.
I can't remember the first time we made white chicken chili but I know it was in winter, and I know I was smitten. It's funny how a memory of a different period in your life starts to dissolve into itself, leaving little clues about how you felt or who you were but really, it's up to you to decide what story you want to tell and it may not be perfect but nonetheless, it feels true.
So, I know that the chili was warm and thick, with a little kick from the Tabasco and chili powder. I remember thinking how clever we were to do chili with chicken instead of the routine ground beef. It was so much better the next day with crushed tortilla chips. I would try not to eat all of the leftovers before my roommates got home from class. But, well, I've always been a bit of a closet glutton...
I also know that we girls only ate this special chili when it was really cold out, not fake November or March cold, but January and February cold. The same nights that we dragged our comforters out and slept on the warm floor in front of the stove since the old wood frame windows in our bedrooms easily invited the cold in, but failed to shoo it back out where it belonged.
We relished that year and eventually said our goodbyes to our temporary home. Every once in awhile when I'm in back in town, I'll go drive-by that short dead end street with the four-decker house on the corner. Of course, it looks totally different to me now, without my friend's faces or the usual cars parked out front. I heard that a large extended Vietnamese family lives there now. I wonder if they ever pull out their blankets and lay on the kitchen floor in front of the stove like we did. I wonder what they make in the middle of winter to keep the chill out, so far from home in a new place for the first time.
(Adapted from Gourmet Magazine, 1996, and available here)
1/2 pound dried navy beans, picked over
1 large onion, chopped
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup chicken broth
2 cups half-and-half
1 teaspoon Tabasco, or to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon white pepper, or to taste
two 4-ounce cans whole mild green chilies, drained and chopped
5 boneless skinless chicken breast halves (about 2 pounds), cooked and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups grated Monterey Jack (about 6 ounces)
Garnishes: coriander sprigs, avocados, tortilla chips, salsa
In a large kettle soak beans in cold water to cover by 2 inches overnight. Drain beans in a colander and return to kettle with cold water to cover by 2 inches. Cook beans at a bare simmer until tender, about 1 hour, and drain in colander.
In a skillet cook onion in 2 tablespoons butter over moderate heat until softened.
In a 6- to 8-quart heavy kettle melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter over moderately low heat and whisk in flour. Cook roux, whisking constantly, 3 minutes. Stir in onion and gradually add broth and half-and-half, whisking constantly. Bring mixture to a boil and simmer, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes, or until thickened. Stir in Tabasco, chili powder, cumin, salt, and white pepper. Add beans, chilies, chicken, and Monterey Jack and cook mixture over moderately low heat, stirring, 20 minutes. Stir sour cream into chili.
Garnish with your favorites. I like fresh squeezed lime and avocado cubes. Also - crushed tortilla chips is real crowd pleaser. And it's always been my opinion that anything is better with corn bread, preferably with orange-compound butter.