What is chili verde?
There is nothing better than a good bowl of chili verde for warming your belly this winter. What is the difference between chili and chili verde? The short answer is that chili came first followed by chili verde.
A chile is a vegetable (well…technically a fruit). Chile can be made into chili, but not vice versa. “Chili” is a stew made with meat and beans although Texans would challenge the beans as an ingredient. As my brother, who lives in San Antonio might say, “If you know beans about chili, you know that chili has no beans.” Chili, not surprisingly, is the official state food of Texas and is commonly referred to as a “bowl of red.”
“Verde” is the Spanish language word for green. Chili verde is a stew made of a sauce with green chiles (such as poblano, jalapeño, and serrano), tomatillos, onions, and garlic. Pork or beef chunks are added to this sauce.
It is said that Canary Islanders, transplanted in the early 1700s to San Antonio, Texas, used local chile peppers, wild onions, garlic, and other spices to concoct a pungent meat stew which came to be called chili. The National Chili Day website (yes, there is a national chili day) says that chili was widely recognized by the late 1800s.
In the 1880s, a market in San Antonio started setting up chili stands from which chili or bowls o’red, as it was called, were sold by women who were called “chili queens.” A bowl o’red cost diners such as writer O. Henry and democratic presidential hopeful William Jennings Bryan ten cents and included bread and a glass of water. The fame of chili con carne began to spread, and the dish soon became a major tourist attraction. It was featured at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 at the San Antonio Chili Stand.
By the 20th-century chili joints had made their debut in Texas and became familiar all over the west by the roaring ‘20s. In fact, by the end of that decade, there was hardly a town that didn’t have a chili parlor, which was often no more than a shed or a room with a counter and some stools. It’s been said that chili joints meant the difference between starvation and staying alive during the Great Depression since chili was cheap and crackers were free.
Family-run chili joints, also known as chili parlors, spread across Texas. Somewhere about this same time green chiles and tomatillos found their way into Texas chili. Before you could say Bob’s your uncle, a bowl of red turned green. Recipes for chili verde spread throughout the southwest and into Mexico.
As you might expect, recipes for this green stew vary according to regional and cultural differences. In the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, for example, the sauce for chili verde consists of roasted chilaca peppers and very little if any tomatillos. If you go further south, chili verde consists of lots of tomatillos and bits of jalapeno peppers which are hotter than chilacas.
In New Mexico, folks will tell you their version of chili verde is not Mexican or Texan. It is, they might say, its own special animal. The New Mexico version takes advantage of local Hatch Valley green chile peppers (roasted of course). The Hatch pepper is to chili verde in New Mexico as no-beans chili is to chili in Texas. You can use whatever chiles you prefer if you make chili verde in New Mexico but If it doesn’t have green Hatch peppers, it’s not chili verde.
In California, we find many versions of chili verde on the menus in Mexican restaurants, cafes, and taquerias. My version is made overnight in a slow cooker. Because I am a vegetarian chef, my recipe calls for Quorn Vegan Chik’n Tenders as opposed to pork or beef, and as you might expect, it would not be recognized as chili verde outside of California. By cooking for a few hours in a slow cooker, the ingredients come together to make a sauce that is outstanding.
What, then, is the essence of good chili verde? To paraphrase the tagline from the 1991 movie “Fried Green Tomatoes”, the essence is in the sauce!
9 poblano chiles
2 jalapeño chiles
8 large tomatillos (husks removed and cut in quarters)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion (diced)
6 cloves garlic (minced)
1 cup chopped cilantro (divided)
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
3½ cups vegetable broth
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
4 teaspoons masa harina (thickener)
1 package Quorn Vegan Chik’n Tenders
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
Sour cream (for garnish)
Additional chopped cilantro (for garnish)
Corn tortillas (warmed)
Fresh lime wedges (served on the side)
Set slow cooker to high.
Roast poblano and jalapeño chiles by placing them under the broiler of the oven. Roast for about 20 minutes total time, turning every 4 or 5 minutes until deeply charred on all surfaces.
Remove chiles from oven and place in a large baggie. Seal and let steam for 15 minutes. Peel away the skins using your hands (if still too hot, wait another 5 minutes). Discard seeds and stems, and chop chiles coarsely.
Place chiles, the tomatillos, olive oil, onion, garlic, and ½ cup of the cilantro in a food processor. Pulse until mixture is pureed. Season to taste with cracked pepper.
Place pureed mixture in slow cooker along with the broth, cumin, oregano, allspice, masa harina, Quorn and the other ½ cup chopped cilantro. Stir to combine, cover, and cook for 3 hours.
Add lime juice and stir to combine. Spoon chili verde into individual bowls, and top with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro. Serve with a side of warm tortillas and fresh lime wedges. Add a side of rice for a complete meal.