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Pumpkin Turkey Chili!

Last fall, as has been my habit for many years now, I acquired a couple of Sugar Pie pumpkins, baked them up, and then used my food processor to puree them into that wonderful ingredient known hereabouts as "pumpkin goo". I say "wonderful" because there are so many truly great dishes you can make with this ingredient (and that are so much better when you make them with fresh, rather than canned, goo). Among our favorites are pumpkin pie, of course (from the unusual stove-top recipe in Joy of Cooking), pumpkin flan (from a Martha Stewart recipe intended for use with sweet potatoes), pumpkin cookies (from an amazing recipe we cadged off our good friends down in Portland), and pumpkin bread (assembled, in Frankensteinian fashion, from a whole host of exemplars on the web).

You may notice a unifying theme among these favorites of ours. Yes, shockingly, they're all desserts; who could have guessed? Well, last December or so, having made at least one batch of each of these yummies, and still having a substantial remaining supply of goo (did I mention that I try to find the two largest Sugar Pies I can?), I began to fear for our ability to maintain the svelte figures Kathleen and I had worked so very hard to earn earlier that year. I felt that it might be very good for us if I could come up with one or more savory goo-consuming dishes. (The logical alternative, that of not creating so much goo each year in the first place, naturally never occurred to me, then or even now.)

With this savory ambition in mind, therefore, I set off for the den to start roaming the web, looking for ideas. On my way there, Kathleen (who knew nothing of my goo-inspired intentions) called out to me. "Hey, sweetie! I bought some ground turkey this week. You should look on the web for some fun ways to use it!" Always up for killing two birds with one stone, I sat down at the computer and typed in the search terms "pumpkin ground turkey", just to see if anything showed up.

Oh. My. God.

Go ahead, try it yourself. Suffice to say, though, that we were not the first to consider combining these ingredients. On that occasion, literally all of the top 20 hits were for various forms of turkey pumpkin chili. I quickly recovered from my surprise and started digging into this motherlode of potential inspiration, printing out several of the more interesting-sounding recipes, gathering ideas one by one, and starting down what turned into an all-winter-long obsessive quest for the perfect turkey pumpkin chili recipe.

Lucky for you (and for us, of course), I found it. No, really. And I'm prepared to share it below, after boring you for a bit longer with some of the lessons learned along the way.

The first leg of my journey to chili enlightenment centered around the turkey itself. There are a few obvious approaches to getting the meat. The first one I tried, as mentioned, was browning ground turkey; this was a failure in the texture department: I like my chili to be chunky, chewy, stewy, and thick, but ground turkey simply won't hold together enough to fight back. Instead, it turns into an amorphous soup of little tiny turkey granules, floating through the rest of the ingredients. Scratch that. Next, I tried the lowest-effort approach: I broiled a bunch of turkey breasts for about 10 minutes a side, let them cool a bit, and then easily cut them into bite-sized morsels. The texture problem was fixed, but now the taste was disappointingly boring: the browned ground turkey had had a nice touch of that lovely caramelization that only the skillet can provide, and I really missed it. I thus was backed into a corner: there just isn't any way around it, you need to cut up the raw, deboned turkey (I find it much easier to use my kitchen shears for this, rather than even a sharp knife) and then brown it before putting it into the chili pot. Don't try to brown too much at a time, or you'll just end up steaming the meat instead of searing it and then you might as well have broiled it in the first place. Browning in smallish batches, with plenty of air-gap between the chunks, takes a bit longer, but it's the only technique that really delivers the goods.

The rest of my key learnings take much less time to explain. I might not have thought of it myself, but one or two of the recipes I found that day last winter included what turns out to be a really important addition: frozen corn. I don't put in a whole lot of it, but you end up with one or two kernels per bite, and it gives you this little crunchy burst of sweetness that I find very pleasurable indeed. The other key secret concerns the spicing: I use as much unsweetened cocoa powder as I do chili powder, and it completely transforms this dish; the result is a rich, dark brown bundle of flavor that goes on forever, warming you all the way down to your toes and making that winter weather outside matter just a little bit less. You've got to try this with the cocoa powder.

The final point of experimentation concerned the liquids. Mostly, this chili gets its moisture from the pumpkin goo, which doesn't so much give you an actual taste of pumpkin as it lends the dish a kind of earthy flavor and texture that ties the whole thing together wonderfully. That's not quite enough liquid, though, so I tried not draining the cans of beans and tomatoes, but that was much too thin; the perfect compromise came from draining the beans fully but not draining the tomatoes.

The recipe below makes about eight cups of chili, or about four bowls the way we serve them in our household. That is, of course, an absurdly small amount of payoff for the effort, so I usually make a triple batch, which completely fills my big eight-quart pot. That fits reasonably well in the fridge and keeps us comfortably "in the chili zone" for a couple of weeks or so.

1.25 lb. boneless, skinless turkey meat
1.25 c. chopped celery or onions
1.25 c. diced carrots or peppers
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
1 28-oz. can chopped/diced tomatoes (UNdrained)
2 c. pumpkin puree (or 1 16-oz. can)
1 15-oz. can black beans, drained
1/2 c. frozen corn
1 Tbsp. chili powder
1 Tbsp. cocoa powder
2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. oregano
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. salt

Per bowl:
a sprinkling of shredded cheese
a dollop of Greek yogurt

I brown all of the turkey first, and then reuse the pan to lightly saute the raw veggies. (Kathleen can't eat onions, and doesn't like peppers, so I use celery and carrots instead, which works better than you might imagine.) I don't want to "use up" the potency of the garlic in the skillet, so I only add that to the dish once it's in the pot, along with all of the rest of the ingredients. I simmer the chili for two or three hours, depending on how hungry we are and how much I underestimated how long all of the prep would take. Like all stews and other chunky-style soups, this tastes better after it spends a night in the fridge mingling all of the flavors together (but it's not too shabby that first night, either).

I hope you try this recipe and enjoy it. Please write a comment and let me know how it turns out for you (or suggest your own ideas for making it even better)!

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