I was introduced to white chicken chili by our daughter-in-law at a wonderful little restaurant called Le The in Hudson, Wisconsin. Le The has closed its doors, but I will never forget their outstanding service and food.
When I told my wife about the chili, she said “That sounds good,” and so I began experimenting with various recipes until I came up with the following. It makes 12 to 14 generous servings, but leftovers can be warmed and served a day later or frozen and brought out in a few weeks for a simple lunch or dinner.
2 cups (1 lb.) dried navy or great northern beans
1 large onion (3 1/2 to 4” in diameter)
1 stick (1/4 lb.) + 2 T butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups chicken broth (I use two 14 1/2 ounce cans + 1/2 cup water)
2 cups half-and-half
1 tsp. Tabasco or other hot sauce
1 T chili powder
1 heaping tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 – 3/4 tsp. white pepper
2 four ounce cans diced green chilies
1/2 small jalapeño pepper or 1/4 small habanero pepper (optional)
5 or 6 boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 2 1/2 – 3 lbs.)
1 chicken bouillon cube
1/16 tsp. dried tarragon (a large pinch)
1/2 lb. Monterey Jack cheese
3/4 cup sour cream
Rinse and pick over the beans in a colander and place in a large bowl or kettle. Cover with cold water to about 2 inches above beans and soak overnight. Drain beans and place in a 6 to 8 quart kettle covered by about 2 inches with cold water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 60 to 70 minutes until tender but not mushy. Drain in a colander and discard the water.
Place the chicken breasts in a saucepan. Barely cover them with water, and add the bouillon cube and tarragon. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer the breasts slowly about 9 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow the breasts to finish poaching for another 8 or 9 minutes. Remove them from the liquid, let them cool on a platter and cut them into 1/2” cubes. Save the poaching liquid to thin the chili if necessary.
While the chicken is cooking, remove the dry husk of the onion and chop it finely. Melt 2 T butter in an 8 or 10 inch skillet and cook onion over low heat until translucent but not browned.
If you decide to include the fresh pepper, discard the seeds and stem from the jalapeño or habanero and chop very it finely. Be sure to wear gloves when chopping hot peppers.
In a 6 to 8 quart kettle, melt the stick of butter over low to moderate heat and stir in the flour. Stir constantly for 3 or 4 minutes using a wooden spoon or whisk to make a smooth roux. Do not brown. Stir in the cooked onions, then gradually the chicken broth and finally the half-and-half. Stir or whisk constantly while bringing to a boil.
Reduce the heat and cook 5 minutes, stirring about once a minute. Keep the heat as low as possible to avoid scorching the roux. Add the Tabasco or hot sauce, chili powder, cumin, salt, white pepper, diced chilies and the optional chopped jalapeño or habanero pepper. Stir well and remove the mixture from heat.
Put the drained beans in a 10 – 12 quart kettle. Stir in the mixture and the chicken and bring just to simmer, stirring often to avoid scorching the chili. Add some of the reserved poaching liquid to thin the mixture if it is too thick.
Grate the cheese and stir it into the mixture. Simmer for 20 minutes and stir in the sour cream. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. If it seems too spicy, you can add a bit more shredded cheese or sour cream.
Ladle into bowls and garnish with a sprig of cilantro or parsley. Serve with a green salad and corn bread.