Chunky Beef Chili with Butternut Squash

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If you’d asked me even at age 25, I’d have told you squash wasn’t something I thought I’d enjoy eating at any point in my life.  I’d just begun to experiment with zucchini about then and that’s only because I had a small garden and harvested a few that were more than a foot long and five inches in diameter.  I quickly became someone who could cook anything with zucchini.

It was the yellow and orange squash I continued to not like the idea of, and I think it may have had something to do with texture.  When I saw it prepared, it was always soft and mushy, and ironically, sweet.  It’s always been a challenge for me to consider eating meat or vegetables that have been sweetened…well, as long as nobody counts Sweet & Sour Chicken, right?

Thankfully, I’ve gotten past the few issues I’ve had with squash, so when I saw the copper pot full of glistening “Texas Beef Brisket Chili” on the cover of Bon Appetit last month and realized those orange chunks nestled up against the beef were nuggets of savory butternut squash, I knew what we were having for dinner and quick.

But there was just one thing…this dish was anything but quick.  In fact, it was the epitome of slow and low — and just perfect for football watching on Sunday.

 

Chunky Beef Chili with Butternut Squash

large dried ancho chiles* (about 3 ounces), stemmed, seeded, coarsely torn
6 oz. bacon, diced
1-1/4 lbs.onions, chopped (about 4 cups)
1-5 lb. flat-cut (also called first-cut) beef brisket, cut into 2 1/2- to 3-inch cubes
Coarse kosher salt
6 large garlic cloves, peeled
2 T chili powder
2 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. ground coriander
1-1/2 tsp. coarse kosher salt
1-1/2 10-ounce cans fire-roasted diced tomatoes with green chiles (1-3/4 cups)
1-12 oz. bottle Mexican beer
1-7 oz. can diced roasted green chiles
1/2 c. finely chopped fresh cilantro stems
4 c. 1-1/2  to 2-inch chunks seeded peeled butternut squash (from 3 1/2-pound squash)

Place dried chiles in a bowl and pour enough hot water over to cover. Soak until chilies soften, at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Saute bacon in a large ovenproof pot over medium-high heat until it just begins to brown. Add onions and reduce heat to medium, stirring occasionally until soft, about 5 minutes.

Salt and pepper the beef and add to the pot, stirring to coat. Set aside.

Drain the chiles and reserve the liquid. Place the chiles in a food processor, adding 1 cup soaking liquid, garlic, chili powder, cumin seeds, oregano, coriander, and 1-1/2 teaspoons coarse salt. Process until smooth, adding more soaking liquid if very thick. Pour puree over brisket in pot.  Uncover and cook for 1 hour more until beef is almost tender. Add the chunks of squash and stir to coat. Roast uncovered until the beef and squash are tender, adding more soaking liquid if needed to keep meat covered, about 45 minutes longer. Spoon off any fat from surface of sauce and adjust seasonings to taste.

Enjoy with your favorite chili toppings and some cornbread!

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Notes:

  • Our idea of chili usually includes pinto beans which we really enjoy, so this was quite different.  The squash was great, and the brisket very tender without falling apart like chuck does when it cooks for this long.
  • Chilies can be a big mystery to everyone, but as long as you remember that chilies have one name for when they’re fresh and another for when they’re dried, you’ll be fine.  Here’s an excellent resource to help you keep it all straight. Plus, when I cook with chilis, it isn’t about getting the exact chili.  It’s more about choosing one we like and that people will eat.  I know lots of people are very opinionated about spicy food and are afraid of anything that’s too spicy.  My rule of thumb is that spicy food is better hot, as long as it isn’t so hot that it interferes with my enjoyment of the food.
  • I used New Mexico chilies for this because they were in my pantry.  I also used Newcastle, an English beer because we had that as well.  The brand of canned tomatoes I use when making chili is Rotel, but they are a bit spicy and depending on the type of chilies you use, you may not want more heat.
  • If you don’t have or can’t find dried chilies, use chipotles in adobo.  They’re spicy and will work, but you won’t have the nice soaking liquid to use.  Use broth instead.
  • There are lots of ways out there to peel butternut squash, which isn’t a favorite task of mine, but I usually cut it into manageable chunks, then use a paring knife to slice the peelings off.  It takes much less time than using a peeler.
  • And a final note…

I’m seriously interested in your opinion…

I try not to snark about issues on my food blog but lately there has been much talk amongst friends about photos submitted to sites that feature food photography not being accepted for reasons that are clearly in contradiction to other photos posted on the site.  In fact there’s quite a bit of talk about food photography in general swirling around out there.  I think a couple of things are at issue here and are somewhat related.

First, most of us are not professional photographers and are learning by practice, which is the very best kind.  So in the spirit of attempting to offer our viewers an example of what we’ve cooked, we include photos.  Everyone wants to get a look at what the dish looks like, right?  The problems begin when a judgment is made about the quality of the dish by looking at the photo alone.  If this is all about photos, then why post a recipe?  It’s beyond tedious and the photography is far more fun.  Or better yet, why not just post a sprig of cilantro and not take photos of the dish at all!  *Just a bit testy, yes?*

This is beyond annoying to me.  Think about cookbooks.  Yes, we all enjoy cookbooks with beautiful color photos, but I also use and like the cookbooks I own which have no photos at all.  The real test for me is about whether the recipe is good.  What’s the list of ingredients like?  Is the procedure similar or different to what I’ve used before?  Can I learn something new?  I know that a gorgeous photo doesn’t always tell the best story about food even though I may enjoy looking at them — especially in the case of recipes tried that are less than stellar after I’ve been lured by a hot shot of food porn.

Additionally, I think many of us who enjoy reading some of the more popular food magazines have noticed a shift in the photography published recently.  I laugh about it because things change.  I adapt.  Plain and simple.  In fact, it’s somewhat nice to see photos with stark shadows and contrast in light.  I like the messy tables, and plates that have been scraped clean after a meal.  The photos look real.  They look like they were taken in my house at my table or in my kitchen.  It gives me a feeling that maybe, just maybe, I can put my less than perfect photographs up with a very tasty meal and that someone may want to try it themselves instead of having them languish in my photo files waiting until I have nothing new to post…for weeks sometimes.  I know you know what I’m talking about, right?

Photograph by Hans Gissinger for Bon Appetit magazine.

So I’m taking their lead, I guess — the professionals.  If Bon Appetit can put the photograph above by Hans Gissinger on the cover of their magazine, then I, too can post my photos, whether there’s oil glistening on the surface of the mixture or not.  In fact, I was inspired by his photograph.

I took the photo of my chili below when it finished late in the afternoon.  My husband wasn’t due home for hours, and the plan was to heat it up later.  I took some photos because the light was still decent, and while it set, the fat rose to the surface, of course.  Yes, it was spooned off before eating, but what I’ve learned is if you really want all the fat out, refrigerate it first.  The fat solidifies and then you can scrape all of it off.

My photo below looks decent compared to the one above.  I need to work on the exposure on the handle, though…but the chili isn’t about light on the pot handle, is it?  And the last time I checked this was a food blog, yes?

I’m tired of the food photo snobbery — aren’t you?  Be honest.

Photograph by Kelly Peacock Wright for Sass & Veracity: a food blog

31 thoughts on “Chunky Beef Chili with Butternut Squash

  1. Am I boring if I say you’re right on? I do enjoy taking photos and sometimes am really excited to see what I’ve captured (I don’t always know). But it all goes back to the food.
    I love butternut squash – even if I’ve been blinded by that pot handle;))).

  2. I can’t be a food snob. I’m not good enough to be one. Plus, I don’t like fancy food. I’m the girl that shoves leftovers into tortillas for “tacos.”
    I got your sussy! Thanks so much! :)

  3. Not so much a rant but an explanation and a squash epiphany. I’ve always liked the sweet/savory of the squash and this is another fine example.
    Awesome pics help too!

  4. (breathing huge sigh of relief) – I am so glad you have cleared the air. I am a terrible photograher. I can’t even take pictures of people posing, and I have zero photo albums in my possession. Taking pictures of food is exhausting for me mentally, and I haven’t the time or the resources to invest in a lightbox, change backgrounds, buy plates just for pictures, etc etc etc. One hobby’s enough! I post pictures with my food, but I always hope that the recipe is what really shines through. That’s what I’m daydreaming about at work…not the photos, but the flavors, the ingredients, the menu for the night.
    (steps off soapbox)
    Oh, and your chili sounds super-tasty!

  5. I don’t know if the photography criticisms you’re talking about are ones posted to your blog or to others or both because I read your blog through a newsreader and don’t see the commentary unless I come to the page itself, but I for one must say your pictures delight me. Every recipe you’ve posted has made my mouth water (just from reading the ingredients and process!) and the pictures are beautiful – they ignite the imagination about each dish, even when the picture isn’t even of the whole dish, such as a simple shot of cut squash ;) and I’m a confessed art snob. your pictures may not be technically perfect but they ARE beautiful.

  6. Let’s revolt. I am writing an email about this to you… Oh and your food sounds and LOOKS delicious. I am really tired of them judging our food! LOL

  7. I’m halfway with you. A lot of my old cookbooks have no photos, but I think that a great *modern* cookbook should have both good photos and good recipes. A picture alone is not useful for a recipe, but a picture *combined* with a recipe can give you a lot of insights into process and the author’s intentions.
    When it comes to photos, people have different aesthetic criteria and people should not second-guess their own preferences. I personally like natural shots more than highly stylized images, which are sexy at first glance but you see enough of them and they start to feel a bit plastic.
    Sometimes it can be really hard to get lighting right and color balance, but being a somewhat visual person, I cannot deny being turned off by a grey or orange shaded photo. That doesn’t mean that every photo has to be perfect and professional, but I appreciate blogs where the author has put effort into the photography because I know how damn hard it is.
    I like your photos! That last image is really interesting — you can see the chili itself to understand your consistency, and visually the cilantro adds a nice dash of color to the pot, while the silver pot, the background metal studs, and the angled red wood all make for an interesting but not overwhelming composition.
    So I guess I’m in the middle, but I don’t think wanting a certain amount of visual quality equates food snob.
    Good topic for discussion!

  8. Love the recipe and the photos are great!
    I like the picture sites and never really worry about whether mine will be accepted or not. Although when they are it’s kinda nice :)

  9. Yes. If I let opinions about my photography skills bother me I would have quite a long time ago. but I have come a long way from 1 year ago and still have miles to go.Those photo sites are great for inspiration, but not “the be all and end all”.Mostof us bloggers are passionate amateurs.With some of the “top’ bloggers out there I secretly question if it really tastes good. All the ribbons, and sprigs, fancy plates and lighting of whatever cant justify the taste. I will take your pot chili any day.And your photo is great.I have heard that photo from Bon Appetit compared to dog food.HAHAHA. I too am just aquiring a taste for squash . I would so make this chili.

  10. Here, Here!
    I could care less about submitting my photos for others to judge. It’s dangerous to measure our worth or abilities by what others think.
    I agree with you, Kelly. When it comes to food blogs that are in the business of posting recipes, then the photography should only be there to delight the eyes and encourage the reader to cook.
    Food is not fashion, it’s food. Photography is a tool used to express the process of cooking the food. That’s it, no more no less.
    If we had to measure the quality of the food blogger’s cooking by their skills as a photographer, than I will never, never eat Indian food. Everybody knows that some foods just don’t photograph well at all.
    I understand it’s fun to read comments that our photos make people’s mouths water. That’s great. I love it, too. But when we loose our perspective and we start measuring our abilities by what others think then we will get hurt. We will be disappointed.
    Photograph your food to delight & encourage your readers and no one else. You have their attention and you simply need to work to keep them interested in coming back for more of your recipes.
    This rest is pure vanity.

  11. Another Yay! here. Lately I find myself making excuses for bad glaring pics. Not good. Making dishes again because yes they taste great but I need a decent pic? Not good. It’s about food, the recipe and basically the fun the writer had in making and her/his family/friends in tasting. All that matters.

  12. It’s just like any other kind of snobbery – and, really, call it by its right name: “food porn.” It’s not about making something which is good, nor wholesome, but about some uber-bleached aesthetic, using a white-box and isolating the perfect food from any meaningful context, when, come on, food is all about context. It’s not just about that wonderful dish, but about who was there eating it with you, what you talked about, what you shared. Food without love is just … well, kinda nasty, and a bit perverse.

  13. Tanna, nothing about you is boring, ever. I, too am excited to see how my photos turn out and am beyond thankful that I can now do so with a digital camera instead of the time and expense connected with my old camera. And I say from now on, post what you have. Who cares, right?
    Yay Blonde Duck! I’m so glad you finally got your sussie. Sorry it took so long. Was it melted when it got there?
    Thanks Peter. I figure it’s a rant for food land. You wouldn’t want to read what I have to say on full volume. Trust me.
    Haley — definitely not worth the stress. I love taking the photos, but take little time for the fuss since I’m much better at the muss! I just don’t like the crap. I just bought a book that showcases travel and food and has recipes as well and there are out of focus photos in it. I’m thinking they’d tell me it was intentional, and “art.” Hahahahaha!
    Hi Jaeyde — Thanks very much for your feedback — it’s always appreciated! My commentary was brought on by a number of things, but specifically a snide remark made about “fat congealing in food” and knew the individual who made it looks at countless photos on a daily basis. Somehow it just got to me and so this post sat while I began to hear other conversations and read other bloggers’ comments and questions about photos they submit of their recipes. I just decided to get it out of my system.
    Ben, I called it a tantrum, but I also mentioned I’m on strike from the games. You grab a fork and I’ll get my wooden spoon…
    Thanks for your input, giff! I, too, enjoy a lovely photo that compliments the recipe. With respect to blogs, however, there’s a very important personal aspect in play. I may get to know a blogger who is working on his or her photography, but clearly enjoys the food, the cooking and has quite a personality. Those things are so much more important to me than the perfection that seems to be what some are looking for. If one is taking the time to think about content and “readers” are only scanning the pretty photos, then blogging becomes as impersonal as a pretty cookbook can be. Definitely a good topic.
    Judy you have such a great, positive attitude!
    Courtney, you are SO right about continuing to grow. When I look at my old photos, I laugh, but I haven’t changed a single one. I’ve intended to but decided it would be such a waste of time at this point. And funny! I saw that conversation about “dogfood” too, and had a good laugh over it. On the frills and decorations — I tried my hand at it twice — the last a few months ago. Recently I noticed I was getting some links from a place called something awful and knew some jerk had submitted my cute cupcakes with a bow on them to that stoopid website. I never did find the post, but figured what the heck. It got a few more people to my site, right? Thanks always for taking the time to commment. I appreciate it!
    Hey Jill. Here, here right back at you for your opinion. I do know that a sense of completion is the payoff I’m looking for when I’ve done something I liked. Feedback from others is always appreciated, especially from those who also love to cook. I’m just over the snide attitude of superiority I’m picking up from a few and thought this was a good way to get it off my chest.
    Baking Soda — I’ve know that many cooks remake dishes to their photos are perfect and I’ve had trouble understanding that. I’ve joked that I’m lazy and that there are so many recipes out there — but what I want to say is that life is too short for that and time too precious.
    DaviMack — Perfect. Context IS everything. And to me, so is the writing. I rarely slam out my posts because the entire task of bringing it all together is what matters — and having read your pieces, I know you do the same.

  14. I love your food photos, whether it is under the scrutiny of snobbery or not. I can’t wait until it starts raining in Southern California so I can justify eating stews and chili to myself ;D
    P.S. The last time I was out and about in downtown San Diego I discovered that Newcastle now comes in a can. It blew my mind. Newcastle always brings to mind a BOTTLE, not a can!

  15. I think the food porn sites are geared toward people who shoot like pros and the wannabees (I fall into the latter category). I think there is some really good photography on the blogs these days, and not all of it is overly white or full of props. It’s a phase, just like anything else. Styles change, just like clothes and shoes. I don’t submit a photo from every food post I write because I’ve learned what the food porn sites are looking for, and yes I get rejected regularly. I just try to do the best I can with what I have: crappy camera, poorly lit kitchen, and children running amok.
    I have no time for frills. Part of me wishes that I could make a fancy set with multiple plates and perfect lighting, perhaps because I’d like a little fancy in my life every now and then, but then I remember that my site is about every day cooking for family. Most nights we dish right out of the pot/wok/slow cooker, no serving bowls or spoons on the table. And seriously, who has time/money for fancy every day? I just hope that my photos look edible, and maybe sometimes, tasty.

  16. I’ll bet Tastespotting would reject the Bon Appetit picture – “photo was dark, discolored, overexposed or out of focus”. Out of all the pictures in your post, the “professional” one is the least appetizing to me!

  17. I’m with you on this rant. In fact, I posted something similar to the Daring Bakers board a couple of weeks ago.
    My main complaint is lack of feedback when rejected. Hey, how about throwing us a bone so that we have a minor clue about why our photos aren’t good enough?
    FoodGawkers sends a couple of words. That’s often a good clue. But, TasteSpotting, nothing. Not a bloody thing.
    Since it’s the blogging community who generates their content … a little consideration on their part would be nice.

  18. Wow! I guess I am really out of the loop..I have never seen anything on your blog or any other food blog for that matter that wasn’t “professional”. I enjoy food blogs for what they are..a peep into someone’s kitchen and seeing what they are preparing for their families and
    friends. Thanks for all your sharing. (don’t think i’ll
    be starting a food blog too soon.. too much pressure):)

  19. I think if Lisa and I ever got criticized for our photos, I’d probably tell that person, in a nice way, to find some real purpose in their life.
    The chili looks awesome, by the way. – John

  20. Okay, first let me say that I’m with you 100%. When I go to these sites – RecipeMuncher and TasteSpotting – what attracts me to the post is the headline. If the headline says that this is a Pork and Cabbage and Carrot Roll, then I’m not going to click on it, even if the photo is the most beautiful photo in the whole wide world. The photos are nice to have, and like wearing a nice suit on an interview they set an impression about the recipe. But they’re not the end-all, be-all, not for me anyway.
    My husband, who in all other respects is a wonderful man, is the opposite. He won’t even consider looking at a cookbook that doesn’t have photos. He’s very eager to set up the fancy photo box thing, and part of his reasoning behind doing this for me is marketing. It’s a wonderful thing to keep the pictures real, but these food-porn sites get the word out about our recipes and our blog posts and bring more people to read them.
    Now that my nod to the other side of the aisle is complete, I’ll admit that it’s wicked frustrating to be rejected by TasteSpotting etc. I’m a cook. I’m not a photographer. I want to be a cook. I do not want to be a professional photographer. I take the pictures because they show the food, not because I want to capture the inherent beauty of the way the light glistens off the drop of pomegranate juice when I get the artifical lighting at just the right angle.

  21. i’m not one to rant and rave (publicly), but i concur–down with photo snobbery!
    meanwhile, i was about 23 when my love of squash hit, and believe you me, i’ve spent the last two years making up for lost time. :)

  22. I so think you echo everyone’s feeling. I’m definitely not a professional photographer but I try. Apparently I’m a technological disaster and one of these days I’m committed to taking a digital photography course. In the meantime, I’ll struggle through. For those that take great pictures – I envy them and applaud them for their ability. I have decided not to submit to tastespotting, foodgawker etc. simply because they’ll reject me every time (I’ve tried). The irony is at one point we cut and pasted a picture of what it “should” look like on the blog with a follow up of how ours turned out. Go figure – someone grabbed it and put it on tastespotting…duhhh??? A picture of a picture from a professional cookbook???? double duh????

  23. I meant to comment on your chili post earlier but feared I’d be read the wrong way. Basically, take the photos that make you happy! It’s only a matter of knowing and deciding if the blog is a springboard to a new career/freelance work or a hobby, and there is nothing wrong with either or. I like pics that show all the texture, buildings, colors because it helps people visualize quickly the outcome but one does not need to be a pro to send the message across. Again, it also depends of where you want to take your blog, work or play. By a weird series of circumstances mine became “work” and started me on a new path and I am light years from being a pro but at least it pays for a plane ticket to a certain someone’s wedding :)

  24. Yeah, it’s interesting the photo food snobbery that has appeared out of nowhere. It is so hard to light up our everyday kitchens to take these photos, in fact it’s almost impossible. They should give more feedback it’s not right. Your food always looks amazing…always!

  25. Nope I am not tired of the food snobbery when it comes to Bon Appetit. Your shot looks a hundred times better than the crap they put on that cover. That cover is what made me cancel my subscription.
    I agree though that there is too much food photo snobbery on things like Tastespotting and what not!

  26. Great looking Chili I have to say. Love the squash angle. Food photography is an interesting thing. I have a lot of passion for it, but not a lot of time. A dilema. I am loving the new trend of not overly prepped food – food that does indeed look natural, and meant to be eaten.
    Being honest, I do prefer softer light for food, but that is just me. Tastespotting and so forth has put a lot of emphasis on good food photography, for good or bad. At the end of the day, photography is there to show the FOOD, not the other way around. I don’t care if it was shot in natural light or under floresants, if the food looks interesting, that is what it is all about.

  27. I read about your post at the Constables’ Larder and I am with you 100%. As if it isn’t difficult enough having to stop every five minutes to take step by step pictures (which is my primary aim to show others how I cook) I have to worry about the final result and if I have captured that perfect shot.

  28. I missed the rant section and I must chime in. I don’t try for the perfect photo nor do I seek it when deciding upon a dish I see on a blog, cookbook or magazine.
    A decent photo helps me, no doubt. A middle ground is good…take a decent shot that reflects how the dish really looks with your naked eye.

  29. A question about the gorgeous Chilli.
    I would like to make it for a party but the day before and then re-heat it. Would I be best to take it to adding the Squash stage or finish the dish and reheat as normal.

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