Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 10, 2011

National Chili Month, 2011 – Three Fast Sisters

The wait is over. It’s October — National Chili Month! After another year of honing our skills and boning up on chili lore, it’s time to celebrate during this month-long recognition of all things capsicacious. We anticipate posting several chili entries during this month — each with a recipe — so get out that big, heavy pot and check the spice cupboard to make certain you have plenty o’ chili powder, some beans, tomatoes and whatever else your taste buds desire. Buy extra napkins.

Let’s revisit the basics. The dish, “chili” has chiles in it. Chiles are the fruit of the genus capsicum. They are not peppers. It was none other than ol’ Chris Columbus who named them “peppers” when he encountered chiles in the Caribbean and mistook them to be varieties of the pepper. Wrong, Chris. You were right about some things, but this? Eh! cosi cosa!

Nomenclature: chile is the plant and the fruit of the plant. Chili is the dish. The orthography is not universal, but that’s the way we’ll spell them here. You readers in the former Commonwealth of Great Britain may call it “chillie,” but, yea, verily, forsooth, that’s just so quaint and Merrie Olde! Get a grip, dudes.

Chili doesn’t require meat or other secret sauces of any specific definition, other than the inclusion of chiles. Please note: chili does not have to sear the tissues with heat or even make the eyes water. It can, in fact, be relatively sweet. We here in the Under Western Skies Kitchen of Adventure, admittedly, prefer a reasonable amount of spiciness, sometimes evoking lacrimation. We admit that the chili we created a few years ago with several of our home-grown habañero chilis pushed us outside even our envelope of comfort. We won’t do that again.

The “heat” in chiles is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHUs), which measure the amount of capsaicin present in a specified amount of the fruit. The highest SHU ratings are somewhere beyond a million SHU units for a few extreme peppers and chiles. Do NOT eat these examples without access to immediate medical assistance. The hot-hot-hot habañero comes in around a quarter to a third of that rating, while the still-piquant jalapeno tips the scale at around 10,000 units, and then you start getting down to chiles that you can use for cooking in food you’d serve to your boss and her family.

Chiles originated in Central America, and there’s evidence that they were being cultivated more than 6,000 years ago. They populated the world from there once the Spanish had a minute of spare time from enslaving the local population to mine gold for them and, presumably, sent back some ships not chock-full of slaves and gold. Yes, it’s true: those chiles and peppers that you associate with Indian and other food are post-Columbian exports.

Chiles were known as food and medicine to ancient tribes of North America. There is no evidence that they cooked anything that is directly related to the chili dishes we know. However, today’s recipe today will draw on the traditional foods of the southwestern American tribes. There are a lot of accounts of how chili entered our culture, and most of those center on the herding and settlement culture of 19th-Century Texas. My favorite is that cowboys planted the makings of chili along the trails on which they drove cattle to market, providing a regular supply of chili fixins. Another version says that chili originated in Texan prisons in the mid 19th-Century — to help mask the bad taste of the poor-quality meat served there. You can search around the Internet and find lots of variations on the origin. One place to look for interesting versions is at It’s also an excellent source of many chili recipes.

But before the straggling European adventurers stumbled into the southwest in search of cheap land, incredible deposits of gold lying in plain sight on the mountains and tasty venison dinners that practically leaped unbidden into one’s mouth, the continent was already populated by well-established native cultures. They thrived across an impressive variety of climates and terrain. In the arid southwest, the growing season could extend year-round, if there were enough water. But the soil and the heat and other conditions limited the variety of food. There were three staples: squash, beans and corn (maize, to you European readers) — the “Three Sisters.” There were other natural-growing fruits, roots, herbs and nuts that they harvested in season, including chiles. They also hunted game, but these 3 staples were their primary food sources which — interestingly enough — form a prehistoric version of the nutrition pyramid.

While there’s no evidence that the Anasazi, Hopi, or other tribes who occupied this territory made a dish exactly like chili, they certainly had many scores of generations to evolve sophisticated ways of cooking the ingredients they cultivated or which nature provided. One thing they lacked that we’ll use in today’s recipe was tomatoes: not native to the southwest. We like tomato sauce in chili, so that’s one adaptation.

All the recipes you’ll see here during this Chili Month will be vegetarian. Add meat or poultry if you want to, but this is the way things swing here in the Adventure Kitchen. One invaluable resource is The Vegetarian Chili Cookbook. Excellent, simple recipes. Today’s recipe is easy to make and doesn’t involve a lot of prep. It involves more than the usual amount of can-opening and frozen package-opening than is typical for the K.o.A. It does require time to cook, and you have to stir things, but there’s plenty of time to be doing other things, whether that includes making corn bread to accompany the chili (recommended) or, as I did, listening to the radio broadcast of the Detroit Tigers beating the hated Yankees in the 5th game of the Division Playoffs (highly recommended).

Because I was saving time, I made a few shortcuts in this recipe, using canned or prepared items rather than cooking everything from scratch, so we’ll call this:

Three Fast Sisters Chili

Let us cook, then, and eat! You need:

A small butternut squash, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch chunks. If you live in civilized areas, Trader Joe’s and other places have pre-cut squash in packages. Olive Oil. A medium onion, chopped. A healthy half cup of chopped celery. Two or more minced garlic cloves, according to taste. 1 can of tomato paste. One 14 0z. can of diced or chopped tomatoes (with the juice). 3 tablespoon or so chili powder. One tsp. dried Mexican oregano. 1/4 cup fresh or half tsp. dried basil. Salt and pepper to taste. Small package of frozen corn kernels. 1 can pinto beans (although you can use red or black beans, too). You can substitute fresh articles for all those packaged, frozen and canned items, if you’re a purist.

Get out your big heavy-bottomed chili pot and heat the olive oil. Sautee the onion and garlic ’til translucent, add the celery for a couple of minutes, then the squash. Cover it and cook for ten minutes, or until the squash is starting to soften. Add the tomato paste, oregano, basil, chili powder, and salt and pepper (add these last two sparingly until you get a chance to taste; you can always add more).

A note on the chili powder. Amount will be according to how hot you like your chili. This time I used 2 TBSP of chili powder. I’ve used 3, but that’s dictated by how much squash and corn (which produce sugar in cooking) and the phase of the moon and other mysterious forces. Add about one and a half tablespoons and then keep tasting. When you taste for heat, remember to wait for ten seconds or so while any delayed punch kicks in.

Stir in those ingredients, then add the tomatoes (including all the liquid from the can) and stir together. You’re probably going to need to add some water as this cooks, depending on how soupy you like your chili, how far above sea level you are and the phases of the moon, other unseen forces, etc. etc. Enjoy exercising the judgment. It’s what separates cooks from can-openers.

Taste for salt, pepper and chili powder. Adjust as necessary.

Cook ’til the squash is definitely getting tender, probably 20 minutes. Stir from time to time to prove that you’re really a cook who’s on top of things.

Taste for salt, pepper and chili powder. Adjust as necessary.

Add the frozen corn and the beans, stir in and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Keep an eye on moisture and add water (or even some tomato juice or vegetable broth, if you prefer, as needed).

You can serve this in any number of ways. Cornbread is always welcome, and would be something the Anasazi baked up 1300 years ago for their version of Three Sisters chili. Because some of our cooking here in the K.o.A. derives from the ancient Italian tribes, we actually had it with polenta which, of course, is probably something the Anasazi made, too, though probably under a different name. You can also serve it over rice or pasta, and, of course, while all that simmering was going on, you’ve been assembling a crisp, piquant green salad!

Three Fast Sisters Chili


To see other Under Western Skies chili posts and recipes, click the links below:

Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili (2011)

Holiday Party Chili (2010)

© 2013 Brad Nixon


  1. Hot chili pepper powder made from cayenne or habanero peppers will work .


  2. This looks like a great recipe (since I have all the ingredients, even homegrown squash). Thanks for the vegetarian recipe, we will try it soon.


Leave a Comment. I enjoy hearing from readers.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: