The unexpected upsides of unemployment

Happy anniversary to me. Two years ago today the firm I worked for eliminated my position and I joined the millions of unemployed. Celebrating such an inauspicious anniversary isn’t something I’d choose to be doing today, but I think it should at least be noted on my calendar, if only to recognize that I’ve managed to survive to note it at all.  Yes, it sucks to be unemployed; we’ve already covered that. But here’s something I’ve discovered. There are actually some unexpected upsides to the unintended leisure life too. Going to the beach on a whim, walks though the park on a weekday when the leaves are at their peak, just enjoying a leisurely lunch in the backyard on a lovely day. Those are some of the more obvious ones, but there are others you may not have considered. For example, since you are no longer going to an office, playing hooky is far easier. No more making up clever ailments for your “sick” day (and yes, bosses DO pay attention to how many times you’ve had your wisdom teeth out…no one has 14 wisdom teeth.) Setting your alarm to 6:00am so you can call your boss’ voicemail right when you wake up, thereby sounding unwell? Not necessary. Counting vacation days to see how many you have left? No more my friend! Go ahead…take that extra ‘packing’ or ‘unpacking’ day –  no worries! Of course, you don’t have money to go on that vacation anymore, but let’s focus on the positive, shall we? And there’s more! You know those pesky fundraising phone calls you get around the dinner hour? Just tell them you are unemployed. Not only do they take you off their list, they apologize, sound genuinely sorry, and depending on their mission may even say a prayer for you! Hey, it couldn’t hurt. Same thing for all those eager young people standing on street corners with clipboards sporting Greenpeace, Planned Parenthood or Children International t-shirts. Go ahead, let them ambush you. You have the perfect response. Shuts them up tout de suite! The only ones it doesn’t seem to work on are the kids selling candy on subways. The last time I said, “I’m sorry sweetie, but I’m unemployed”, the kid just looked at me and without skipping a beat said, “Well then, you must be hungry for some M&Ms!” I have to admire the kid’s technique…and those peanut M&Ms really went quite nicely with my afternoon tea.

Of course the down side still outweighs the up, but it’s good to know that if it ever happens to you, there is something to look forward to. And as far as “celebrating” my anniversary?  I think I’ll fix myself a dirty martini, cue up Gloria Gaynor, (those of you too young to remember disco or not gay men, look her up) and celebrate that I still have most of my sanity, my sense of humor, a relatively positive outlook, and the funds left to buy olives.  I’ll also be sending a prayer to the job fairy that I’m not celebrating this again next year.

Chicken Chocolate Chili

Another upside to my current situation (and its associated extremely limited funds) is rediscovering the beauty of simple cheap eats. Remember the ingredients we used to buy when we didn’t have money? Hello, I’m there again and not suffering all that much, at least not in the cooking department. True, I don’t have the means to go out with my friends a lot, but they seem pretty happy to stay in with me….as long as I cook. Hey, if they are willing to fill the wine glasses, I’m happy to fill the bellies. Tomorrow night I have a table full coming over after the movies, so I need something to feed a crowd that’s easy on the budget and can be ready as soon as we get to Chez Karin. Chicken chocolate chili in the slow cooker is just the ticket. I can make it a few days ahead (chili always gets better over time) and let it warm in the slow cooker while we’re at the show. I’ve paired it here with my favorite cornbread recipe with honey and sage. Cheap eats make very happy bellies!

Slow cooker chicken chocolate chili

Makes about 12 cups

For the chili

  • 6 oz. dried black beans – soaked overnight
  • 6 oz. dried pinto beans – soaked overnight
  • 2 lbs skinless boneless chicken thighs
  • 1 TBSP olive oil
  • 1 28oz. can of diced fire-roasted tomatoes (you can use regular tomatoes if fire-roasted are not available)
  • 1 bottle of Guinness stout, extra stout or another stout beer (and if you can find chocolate stout terrific!)
  • ½ cup water
  • 3 fat cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 cup of chopped cilantro, divided in half
  • 1 large onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
  • A 1 lb butternut squash, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces (about 3 cups)
  • 1 oz. unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp grated orange zest
  • 2 TBSP masa harina or very finely ground cornmeal plus 3-4 TBSP hot water, mixed to make a slurry
  • 2 ½ TBSP Spice Mix (see below)

Spice Mix

People argue about their preference of chili powders and heat level as much as their politics. I like a little heat, but firmly believe that food should not hurt. Naturally my choices of ground chilies reflect that, and this recipe is on the mild side. I love ancho for its fruity nature, new mexico chilies for heat that won’t blow the back of your head off, and the smoky spiciness of Spanish paprika or pimenton. When I’m serving this to company, I’ll serve some roasted green chilies or some hot salsa on the side so those who like more heat can add it in themselves.

  • 1 TBSP  salt
  • 1 TBSP chili powder
  • 1 TBSP ground cumin
  • 1 TBSP ancho chili powder
  • 1 tsp New Mexico chili powder
  • 1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • ½ tsp hot pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika)
  • ½ tsp ground coriander

Mix all of the spices together until fully blended. This makes more than you’ll need for the recipe, so just keep the extra in a jar for the next time, or when you want a little spice on chicken, meat, or fish.

Put the chicken in a sealable bag and add in a heaping TBSP of the spice mix. Knead the bag so all of the chicken is covered with the mix. Put in the fridge to sit for at least an hour.

When you are ready to make the chili, heat 1 TBSP olive oil in a large frying pan over medium high heat and brown the chicken. You may have to do this in two batches so the chicken isn’t crowded. Once the chicken is browned, remove it to a plate, turn heat to low and add ¼ cup of the beer to deglaze the pan, scraping up the browned bits stuck to bottom of pan. Turn off the heat and add back in the chicken and any juices. Let sit until you’re ready to add to the slow cooker.

Drain and rinse the soaked dry beans and put into the slow cooker. Add in the onion, garlic, squash, chicken, pan juices you just deglazed, the can of diced tomatoes and ¼ cup chopped cilantro. Mix everything together so all the ingredients are well distributed. Add in the remaining beer and ½ cup of water, then the chopped chocolate and 1 1/2 TBSP of the spice mix. Mix well again. The liquid should be up to the top of the ingredients but not covering. If you need more liquid, add a little more water.

Set the slow cooker to high for 6 hours. At 5-½ hours remove the chicken, shred it with 2 forks and add back into pot. Make a slurry from the masa and hot water, add to the pot and mix well. Let the chili cook another 30 minutes to thicken the sauce a little. Taste for seasonings and add salt and pepper if needed. Add in the other ¼ cup of chopped cilantro and stir. Calories: about 265 per cup.

As with any stew, chili is always better a day or two later, so this is the perfect recipe to do ahead, and it freezes beautifully. When I’m making it for a crowd, I keep it warm in the slow cooker and set it out with a stack of bowls, garnishes and honey sage cornbread and everyone can serve themselves.

Garnishes Here’s some that I like – feel free to add in your favorites.

  • Grated bittersweet chocolate
  • Finely chopped red onion, soaked in ice water about 15-30 minutes (takes some of the sharpness out of onion and makes them crispy)
  • Chopped avocados
  • Shredded sharp cheddar cheese (or a combination of a sharp cheddar and jack or muenster)
  • Chopped roasted green chilies
  • Sour cream
  • Chopped cilantro
  • Tortilla chips
  • Pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds)
  • Lime wedges

Honey sage cornbread

From Epicurious.com, this is without a doubt my favorite cornbread recipe and gets rave reviews whenever I serve it. The original recipe included an additional 12 whole sage leaves that go into the skillet and you pour the cornbread batter on top, like an upside-down cake. I’ve left them out because I found that they never stay put and when I arrange them prettily on top and serve, everyone tends to pick them off anyway.

Makes 12 servings

  • 1 cup cornmeal (preferably whole grain, medium grind)
  • 1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup honey  (I use an amber honey or one that is very flavorful)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 400°F. Heat heavy 10-inch-diameter ovenproof skillet (preferably cast-iron) in oven 10 minutes.

Whisk first 5 ingredients in large bowl to blend. Whisk milk, honey, and egg in medium bowl to blend. Remove skillet from oven; add 1/2-cup butter. Swirl until butter is melted. Pour all except 2 tablespoons butter into egg mixture.

Add wet mixture to dry, and stir until just combined (do not over mix; batter will be wet and runny). Pour batter in skillet. Bake until browned around edges and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 22 minutes. Cool in skillet 10 minutes. Invert onto platter. Calories: 200 calories per wedge.

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5 thoughts on “The unexpected upsides of unemployment

  1. Wow-weasers that’s some recipe and I’m running upstairs to turn up Gloria and dance with you and sending good karma your way that soon you’ll be back with the ranks of us coming up with excuses and having more than 4 wisdom teeth pulled. Hang in there sweetie.

  2. The chili sounds great – but I am with you – that is my favorite cornbread recipe ever! Try it with 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh rosemary in it. The best!

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