Slow Cooker White Chicken Chili [and Christmas reflections, five years later]

Five years ago. Five years ago today, we were in the hospital as my mom went through surgery for pancreatic cancer. Five years ago, I found myself immensely grateful for the Buddhist doctor who didn't celebrate Christmas and had no issue with scheduling surgery for that morning. It was five years ago that friends brought us Christmas lunch, which we ate through tears in the hospital lobby. Five years ago today, we eventually went home to the house where we grew up, not quite knowing what to do next.

What do you do when Christmas hurts? There were still gifts lingering under the tree that didn't get opened at the last minute get-together that happened before she was admitted. The house was decorated for the holiday, as mom always made sure to do, but yet it felt eerily empty while she was still in the hospital. Everything around us - the tree, the garland, the stockings, the lights - called for celebration.

We didn't feel much like celebrating, but it seemed like this Christmas, more than any others, we needed to be together. So we did what we knew to do.

We ate.

Eating together was a normal practice for us growing up. The dinner table is where we learned, conversed, laughed and grew as a family. And on that day, five years ago, it's where we mourned.

Christmas dinner five years ago was white chicken chili. After leaving the hospital that day, my brother went home, grabbed a bunch of this chili that was in his freezer and brought it over to my parents' house. We set the dining room table, gave thanks for another meal that God provided and ate...together.

Christmas hurts sometimes. That Christmas hurt. But as I look back, what I remember is my family sharing a meal. That's what we knew to do. There was nothing we could do to fix what was going on. We didn't know what else to say. We were tired, but we could be together. We could grieve together, laugh together and eat together. Five years later, while I still find myself grieving the loss of my mom, I remember the bittersweet joy of grieving with my family - and I am so immensely grateful for my family.

This Christmas, five years later, I can't help but echo the refrain my dad has uttered over and over again through the years, in good times and bad.

"We have much to be thankful for."

Merry Christmas.

Slow Cooker White Chicken Chili
Serves 8-10

3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 jalapeno, chopped (seeds removed if you prefer less spice)
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts (3-4 breasts)
4 (15 ounce) cans Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed
2 (4 ounce) cans chopped green chiles
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ teaspoons dried oregano
1 ½ teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder, plus more if desired
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
¼ teaspoon cloves
3-4 cups chicken broth
1-1 ½ pounds zucchini, diced (about 2-3 zucchini)
1 can corn, drained

In a skillet, heat the olive oil on medium-high heat. Add the jalapeno, half the onions and the chicken breasts. Brown the chicken breasts on both sides alongside the jalapeno and onions. Be sure not to cook the chicken all the way through.

Put chicken, jalapeno, onion and all the rest of the ingredients except the broth, zucchini and corn in a large slow cooker.

Pour 3 cups of the broth over the top. Set the rest of the broth aside.

Cook on low for about 6-8 hours. If you need to add more liquid to the chili, add the reserved cup of broth as needed. During the last hour of cooking, add the zucchini and corn.

When the chili is done cooking, shred the chicken with a fork. You can also mash up some of the beans to thicken the chili. Add additional salt if needed.

Serve with your favorite chili toppings like sour cream, avocado, cilantro, cheese or a dash of extra chili powder.

Note: This recipe fills my 6-quart slow cooker.