Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cincinnati Chili by the Bay

This is another in my series of famous (or at least regionally famous) dishes that probably should be considered creative interpretations or reasonable facsimiles of the original. Similar to my Don't Call it Bouillabaisse and Don't Call it Cassoulet, this dish recreates my taste memories of eating the more authentic dish. I actually ate this in Cincinnati, Ohio, but is not an exact replica. Like those other dishes, it is also an attempt to stay out of the factional fray of differing devotees of what exactly is "authentic."

I read about Cincinnati chili long before I ever tasted it. It is a Greek/Middle Eastern inspired meat sauce with strong cinnamon flavor on top of spaghetti (two way), eaten with shredded yellow cheddar cheese (three-way), onions (four-way) or beans (five way). To me, five-way is the only and best way. It is standard to top your chili with oyster crackers, which don't add into the count.

Five-way chili is an inspirational dish. Many a newspaper article and blog post has been written about it. Some seek to recreate the taste of their favorite Cincinnati chili parlor's offering, others seek to replicate the restaurant's chili down to quasi-chemical analysis.

I've only had the original twice -- once on my drive across country to move to the Bay area in California, the other when my public relations department bet one in Cincinnati on the outcome of a sporting event a few years later. If our team won, they got crab. If we won, we got the chili. No one else in the department knew what to do with the frozen bricks of chili packed on dry ice that arrived in tribute to our team's prowess. I hadn't been part of the original bet but they let me participate since I was the only one who knew how to serve it. Chili on top of spaghetti is not exactly standard here in California.

I've collected Cincinnati chili recipes ever since, but never made it until a friend's husband was feted with a potluck to celebrate his 40th anniversary of coming to America. Since his first 20 years here were spent in Cincinnati I thought it was time to tackle the five-way on my own turf.

Cincinnati Chili by the Bay
Serves About 10-12

This chili is spicy, but not hot, redolent with cinnamon, allspice, cardamon, cloves and cumin which give the dish a rich, deep, exotic flavor. Don't expect the usual Tex-Mex brash heat and punch, it's not here. This recipe is an distillation of many recipes I've read in cookbooks and the internet as well as background histories of the dish, plus my own remembrances and preferences. One way many devotees differ is if you should brown the meat and onions first or not. Most of the more traditional recipes didn't, so I didn't. Don't be intimidated by the long list of spices, despite the length of the recipe, it is very easy to put together. This is a big batch of chili since I was making it for a crowd. You could reduce the recipe or freeze leftovers if this is more than you need for one meal.

2 cups beef stock or broth
2 1/2 cups water
3 large onions, minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 ounce unsweetened baking chocolate
5 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cardamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
3 pounds lean ground beef
2 bay leaves
6 ounce can of tomato paste
8 ounce can of plain tomato sauce
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt, or more or less to taste

Put the broth and water in a large heavy soup or stock pot over medium high heat, add onion, garlic, chocolate, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cardamon, cumin, paprika and cayenne pepper. Mix well. Add ground meat, using a spoon to break up any clumps of meat and mixing well with spices. Bring to just boiling. Lower heat to a simmer, add bay leaves, tomato paste, tomato sauce and vinegar. Return to simmer, cooking covered and stirring occasionally for an hour and a half. Uncover and taste, add salt as desired. Simmer uncovered until the chili is very thick and all the flavors have melded, about 30 minutes (or longer if needed, the chili should not be runny at all). Remove the bay leaves before serving. Serve hot with spaghetti and toppings (see below).

To serve: Have spaghetti, shredded cheddar, chopped onions, kidney beans and oyster crackers available. Serve the chili on top of the spaghetti and let diners add their choice of toppings. Being a Californian, I wouldn't think a sprinkling of chopped parsley and a side of fresh, crusty sourdough bread would be amiss either, but that would be your call.


Craig Gerhardstein said...

You said the chili should be thick which isn't what cincinnati style chili is like, it is runny and soup like I live in cincinnati and have worked at skyline chili, making the chili every morning, my sister still works there as a server. I hate when people give recipes for cincinnati style chili and say the chili should be thick. you gotta come to cincinnati to taste real cincinnati chili from skyline chili, and don't go to one of the corp. skylines you gotta go to one that still own and ran by the original family the Lambrinides

FJKramer said...

Hi Craig,
Yep, I know. sorry to have set off your reflexes on this, but as I said in my intro, this is my version not the authentic one.

thanks for taking the time to comment and sorry it took me awhile to notice it.

Donna Kohler said...

Yes, like Craig said, Cincinnati chili is thin, more like a meat sauce and the meat is never browned, your recipe does not brown the meat. In 1965 a family member gave me a recipe said to be from the original Empress Chili Parlor. A mix is available through the following site.
You have control of the meat which is so important, I prefer a balance, not too lean, a little fat is flavorful but not so high in fat that it is greasy. Box store ground beef is often grainy, I've now switched to ground beef from a local grocery store meat department. The best test is to buy a pound and make a hamburger to test the texture and flavor.