April 29, 2012

Cincinnati Chili

I've never been to Cincinnati. My only points of reference for the city, I confess, are watching WKRP on tv and Cincinnati Chili (only the former of which I've experienced first hand). So, as you can see, this will be a bold adventure down chili avenue, and at the end I won't really know whether I've succeeded or not in creating an at-home version of "Cincy/Cinci Chili"; all I'll know is if I've made a tasty dinner. To be fair, that's usually my primary goal, so I'm not too worried about it.

My interest in Cincinnati Chili is based on two things: a deep appreciation of American regional cuisine, which I explore whenever possible, and a recollection of a pastitsio I once ate in Mykonos, which contains a similar combination of pasta, meat and spices, albeit without the cheddar cheese, kidney beans, or oyster crackers. I loved that dish so much, that I've tried to make a version of it before.

Ah, oyster crackers. You can't really get them here, I've discovered (unless you have an account with Sysco Restaurant suppliers, I suppose), so unless I want to visit one of the local oyster bars and clandestinely make off with a packet (or, you know, ask them nicely for an extra packet) I'm forced to either a) make my own from the dubious recipes floating around the internet (not happening today!), b) substitute soda crackers/saltines, despite numerous websites cautioning me against doing so, or c) use the also-dubious looking oyster crackers available from Carr's in the entertainment 9-variety pack.

I've opted for c) and the scant offering of suspiciously flat oyster crackers it is. For the purists, I apologize that I'm not easily able to meet the simple standard, but perhaps I can gain a little credit for not just using goldfish crackers?

My starting point was this recipe from Allrecipes, which is claimed (by a commenter, not the original poster) to be the very recipe for Skyline Chili as was posted in the newspaper in the 1970s. It seemed like a pretty good place to start. Yes, I did my reading, and understand that Empress is widely recognized as the first cincinnati chili, but at the end of the day, after all the reading, I couldn't find a version of that one available. Skyline seemed just the thing. When I eventually make it to Cincinnati, I will have to taste test Skyline, Empress, and Gold Star, just to truly understand the differences. I read a lot of recipes, and a lot of comments, and am impressed by how passionately Cincinnati folks love their chili. Food that is subject to hotly debated opinion, contested between strangers and friends alike in the quest for the perfect representative version, is always worth investigating.

I halved it, because I wasn't feeding 10 people, and I have finite freezer space, so I hope that doesn't compromise the flavours and/or textures. I also found it necessary to substitute dark cocoa powder for the chocolate (not going to the store again today), and upped the cinnamon. I use an unsalted tomato sauce, so this will likely be a bit less salty than other, more accurate versions.

So, the only remaining question was...one-way, two-way, three-way, four-way, or five-way? Which, of course, isn't a question at all; five-way, hands down. For those completely unfamiliar with this dish, it breaks down like this: one-way is just chili in a bowl. Two-way is served on spaghetti. Three-way is served on spaghetti with cheddar cheese. Four-way is three-way plus chopped onions (raw). Five-way, the ultimate version as far as I can tell, is all of the forgoing plus beans, either in the form of chili beans or kidney beans, warmed separately and added either on top of the spaghetti, or on the bare plate before the spaghetti. Well, how could I opt for anything less than the full experience? Five-way it is.

Cincinnati Chili
Adapted from Allrecipes
Serves 5

454 grams lean ground beef
4 cups filtered water
200 mL unsalted tomato sauce
1 medium yellow onion, finely grated
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or crushed
1/2 tablespoon dark cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cumin (ground)
3 whole cloves
3 whole allspice berries
1 bay leaf

The night before, break up the meat into a medium-sized pot and cover with water. Bring the mixture to a low boil, and cook for about a half-hour, or until the meat is finely broken down and cooked through. Top up with more water as needed - it should be a bit watery. In fact, it looks kind of awful. That's okay, it gets better tomorrow. Cool it down, and then refrigerate overnight, in the same pot.

The day of, skim the solidified fat from the top and discard. Or make candles, or bird feeders, or whatever it is you do with tallow. Re-heat the meat and water mixture, and add everything else. About half-way through grating the onion, I couldn't hold it without risking grating my fingers, too, it was all so slippery with tear-inducing onion juice, so I wimped out and tossed the rest into the min-prep and let the sharp blades finish mincing it for me.

Simmer over a low heat for three hours, to allow time for all of the flavours to develop, adding water as necessary to keep it from drying out. The texture should be more along the lines of a pasta sauce, so it needs to stay "loose".

For five way, drain and rinse your beans, and reheat them separately in a little water. Cook up however much spaghetti you want to use - we go for smaller portions here, so a half-pound (225 ml) spaghetti gives me 4 servings, leaving one "serving" of chili leftover to make a "cheese coney" in the middle of the night. Ahem. So, beans, spaghetti (in which ever order you want to put them), topped with a full portion of the chili (1/5 of the pot), topped with finely chopped onion, and finished with a whole lot of cheddar cheese (I used sharp cheddar, because that's how I roll). Oyster crackers on the side, to be added by the various diners.

I didn't have a grater that would give me the kind of long, fine strands of cheese that I wanted, so I simply went with a fine shred. The overall effect is not the same, but it seemed a better option than using a coarser shred.

So, the verdict: The two-stage meat cooking yielded a texture that was very silky, almost fluffy, and I cannot imagine a way to get that without the lengthy cook time. The combined seasonings were incredibly tasty, although for my tastes I could have upped the allspice and clove (perhaps with a little pinch of ground spices, instead of whole), and I could have easily upped the cocoa to a full tablespoon, too. However, even exactly as written above, it was fragrant, rich, and satisfying, and a dish I'd be happy to have again. A tasty dinner, indeed.

Now I just need to get myself to Cincinnati, and check out the real deal.


Kristian said...

I've never had this in Cincinnati and the idea of chili over spaghetti just intrigues me.

When you eat it, do you eat it just like spaghetti with ragu meat sauce? Or do you cut up the spaghetti with your fork in smaller pieces and shovel it in?

Dawna said...

Kristian, as far as I know, you eat it the same way you would eat spaghetti, but perhaps someone from Cincinnati will chime in and let me know if this is (or is not) the case.