I have two very distinct Cincinnati Chili memories. The first is walking into my Grandma’s house (through the kitchen screen door) and being greeted with the kinda funky, stinky, spicy smell of something cooking in a huge pot on her stovetop. I waltzed over to the pot and peeked at a tall pot of boiling ground meat. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t pretty and to a picky eater like me, it looked toxic!
But when she told me she was making Cincinnati Chili, I breathed a sigh of relief as I knew what the end product looked and tasted like and it was GOOD!
Granted I didn’t eat it like most people. I didn’t dig in to a heaping bowl of chili. My spoon wasn’t heavily laden with spiced ground meat. It was more like a condiment on my plain spaghetti! But there is something very comforting about the spices in the chili. It says “home” like no other food.
We moved to Chicago when I was eight and that meant less visits to Grandma’s and less Cincinnati Chili so I was excited when my parents took the whole family to Pompilio’s restaurant in Newport, Kentucky for chili on a return visit.
The move away from our home was hard for me and my siblings. I had never thought about how hard it must have been for my parents. They were leaving home and family too. They had made what was the best decision for our family, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. My Dad’s passion towards this Pompilio’s visit made me realize that. Isn’t it funny how great a communicator food can be?
Upon entering the restaurant I wasn’t very impressed. It was cool with it’s jukebox, checkered floor tiles and formica tables, though also old in a worn out sort of way. We had moved to a newer suburb of Chicago where everything was either undeveloped flat farmland or shiny new construction. It amazed me how old the neighborhood looked. It carried a patina I hadn’t really noticed before because in my youthful experience I didn’t have anything to compare it to.
Pompilio’s is an Italian restaurant so the chili smell I was anticipating wasn’t there when we walked in. Also, Dad had called it a “Chili Parlor” and those words had evoked a strange picture in my mind of big velvet Victorian era couches with a huge family style table covered in platters of plain spaghetti next to chili bowls. You know, like an old fashioned parlor with chili! Probably encouraged by the most popular TV show and book series for young girls at the time, Little House on the Prairie.
This place didn’t meet my expectations and I was worried that they would put too much chili on my spaghetti. I didn’t want it drenched, I preferred dry spaghetti with bits of chili here and there. See what I mean about being picky? I wasn’t a spoiled kid, these were the little things that made me nervous, made me tap my fingers and bite my lip. And if it wasn’t right I just wouldn’t eat it, even if it meant hunger. My Dad would call it “the obstinacy gene.”
Multiply my anxiety by 5, as there were 5 of us kids at the time and I’m sure we were all hyped up over the experience. With such a large family, we didn’t eat out very often. All of that angst faded away as the food arrived, just like smoke on a bee hive. The scent of the chili wafting over the table calmed me immediately. Suddenly, drenched pasta didn’t worry me. I didn’t sweat over too many meaty bits clinging to my spaghetti. Every steaming noodle contained the essence of home.
That is the secret of Cincinnati Chili…it’s spices soothe. They are a comforting hug from the past, an antidote to anxiety, a culinary talisman.
The secret to this recipe is in the spices, so it isn’t an exact science. If your spices are new and strong, you’ll need less. If they’ve been in the pantry a while, you’ll need more. Taste it as you go and add more if you like. Don’t overdo it, subtle is best as the flavor of this chili gets better overnight in the fridge.
½ pound lean ground beef or ground turkey breast
½ pound ground pork
4 cups beef or chicken broth or water
1 cup beer
1 bay leaf
1 can tomato paste
1 medium grated onion
3 cloves minced garlic
2-3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
Pinch ground nutmeg
Pinch ground mace
Pinch cayenne pepper
Pinch ground sage
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon chipotle powder
Salt to taste
Place broth, beer and meat in a large soup pot and break up the meat. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, breaking up the meat with the back of the spoon as it cooks.
Stir in the tomato paste, onion, garlic and all of the spices. Let simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally for 2-3 hours or until chili is thick. Add the vinegar and chipotle powder towards the end of cooking time and carefully taste before adjusting salt seasoning.
This recipe will make 6-8 servings. Double or triple the ingredients and the cooking vessel to cook for a crowd!
If you want the smoky flavor of chipotle powder without the heat, try substituting smoked paprika or leave it out entirely.
The texture of this chili should be like a thick Italian Bolognese sauce, or Chili Con Carne from a can. Or, like the ground meat filling in a Chile Relleno at your neighborhood Mexican restaurant.
I once tried an all ground turkey breast version of this chili and while it tasted good the texture wasn’t right. I corrected that by carefully placing my hand blender in the pot and pulsing a few times until I got the consistency I wanted.
If you’re worried about the fat, chill the chili a while before eating it and skim unwanted fat off the surface. If you use a combination of lean and slightly fattier meats like the combo in the recipe above you shouldn’t have that much fat.
Serve by itself or piled on top of hot spaghetti (known as a 2-way). Garnish with grated cheese (3-way), add onions (4-way) and beans (5-way) as desired. Served on a hot dog, it’s known as a Coney (as in Coney Island-the Cincinnati one, but more on that later).
My favorite way to eat it these days is in a bowl, topped with grated pepper jack cheese and pickled peppers with tortilla chips for dipping.
I also love it wrapped in a hot water pastry to make Cinci Chili Pies.
That recipe to follow in another blog post!
For the pickled pepper recipe, click here Cowhorn Pepper Harvest ~ Quick Pickled Peppers
It was so fun to read about your memories and insights with this dish.
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