May it Please the Palate: Create a Cinncinnati chili parlor in your own kitchen

There are two things that Cincinnati is known for. One is Graeter's Ice Cream, and the other is Cincinnati Chili. Oh, and ex-President Taft went to high school there. Can we go back to the Chili?

My best friend in college was from the Queen City. Every time I visit there I had to make the pilgrimage to Skyline Chili, preferably at the intersection of Clifton and Ludlow. It's gotten to the point where I hope I get appealed to the 6th Circuit, just so I can go back to Cincy.

Skyline is my favorite example of what is known as Cincinnati chili, a thin and vaguely Greek-flavored concoction that is a cousin to the Detroit Coney style. It is traditionally served over thin spaghetti, a "two way," that is made into a "three way" with finely shredded cheddar, a "four way" with onions, and a "five way" with kidney beans (never cooked with the chili). This masterpiece is topped with oyster crackers and hot sauce and best eaten cut into wedges, and hefted with a fork.

Coneys are also available. My go-to meal is a small four-way with a Coney, followed by a scoop of Graeter's. Then a nap, followed by fervently renewed New Year's resolutions.

Cincinnati "chili parlors" are all about steamed windows and a heady aromatic essence, redolent of cinnamon and cumin. They are populated at all hours by business people, families, students, and the bar crowd, and even the unemployed who only need a few bucks for satisfying meal. This is a synergy that cannot be transplanted. We once had Skyline Chili in Monroe and Lansing, and they were pale shadows of the real thing. Might as well buy a can of Skyline at Hiller's and microwave it. Whoop-de-do.

Every chili parlor has its own recipe. The original, Empress, was created by its Macedonian owners in 1922. Skyline came along in 1949, and Gold Star in 1965, which is now the biggest chain. Independents also thrive; Camp Washington Chili was once named by CBS Morning News as the best chili in the nation.

So as you might guess, I go there whenever I can. My Cincinnati friend, in the meantime, has lost his way. He has turned vegetarian. Desperately, he still goes to Skyline with me when I visit, either having kidney beans on a hot dog bun with cheese and onions (pathetic) or, more conventionally, choosing a black bean burrito from Skyline's ever-burgeoning menu.

Feeling sorry for him, I developed a vegetarian version of the chili. My omnivorous friends actually prefer it to a meat chili. Like any good confluence of spices, let the flavors get to know each other a day or two before serving. You will find versions featuring cloves and even chocolate and honey. This one's a little easier to make, and after I had a local store make me a proprietary spice blend, it's a cinch.

CINCINNATI CHILI

Adaptable for meat,vegetarian, or vegan

Ingredients:

2 TBS butter or Earth Balance

2 TBS olive oil

2 lbs equivalent ground beef/ground beef substitute (I use Morningstar Farms vegan crumbles or Quorn, which has a better taste and texture, but does include egg white. If using the fake stuff, one 12 oz. bag is equivalent to a lb. ground beef)

1 large yellow onion, chopped

6 cloves garlic, minced

6 bay leaves

2 TBS ground chilé, hot or mild or a combination of both (not commercial chili powder, which is a mix of spices; use pure ground chilé)

2 tsp ground allspice

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp crushed red pepper

1 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp oregano

11/2 tsp salt

2 tsp cider vinegar

2 tsp Frank's ancient Greek recipe hot sauce

1 6 oz. can tomato paste

4 cups water

Preparation:

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melt butter and heat oil. Add meat/substitute and cook, stirring occasionally, until evenly browned. Remove to a food processor and whir into fine granules. Return to saucepan and add onion and garlic for a minute or two, stirring until sizzling nicely, then add remaining ingredients. Stir and taste. If mixture is too sweet, add a dash of vinegar or Frank's; if too mild, add more chilé or red pepper.

Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, uncovered, about two hours. Add more water as necessary to get the right consistency (you are shooting for something a little thinner than regular chili, suitable for pouring over spaghetti or hot dogs). Remove bay leaves and serve.

Remember your "ways" (above). I like to have on hand a pot of cooked spaghetti, chopped raw onion, heated kidney beans, regular hot dogs and those unfortunate things called tofu pups, hot dog buns, and plenty of finely shredded cheddar. Also make sure to have oyster crackers, Frank's, and yellow mustard (for the dogs).

Serve this up at your Super Bowl party. Who knows, someday the game could feature the Lions against the Cincinnati Bengals. Not sure about the best football team, but I'd definitely bet on the Cincinnati chili over the Detroit Coney dogs.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard and Walker, P.C., a law firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation.

He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine.

He can be reached at: nroumel@nachtlaw.com

Published: Thu, Jan 12, 2012

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