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Cincinnati Chili Ain’t Like No Other

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Plenty of shredded cheese covers the Cincinnati chili at Skyline.

One of the wonders of the Internet is that you can sometimes reconnect with friends you haven’t heard from in ages. That happened recently when I received an e-mail from Bob Dial, a former journalist and an ex-roommate during those starving artist days that made the setting of “Rent” seem like the Taj Mahal.

We lived in Catskill, N.Y., where the snow can fall when you least expect it. One year, a storm arrived in late September, but the law stated landlords didn’t have to turn on the heat until Oct. 15. So, for more than 10 days, about seven or eight of us gathered around a kerosene heater in the center of the living room, using alcohol and body heat to try to keep warm. I remember adding more layers of clothing before going to bed.

I also remember making pots of rib-sticking Cincinnati-style chili. This is nothing like Texas chili. It has Greek roots and is flavored with cinnamon, coffee and chocolate, and it’s sold on most every street corner in the Ohio city, from chain restaurants with names like Skyline and Gold Star. A serving starts with a layer of pasta covered with chili and topped with shredded cheese. That’s a three-way. A four-way traditionally adds raw onion to the mix, between the chili and the cheese, while a five-way includes kidney beans. Oyster crackers on the side are another common feature.

Skyline makes it own hot sauce to spice up its bowl of red.

Whenever I visit Louisville, I get my own three-way at Skyline. No pasta, but plenty of onions. And of course, a few healthy splashes of hot sauce on top.

Bob reminded me of those days when “we were too stupid to know we had it good” and of the chili. “I still remember your Cincinnati chili – yum,” he wrote “We have tried to recreate it several times with no success. If you still have the recipe, please send it to me.”

Here is my version as I remember it, Bob. I haven’t made it, well, since I moved to Texas.

What I remember is that a few people have told me they never tasted coffee in their Cincinnati chili; but I like the richness of flavor it adds, so I use it. Others have said mine packs a little too much heat; if your a little nervous about that, cut way back on the cayenne.  You can always kick up the heat with some hot sauce when you serve it.

Serve your Cincinnati chili however you want it, with or without beans, onions and spaghetti.

Cincinnati Chili

2 pounds ground beef
1 (16-ounce) can crushed tomato
2 medium yellow onions, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup chili powder
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 tablespoon instant coffee crystals (optional)
2 teaspoons cayenne, or less, to taste
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon cinnamon, or more, to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Dash or 2 Worcestershire sauce
1 generous tablespoon tomato paste (optional)

To serve:
Cooked spaghetti
Diced onion
Kidney beans
Finely shredded cheese
Hot sauce
Oyster crackers

Place beef in a quart of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. Skim off the foam.  Add tomatoes including juice from can, onion and garlic. Stir to break up the meat and allow all to be fully incorporated. Stir in chili powder, cocoa, coffee crystals, cayenne, cumin, cinnamon and salt. Leave on low and let cook for 3 hours. Season with Worchestershire sauce. You may need to add water, if the mixture has become too thick. Or add some tomato paste if it is too thin.

Refrigerate over night. Skim the fat off before heating.

To serve: Place a layer of spaghetti on the plate. Top with chili, then onion and kidney beans, if desired. Cover entire plate with shredded cheese. Serve with hot sauce and oyster crackers on the side, if desired.

From John Griffin

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