Cincinnati chili—like a lot of things from the Midwest, in fact—is one of those things us dyed-in-the-wool West Coasters instinctively want to hate, but deep down inside just can’t. I mean, chili? Not to mention weird bastardized chili, with cinnamon and cocoa powder and kidney beans, on spaghetti? With more cheese than is reasonable by just about anyone’s standards? So shameful! But also so addictive. Adding fuel to Midwesterners’ likely growing irritation is the fact I’ve never even been to Cincinnati. In fact, I’ve never been to the Midwest at all, unless you count one half-hour layover in Chicago and two in Denver. (In fact, I’m not even sure Denver qualifies as “the Midwest,” but the view from the airport window was awfully flat, and I saw at least three Looney Tunes-embroidered denim jackets, which I would’ve sworn on a bible had all gone to the Big Goodwill in the Sky circa 1998.)
What I did is see a picture of Cincinnati chili somewhere several years ago, think, “That is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,” ran home to make it immediately, and have been making it off and on ever since. So, just a word of warning, if this looks good to you, make sure you have 6 people on hand (or at least 4) to eat all the servings, or else you’ll find yourself wearing sweats for the next two days, wondering how the dryer could suddenly shrink the jeans you’ve been wearing for years.
Recipe adapted from America’s Test Kitchen (natch). As below it makes 6 servings. And don’t think you can just pour your own favorite chili over some spaghetti and call it a day; I’ve tried it, and it’s just not the same. Once you make this, you’ll understand.
Also, the below recipe is “three-way,” with the spaghetti, beans, and cheese. It can be made “four-way” with a sprinkle of chopped raw onion.
• 1 1/2 lbs. ground beef (I didn’t buy ground beef even BEFORE we heard about pink slime, but now it’s even more imperative to grind your own. I just grind up discount steak or stew beef or whatever I have on hand): $4.50
• 1 lb. spaghetti: 99 cents
• 2 T butter: 12 cents
• 1 can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained: 59 cents
• 12 oz. cheddar cheese, grated: $3.50
• 2 T oil: 6 cents
• 2 onions, chopped: 25 cents
• 3 garlic cloves, minced: 3 cents
• 2 T chili powder: 10 cents
• 2 tsp oregano: 10 cents
• 2 tsp cocoa powder: 10 cents
• 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon: 5 cents
• 1/2 tsp cayenne: 2 cents
• 1/2 tsp allspice: 4 cent
• 1/4 tsp black pepper: 1 cent
• Salt to taste: 1 cent
• 2 cups tomato sauce (I used 1 cup frozen leftover pizza sauce and 1 cup leftover frozen diced tomatoes): 80 cents
• 2 cups chicken stock (frozen, left over from fried chicken & Andouille gumbo): $0
• 2 T apple cider vinegar: 20 cents
• 2 tsp brown sugar: 10 cents
TOTAL: $11.57/6 = $1.93/serving
If you’re grinding your own meat, be sure to defrost it first (it doesn’t have to be all the way; in fact, it’s better if it’s slightly frozen).
Obviously this is easy if you have a meat grinder, but if not, you can use a large food processor.
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and a big pinch of salt and cook until translucent, about 5-6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Add the chili powder, oregano, cocoa, cinnamon, allspice, cayenne, black pepper, and another pinch of salt and stir until spices are fragrant. Deglaze the pan with the tomato sauce, broth, 2 cups of water, vinegar and sugar, scraping up any browned bits. Add the ground beef. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and simmer for about an hour, until sauce is thickened and dark red. Adjust seasoning to taste.
Cook the spaghetti in boiling salted water according to package directions. (I like to put a strainer with the drained beans over the top of the cooking pasta to heat them up.)
Drain the pasta, and (this is important) toss it with 2 T butter. Serve by topping buttered spaghetti with the chili, then beans, then cheese, then optional raw chopped onion, if desired. Serve immediately.