Monday, November 07, 2011

Embracing Diversity

There's not a lot of prelude to this post; I'm just going to share with you the meal I ate every Monday for the duration of my formative years. In our house, Monday night was chili night, and in our house chili meant the chili of Cincinnati, my mom's hometown.

We've had this recipe in the family for longer than I've been alive. To call it a staple minimizes its role as a foundation of our family meals. This recipe is an institution. I've tweaked it only the tiniest bit to make it healthier since the first time I made it for our family's dinner "all by myself" in 1991. While I no longer eat it on a weekly basis, I still love it. Simply, this recipe means home to me.

When you've been eating Cincinnati chili for as long as you can remember, the act of eating your chili on spaghetti doesn't faze you. Some people I know get freaked out by this. Those people need to settle down. Other styles of chili have their place, and so does this. There's no one right chili. Embrace diversity, people. Your stomach will thank you.

Empress Chili

Empress Chili was the primary chili parlor in Cincinnati until the 1950s, when an Empress employee left to start the now famous Skyline Chili. We're Empress people. Skyline is ok, but Empress is the best. 

1 pound ground beef (the leanest possible) or 1/2 pound ground beef and 1/2 pound ground turkey
1 yellow onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 15 oz. can tomato sauce

15 oz. water (measure using empty sauce can once the sauce has been added to the pan)
1 dash A-1 sauce (yes, that brand and only that brand)
3/4 tablespoon vinegar
2 dried red peppers or 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons chili powder
3 medium bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (depending on your heat tolerance)

Sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1 can of kidney beans, rinsed and drained

1. Heat the pan over medium-high heat. Brown the meat, onion & garlic in the pan. The goal is to break up the meat into fairly small pieces during this process.  

Yes, you really do just dump the meat, onions, and garlic into the pan with no oil. I use the leanest meat I can get and I don't drain it, but if you want to use fattier meat, that's fine - just be sure to drain off the fat before proceeding to step 2.

Now we're browned and ready to go.

2. Once the meat is browned and the onions are translucent, add the remaining ingredients. Stir to combine.

3. Simmer for 30 minutes to an hour until thickened.

And we're simmering. I should add: this was the first "nice" pan I ever got. My mom sent it to me when I got my first apartment as a senior in college. It's the same pan she makes chili in at home, but it's incredibly versatile. It's classic Calphalon anodized alumnium and it's now in its twelfth year of use. It still looks nearly new. Consider this the next time you want to plunk down cash for crap cookware. It's not worth it. Get good stuff and you'll keep it forever.
4. While the chili is simmering, cook the spaghetti according to package directions. These days I always use whole wheat spaghetti. 

5. Season the thickened chili with salt and pepper. (I find this normally needs at least half a teaspoon of kosher salt, sometimes more depending on whether your tomato sauce is salt-free.) If the sauce gets too thick, you can add more water to thin it and keep cooking it.
This is just about done. Thickened but still saucy.

6. Serve the chili over spaghetti with kidney beans and shredded cheddar. This is known as serving it "four-way bean"* but we never called it that. We just called it chili.

For some reason, we always ate our chili on plates, but now I tend to serve it in bowls.

*In Cincinnati, you can get your chili several ways - see below for a guide. Long ago, we cut out all the stuff we didn't like and have always stuck with the beans (because they are good for you) and the cheese (because it's delicious). DO NOT make this without the cheese. I'm serious. The cheese MAKES it.

Two-way: chili and spaghetti
Three-way: chili, spaghetti, cheddar
Four-way: chili, spaghetti, cheddar, chopped white onion
Five-way: chili, spaghetti, cheddar, chopped white onion, kidney beans
Four-way bean: chili, spaghetti, cheddar, kidney beans

All of the above are traditionally served with oyster crackers. We never ate ours with oyster crackers. Never.

Twirl with a fork. Love.

No comments: