I grew up in a small town in northern Ohio. And I loved it. Ohio is one state that really seemed to get the seasons right–hot summers perfect for running through the sprinklers, cool and beautiful falls with leaves of every color, snowy winters that required hot chocolate and bright sweaters, and springs that launched every backyard garden into high gear. But one of my favorite things about Ohio was, and still is, its signature chili. This is one of the first dishes I learned how to make, and to this day is one of the most comforting meals I know. Southerners can have their fried chicken–I’ll take this any day. What makes it distinct? Oddly, some of the same ingredients that make a Mexican mole sauce: chocolate and cinnamon. Just a hint of each, enough to add warmth and intrigue. It gives the chili a depth and spiciness that you just can’t find in any other recipe. And it’s served over spaghetti! Comfort food never had it so good. I have a perfect record on converts to this chili–it may take three bites or three bowls, but you will come back for more.

Cincinnati Chili

(adapted from Cooking Light, September 2008)

1. Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 1 T vegetable oil and 1 1/2-2 lbs. lean ground beef (I prefer ground sirloin). Cook until browned, breaking up large pieces. Remember, you’re going for something close to the consistency of hot dog chili. Add 1 1/2 medium onions (finely chopped; save the other half and add it at serving, see below), 2 cloves minced garlic, and cook five more minutes or until the onion is tender and translucent.

2. In the meantime, prepare the seasonings. I like to combine all of the spices ahead of time–I’m less likely to forget one when I add them to the pot. (For those that give a range of amounts–2-3 T, for example–add the lower amount first and taste after it simmers for a few minutes–add more as you wish.) In a small bowl, combine 2-3 T brown sugar, 2-3 T chili powder, 1 tsp. ground cumin, 1 tsp. ground cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. allspice, 1/4 tsp. ground coriander (this adds a nice brightness, but does not make enough difference that you should run out and buy it if you don’t already own it), 1/4-1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper (unless you use spicy barbecue sauce, then omit the cayenne), 3/4 tsp. kosher salt, 1/2-1 tsp. black pepper (depending on your spice-level preference), and 2-3 T unsweetened cocoa powder (if you prefer, you can add 1 oz. chopped unsweetened chocolate instead).

3. When the onion in tender, add to the pot: 1 cup water, 3 T barbecue sauce (if you use spicy, omit the cayenne pepper), 3-4 tsp. white vinegar, 1 (10.75 oz.) can tomato puree, and the spice mixture. Mix well, bring to a boil, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes. Taste after 15 minutes or so and adjust spices. Note: If the chili tastes too acidic, add more sugar–brown or white (I usually add a couple of pinches of white). If it tastes flat, add a pinch of salt. If that doesn’t help, add–wait for it–ketchup. I know it sounds crazy, but the vinegar and concentrated tomato flavor adds just the right punch, and you know you have it in your fridge.

4. About 15 minutes before the chili is done, put on a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water and add 12-14 oz. of spaghetti. Cook according to package directions. Drain, but do not rinse. Also, warm 1 (15 oz.) can of kidney beans, rinsed and drained. Note: Everyone I know loves the beans, so I cheat and add them to the chili pot when I set the past to cook to heat them through, rather than serving them separately. This saves me the trouble of another dirty dish.

5. To serve: Add 2-3 oz. pasta to each bowl, and add 1 cup of chili. This is two-way. Present diners with the next few options: kidney beans (three-way), chopped onion (four-way), and grated cheddar cheese (five-way).

Serves 6.

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