Friday, July 29, 2005

Chico's Cincinnati Chili

The chili I most want to taste is in the movie Touch of Evil. Orson Welles's character, a cop, waddles across the Mexican border into a whorehouse, and there is Marlene Dietrich smoking a cigarillo. The characters are acquainted from long ago. "I must say, I wish it was your chili I was gettin' fat on," Welles says. A little later he tells her that after his case is over he wants to come back for some of her chili. "It may be too hot for you," Marlene says, oozing sex. May it?

Until I get my Purple Rose of Cairo moment, I will gladly settle for my buddy Chico's Cincinnati chili, a sublime, eccentric dish. Chico is known in cyberspace as the guy who made like weird Al Yankovic and lost on Jeopardy! Sadly for me, he is leaving the Midwest in a few days, and he agreed to make his chili for a farewell dinner last evening in Madison.

Cincinnati chili is American regional cuisine, an ingenious variation on the tex-mex classic. It is made with unusual seasonings and garnished five ways. Although I have made and eaten a variety of chilis, from lentil chili with sweet white corn to hold-the-beans-cowboy Texas chili with habaneros, I am singularly impressed by Chico's Cinci-chili. It kicks their collective ass.

Chico, JF, and I assembled in JF"s kitchen (which JF built with his own two hands, really nice work too). We began prepping ingredients.

Chico had some stew meat he bought at a farmer's market. From playing "Know Your Cuts of Meat" I can say it looked to me like round.

He cut it into smaller cubes while JF and I assembled things you measure in teaspoons and tablespoons. In addition to unsweetened chocolate grated with one of those nifty microplanes,

his recipe calls for an astonishing assortment of herbs and spices. In alphabetical order: allspice, bay, black pepper, cardamom, chili powder (itself an assortment), cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, mace, marjoram, nutmeg, paprika, and turmeric. We ground some of them ourselves.

In the finished dish these blend into a complete, complex flavor. It tastes like chili but it doesn't. In some ways it's like a curry but it doesn't taste exotic, and the chocolate gives it the same bitter backbone you find in some moles. (On an episode of America's Test Kitchen the other day I saw them put unsweetened chocolate in Mulligatawny soup, so there's another South Asian connection.) We also readied the rest of the ingredients: onions, garlic, tomatoes, honey, ketchup, red wine vinegar, and some water.

This all basically got tossed in the pot. It would be a good dish to do in a slow cooker. Contrary to chefy protocols, we didn't sear the meat first or sweat onions and garlic in oil, and I think the dish was better than it would have been if we had done these things. This settled for me a dispute (in my mind) between Bittman and Batali in favor of the former: you don't have to get good color on meat to get great flavor in a braise.

We covered the chili and went to hang out in the living room and discuss DVD storage and other vexing problems. After half an hour we put a pot of water on the stove to boil. When it did we dropped in a pound of spaghetti.

One of the delights of this dish is the way it's served: five ways, with five garnishes. Four of them go in little condiment cups: red kidney beans, oyster crackers, onions, and cheese. I was puzzled by the beans being on top of rather than mixed in with the chili, but it works. The whole dish just works, and it would be wrong to screw with it.

The fifth, spaghetti, goes under the chili. We cooked the spaghetti, drained it, and tossed it in the pasta pot with some butter. Here's the chili when it was ready to serve.

And here's what it looks like when you eat it.

JF managed just one bowl, Chico and I each polished off two. Guess which of us is the thinnest. This is a chili Orson Welles would have loved, and I'm grateful to Chico for making it before leaving on his great adventures. Take care, buddy.


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