Winter is a real drag. While Chicago is great during the summer and fall months, the winter and spring months can really bring you down. Unlike mountainous areas where winter truly is a wonderland, Chicago, as a relatively flat, urban area, is longing for winter activities. The city tries to do all it can by erecting temporary ice rinks around town, and they even put in a winding winter ice ribbon at one of our more contemporary gems, Maggie Daley Park, but that’s really not enough to get you through the cold, dark, and dreary part (sometimes it seems like half) of the year. Suffice it to say, once the holidays are over, I’m ready for the warm weather and sunshine. Unfortunately for me, I’m stuck with muck for the next four (or five) months.
Given my predicament, this year, I realized I had a choice: I could sulk or I could find little ways to make the winter a bit more bearable. For now, I’ve selected the latter option. So, you know what I did? Let me give you a hint. It involves food. SHOCKING! Anyway, one of the things that’s helped give me some added pep in my step during the fourth season of the year (let’s not get into the technicality that most of winter takes place during January, February, and March, thus making it more like the first season of the year) has been making a pot of homemade chili each week.
There’s something great about a bowl of chili on a cold winter’s day. Warm and filling, chili is a food that can turn your winter from crummy to cozy (or, as my son would say, “co-ZEE”). As if that weren’t enough, chili is phenomenal for a party (ahem, Super Bowl), and it’s one of the greatest stretch meals of all time. Not sure what a stretch meal is? Here’s my definition: Any meal that stretches beyond a single meal, whether it lends itself to varied preparations in subsequent reheatings, gets better after a day or two (think casseroles), or is so darn good, you could practically eat it every day. Chili, my friends, is without a doubt a stretch meal. You might be wondering what makes that so nice. Well, I’ll tell you! Today, I got caught up in something. Before I knew it, I was looking at 3:30 pm, I had not eaten lunch, and I was in no mood to figure something out (I only know one way to play “The Hunger Games,” and that’s hangry). At that moment, I remembered I still had a little chili in the fridge. About three minutes later, I had a warm bowl of happiness waiting for me. I had saved myself some stress and indulged in a restaurant-quality dish I had prepared a few days ago. That, as Johnny Drama (yikes, I just quoted “Entourage”) would say, is victory!
Now, if you’re reading this, you might be wondering: What kind of chili was it? Or, you might be wondering, instead: There are different kinds of chili? To the former, the answer is “Classic.” To the latter, the answer is, “Oh, yeah!” You see, chili is one of those things that can spark serious arguments. There’s green chili, white chili, veggie chili, chicken chili, turkey chili, Texas chili, Cincinnati chili, and classic chili (sorry if I’ve forgotten any). Now, I’d argue that two of the most famous region-specific chilis in the United States hail from Texas and Cincinnati, respectively (sorry, New Mexico, home of chili verde). What’s more, these differ from the chili most people think of—something I call “classic chili.” Because of this, I thought I’d fill you in on the difference between these three popular chili types, guide you to some recipes, and let you decide for yourself which variety you like the best. Okay, here goes!
Many in Texas will boast that theirs is the original, and I’m not sure anyone’s in a position to argue that point. Texans will probably appreciate hearing that, from my perspective, they stay truest to the literal dish—chili con carne. Translated, chili con carne (what we’ve shortened to “chili”) means “chili [peppers] with meat.” Texans take that translation to heart, relying heavily on two flavors—chili peppers and beef (typically a cubed roast). A real-deal Texas chili is so committed to these flavors, that you won’t find fillers like tomatoes, or beans in the dish. Without these “dulling agents” Texas chili is known to bring the heat. It’s for these reasons that chili here is known simply as a “bowl of red.” If you’re feeling bold, try this recipe here.
If you were to take a Texan to one of Cincinnati’s many chili parlours, they would be shocked. That’s because what Texans know to be chili is extremely different from what residents of The Queen City recognize as chili. Since most of my dad’s family resides in Cincinnati, I’ve had Skyline a time or two, so I like to think I know a thing or two about the Cincy-style. Cincinnati chili has Greek influences which give it a unique flavor and consistency. Different from Texas chili, the Cincinnati variety relies on ground meat, tomato paste, and a wide variety of spices, from cumin, to cinnamon, to allspice, to cocoa (yes, cocoa). There’s more sweetness with Cincinnati chili. Additionally, where the Texas stuff is more of a stew, the Cincy stuff is more of a sauce or thick soup. And while that’s enough to separate Cincinnati-style from Texas-style, another difference is in how it’s served. Texas-style, in its most traditional form, is served as is. Cincinnati-style is served in one of five varieties: 1) Chili, by itself; 2) Chili atop spaghetti; 3) The three-way, which adds shredded cheese (a classic); 4) The four-way, which adds beans or chopped onion; and 5) The five-way, which adds beans and chopped onion. Additionally, one can opt to use Cincinnati chili to top a Coney-style hot dog. If you’re feeling adventurous, try this recipe here.
What most of the country thinks of as chili probably lies somewhere in between the Texas and Cincinnati styles. This “classic chili,” as I call it, uses ground meat (most commonly beef) as its base. From there, tomato (fresh, crushed, diced, paste, or sauce), beans, onion, peppers (sometimes even corn), and seasonings (like chili powder, garlic, and paprika) are added in, mixed, and cooked together. A lot of folks will throw cumin into the mix too, but, for my tastes, I do without. The consistency sits somewhere between a stew and a soup, and the heat can range from mild to five alarm. Sometimes, classic chili will be served with shredded cheese, chopped onion, or oyster crackers. Additionally, you can find this type of chili being used to make traditional chili dogs. For a great, classic chili, explore here.
There you have it. As you can see, these three styles of chili are about as different as New York and Chicago pizza. In fact, you might wonder how each have come to share the same name. Nevertheless, like New York and Chicago pizza, each style has its merits. Try them out, and see which one you like best. Then, you’ll have a stretch meal in your repertoire that can warm your body, and spirit on a cold winter day. After all, it’s the little things, right? Enjoy!
Header image by Chowhound.