The Rumbly Tummy: Vegan Cincinnati Chili
Updated: Feb 1, 2021
If you've ever been to Cincinnati, Ohio, particularly coming up from Nashville on the I-75/I-71 merge, late at night with hours to go before you hit a warm bed in a friend's home in Eastern Ohio, you'll know that the skyline is spectacular. It's enough to make the droopiest eyelids flip wide, and startling enough as it lifts from the crest of that Kentucky hill to catch a bit more wind in the proverbial sails. This little folk band has been caught letting out a solemn "wow" murmured mid sentence from the sight.
And if you are driving that route, night or day, one of the first buildings you'll pass in the skyline is what is now the Radisson-- an octagonal building with a spinning top floor where you can take your date and look out over the city. And if you happen to dine there sometime, you'll be in the same place that my (Mallory's) dad proposed to my mom. My mother was living in Cincinnati at the time, working at a bank and falling in love with a backhoe driving young man who had recently dragged himself back home in Western PA to take over the family business after a stint in Baltimore. After that night, my mom would eventually move back home, as well, where they would marry and have three kids, and then accidentally a fourth who would one day grow up to play a show in downtown Cincinnati and tell the story about the time her father proposed to her mother in the Cincinnati Skyline.
And this is why my mother was obsessed with replicating the famous Cincinnati Skyline Chili recipe. If you've never heard of it, you only need to head to a local Walmart in the five state area to find stacks of this famous chili stacked in the freezer section.
Personally, I've only had the "real deal" a couple of times in college, where one of the cafeteria stations served it up in its variations-- over hot dogs, on french fries. But the most notable way you are to appreciate this meaty concoction is over white spaghetti, dumped generously, with a heap of beans, cheddar cheese, and raw white onions on top. This is also called the "5-Way." I'll let the experts explain further--
This classic Cincinnati dish starts with a foundation of spaghetti noodles coated in Skyline's secret blend of seasonings. A heaping spoonful of kidney beans goes on next, followed by Skyline's "original, secret-recipe chili," some chopped onions and a heaping mound of finely shredded aged cheddar. Not feeling onions or beans? That's called a 3-Way. Want just onions, or just beans on that? Yep, that's a 4-Way.
There are lots more descriptions online, most including the phrase "shrouded in secrets." But, like daughter like mother, simply enjoying a secret recipe isn't satisfactory. My mother had to figure it out. Family lure says that my mother worked tirelessly to emulate this regionally famous chili, tweaking it for years until she was finally satisfied that it tasted like her early 20's memory. I remember Skyline chili weeks in sensory detail-- allspice and bay leaves mixed with onions steamed the entire house as it simmered for a minimum of two hours on the stove. And then, we ate it on everything. Of course, the first day we ate it 5-Way, in reverence. But the rest of the week it was slathered on hot dogs and potato chips and, I'm pretty sure I saw Dad on more than one occasion dipping a spoon right in.
My mother then contributed the recipe to the Family Cookbook, which was printed along with recipes for "salads" ("salads" that, for whatever reason, had very few vegetables and a surprising amount of marshmallows and Jell-O), Ham Balls (I didn't even know Ham had...), and Ambrosia. I cracked open my copy of the Bleakney-Deemer book after moving to my first house in North Carolina while trying to learn to cook as well as my mother. When I came across the Skyline Chili recipe, there was a note in the corner-- Call me before you make this. I've left out 5 important ingredients.
Shrouded in secrets, this family.
I didn't call my mother for those ingredients. At least not before I became vegetarian. And then gluten free. But I did text her last week after our wonderful show at the Downtowne Listening Room in Cincinnati. Before you get too excited, what you will find below is not my mother's years of hard work and dedication. That shit is secret. But you will find an incredibly delicious knock-off, with all of its ingredients, that you can enjoy whether you eat meat or not, and the simmer time is cut in half since you aren't using actual ground beef. You might say, all the flavor in half the time. Scott's never had Skyline before, so he had nothing to compare it to, but he did say it was "a damn fine chili!" in his Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks voice, which is a solid A+. And if my memory serves me correctly, it's pretty close.
So, for your needing to be warm on a cold day, or feeling nostalgic for what you can't have anymore, or just plain comfort (or hangover) food, here's the March 2019 edition of The Rumbly Tummy: Vegan Cincinnati Chili.
2 TBSP peanut oil
1 1/2 lb extra firm tofu, drained and crumbled
1 TBSP smoked paprika
2 TBSP liquid aminos (or 1 1/2 TBSP soy sauce/tamari)
6 Bay leaves
1 large onion, diced
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp allspice
4 tsp white vinegar
1 tsp cayenne
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp oregano
6 oz tomato paste
5 1/2 c water
1 1/2 c kidney beans
gluten free pasta of choice (we used a cup of elbow macaroni)
vegan cheese of choice
green onions for garnish
1. In a large soup pot, heat peanut oil over medium-high to high heat. Add tofu and stir til browning-- about 5-10 minutes. Add smoked paprika & aminos and stir, scraping bottom of the pot to loosen tofu.
2. Add remaining ingredients except kidney beans, pasta, cheese, and green onion. Stir well, scraping the bottom free of any extra debris, bring to a boil, then leave on a high simmer stirring occasionally for 45 minutes.
3. While simmering, prepare your pasta according to directions, shred/cut cheese, and chop green onions.
4. At the 45 minute mark, add kidney beans. Chili should have reduced to a thicker mixture by this point. Continue to heat until beans are thoroughly heated, stirring frequently.
5. Plate by first adding the pasta, then the vegan cheese (if you're using regular cheese, you can add it after the chili since it is more likely to melt), then the chili, and top with green onions. Enjoy while discussing other family secrets.