A hearty, delicious riff on Cincinnati Chili, made with red lentils in place of the minced beef. It is easy, healthy, gluten-free, and high in protein, and grain-free (if you like), too!
The first time I stumbled upon Cincinnati Chili was more than 20 years ago, while perusing my mother’s copy of Gourmet magazine (December 1992), where a recipe for the dish was featured.
I remember it because I thought it sounded
yucky bizarre: a thick, gravy-like tomato sauce, spiced with cinnamon, allspice, cloves and chocolate, served on spaghetti, and topped with crushed oyster crackers, cheddar cheese, and raw onions. Strangest of all: red kidney beans were an optional ingredient, not for adding to the chili, but for sprinkling on top.
What the what?!!!
“I will NEVER, EVER eat that,” I thought.
Until, years later, when I lived in the Midwest, and I did.
And I loved it.
I’m confident you will, too, and my healthy, plant-based, gluten-free (and, even grain-free) interpretation makes it accessible to almost every kind of eater, too!
First things first: with apologies to the fine citizens of Cincinnati, you don’t have to think of this as chili. If you live in Texas, as I do, it is especially important that you call it anything but chili, especially if serving to a native Texan, as they might think you have lost your marbles.
It’s fine to refer to it as a spicy pasta sauce, because that’s what it is. Credit for its origin belongs to a Macedonian immigrant (and restaurateur) who created the recipe in 1922 for his Cincinnati restaurant. He added Middle Eastern spices and chili powder to a beef-based tomato and broth sauce and called his creation “spaghetti chili.” Cincinnati has been crazy for it ever since.
Making a plant-based version was a fun challenge. I considered using canned beans in place of the ground beef, but the texture wasn’t right, and here’s why: with Cincinnati chili, the beef is broken down with a spoon as it cooks (in broth, water, or the tomato-broth sauce) until it is very fine (no big pieces, as you might find in traditional chili). Beans, even if chopped or mashed, made the sauce too starchy, and the skins of the beans put me off.
Split red lentils (readily available these days in the dried bean section of the supermarket), however, are perfect–PERFECT! They break down as they simmer, but maintain just enough toothsomeness to create a Cincinnati-worthy sauce. You do not think “lentils!” as you eat, just hearty, spicy, scrumptious, meat-y goodness.
I used chickpea flour spaghetti, which makes the dish both grain-free and gluten-free, but feel free to use the spaghetti that suits your needs (gluten-free, regular, whole grain, etc).
The same is true for the toppings. Cheddar cheese is a classic Cincinnati topping, so use the real thing, or a dairy-free version such as the one below (note that I have no affiliation with the Daiya brand, other than that I like it (it’s tasty and soy-free) and it is readily available and reasonably priced at the supermarket.
You could also go against the grain–or, more accurately, the dairy–and omit it altogether. Purists will balk, but purists will object to a meatless version of the recipe anyway, so do what you like :).
If you want oyster crackers, go for it!
Considering the crackers get crumbled into bits, it is easy to swap in something else in their place, though, such as gluten-free cracker crumbs or gluten-free panko, or even some finely chopped toasted nuts (I realize that these suggestions will likely be considered heretical by traditionalists, but hey, they taste great, and it’s your kitchen!).
My last point of order is this: many Cincinnati chili recipes include instructions that the chili (sauce) mixture must be made at least one day ahead of time before eating.
Yes, the sauce tastes even better on day two (as do most such sauces), but it tastes pretty incredible on day one, too. Considering I usually need dinner for tonight, not tomorrow, and that most of you do, too, I suggest making a double batch for two nights’ worth of meals (or freeze the second half). You’ll thank yourself both sooner and later.
Thanks for the inspiration, Cincinnati!
Making this recipe? I would love to see it!
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- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- freshly cracked black pepper
- ⅔ cup split red lentils
- 4 cups water
- 1 15-ounce can tomato puree (not crushed tomatoes) or tomato sauce
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon coconut palm sugar (or brown sugar)
- 8 ounces chickpea spaghetti (e.g., Banza) or spaghetti of choice
- Optional toppings:
- Shredded Cheddar cheese (nondairy or dairy)
- crushed oyster crackers or other crackers
- chopped white onions
- rinsed and drained red kidney beans
- chopped parsely
- in a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion; cook and stir for 6 to 7 minutes until softened and beginning to brown. Add the chili powder, cocoa powder, garlic powder, salt, cinnamon, allspice, cloves and pepper. Cook and stir for 1 minute.
- Add the lentils and water to saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cook for 25 minutes. Add the tomato puree, vinegar, and coconut sugar. Cook and stir for 20 to 30 minutes longer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened (add more water, as needed; the sauce should be soupy-thick, not stiff). Season to taste with more salt and pepper, as desired.
- Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti until al dente according to package directions. Drain.
- Divide spaghetti among 4 shallow bowls, top with chili, and top with any and all toppings, as desired.
Note: Calories were calculated using chickpea spaghetti and without added toppings (as they are optional).