I had just arrived in Wilmington, Vermont after being on the road for three hours. I was hungry, thirsty, and tired – but mostly hungry. The only place open was the bar and grill – a dive really. But it was open, and it was clean. I ordered an iced tea and asked the waitress what she recommended that was good but fast. It was getting late and I needed to get to the house I had rented, which was another fifteen minutes or so up Route 100.
“Hold on, I’ll check,” she said. Two minutes later the owner was standing alongside my table.
“I hear you’re in a hurry and you want something good to eat,” he said.
“Yeah. Anything that’s fast is fine. A sandwich or burger, if the grill is still open.”
“How about some of my five alarm chili? Been simmering all day. It’s tomorrow’s special. But it’s perfect for eat’n right now. It’s the best you’ll ever eat. Wanna try some?”
“How could I say no to that?!” I asked. “Sign me up.” I didn’t tell him how much I loved chili. The only homemade chili I ever got was my mother’s. And no offense to my mother, but it was awful!
When the chili arrived, I was about to take a bite. The owner said, “No. Wait. You can’t eat it without the cheese.” I wondered why he had put a bowl of cheese in front of me. “It’s sharp cheddar,” he said. “I put it on the side so you can add as much as you want.” I put a little of the cheese near the side of my bowl. “When it melts, it’s perfect,” he added. It melted quickly. I tried a spoonful.
“Oh my God,” I said way too loudly. I took a huge swig of my iced tea. Five alarm! He wasn’t kidding. I took a bite without the cheese. Either way, it was the best chili I had ever tasted. I sprinkled some more of the cheese all over the top of my chili.
“You’re definitely not from around here,” he said. “Put some cheese on that chili. It won’t bite you.” He was right. As good as it was, it needed more cheese. By the time I finished my bowl of chili, the cheese was gone, and I was on my second glass of iced tea. My mouth was still on fire – but in a good way. I left that old bar feeling satiated and ready for a good night’s sleep.
That was twenty years ago and I still remember that bowl of chili. I’ve been trying to replicate it ever since. I think this recipe is a good start – not nearly as hot as his. But if you double up on the spices, then it’s pretty darn close. Add the cheese, and it’s a hearty and satisfying meal. Mangia.
1 tbs. olive oil
1 lb. ground beef – 80% lean or better
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 tsp. garlic powder (or 3 cloves fresh garlic, chopped)
1 tbs chili powder (level for less spicy, heaping for spicier)
1 tsp. dried oregano leaves (2 tsp. if using fresh oregano)
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar (reduces the acidity in the tomatoes without making the chili sweet) -optional
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes (low salt or no salt)
1/2 tsp. tobacco sauce
1 16 oz. can red kidney beans, undrained (low salt or no salt)
8 oz. shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese
Mix the dry ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside.
On medium heat, put the olive oil into a large saucepan. When hot, add the hamburger and onions. When cooked, 5 to 10 minutes, remove as much grease from the pan as possible.
Add the crushed tomatoes and tobacco sauce. Mix with hamburger and onions.
Add the dry ingredients from the bowl you set aside earlier, and stir.
Add the kidney beans and stir.
Cook on low heat for one hour.
Serve hot. Add shredded cheese.