09 Nov

Getting Hot Over Instructions

Why it’s so important to be thoughtful when writing instructions:

On Saturday, Debby made a big pot of “black bean harvest chili” that included, along with beans and sauce, chunks of butternut squash, dark beer, and canned chipotle peppers.

The first taste almost blistered the skin off the roof of my mouth (although it was also incredibly delicious for the first 100 ms). Debby, hot pepper girl that she is, gave me a predictable look of scorn, took a big bite and raced for the sink (only three steps away, but she raced). If I hadn’t been drowning my personal furnace with our last bottle of beer, I might have taunted her as she ran the tap straight into her mouth. Instead, I set the empty bottle on the counter with a decisive clink and raised my eyebrows. She glared from under the tap, clearly knowing that the only other (and much weaker) extinguisher left was the gallon of milk we’d meant for the children. She turned off the water, wiped her mouth (delicately) with a towel, and marched (three steps) back to the chili–ignoring my offer to run to the store for more beer–and said, “We’re going to fix this or end up killing everyone (but us) in the dinner party.”

Did I mention that we’d invited two other couples over? (One was couple my brother and sister-in-law, so any damage done there probably didn’t count, but the other couple were close friends, and foodies to boot!)

So what the hell happened? We’d picked up the recipe via Saveur.com–where the recipes are almost always bulletproof–and Debby is a thoroughly competent and increasingly spectacular cook. We shrugged it off and theorized that the recipe author was Venusian and for them, this chili was probably mild. Debby fished out all the chipotles she could find, and we dumped in a jar of spaghetti sauce and soup broth to cut it down. We weren’t able to retrieve the sauce from the cans of pepper, nor most of the baby nuke pepper seeds.

On the Scoville scale from 0 to 1,000,000 (it goes higher, but only for pepper spray and pure capsaicin), the undiluted chili was probably at Scotch Bonnet level: between 100,000 and 350,000 units. Post-dillution, it was closer to 8,000 to 10,000 (Jalapenos, Hungarian Wax, and most chipotles–which are often smoked Jalapenos). Since we’d used the same brand of canned chipotles just a week before, we guessed that there’d been some QC or pepper supply issue at the factory along the lines of “Dammnit we are out of Jalapenos but look at these freight damaged Habaneros! They will be a delightful treat for our customers who are used to less. As my venerable grandmother who founded our company once said, ‘Smoke em if you got em, boys!'”

At dinner everyone had a small bowl along with lots of bread, salad, cheese, pasta, and other neutral or low-temp side dishes, and some bold wine. We all agreed that it was tasty and about as hot as we’d ever want our chili. We topped the evening with a giant pan of apple crisp and full bodied vanilla ice cream. Everyone left with their own food baby, totally sated and still talking about our little food adventure.

Today, I was reading the ingredients again, and had an aha moment.

1 small pie pumpkin or orange squash
1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (28 oz) plum tomatoes, chopped
2 cans (19 oz) black beans, drained and rinsed
1 bottle (300 ml) stout (such as Guinness or Dragon)
2 tbsp brown sugar or maple syrup
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp each cinnamon and oregano
2 canned chipotle peppers, minced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels

Note the number and units of chipotles. It calls for two peppers, from a can. We added two cans (6 oz or so). So it’s pretty clear that two things happened: we added too many peppers; and the peppers themselves were either not your typical Jalapenos (fresh peppers of the same variety can differ drastically in heat, depending on the crop) or another, hotter variety as described above.

How’d we make our mistake? Tip for recipe authors–do not, repeat, do not use the container type (canned, jarred, bagged) as an adjective prefixing the noun/food item, at least when for ingredients that make a huge difference in flavor or may kill the consumers of said recipe. Cooks are often moving fast and focusing on the food noun itself–we are more likely to see the container type if it follows food name. Especially if there are other ingredients that read “cans of”–even people who work with words for a living can read “cans of” instead of “canned” in a big list followed by a paragraph or more of instructions. Or, if you do used “canned” as they did above, it’s okay to add a note along the lines of:

Note: Dear harried cook or people who overlook the little things, please be sure to use two chiles from a can of chiles, not two cans.

In retrospect, it’s possible that the early disaster made for a more successful dinner party. And, leftover chili cold from the fridge the next evening was tasty and didn’t need any help (that didn’t stop me from adding slivers of cheddar). Debby and I agreed to try the recipe again, and this time we’ll have a six pack on hand.