What's all this recipe engineering stuff, anyhow?

Nov. 2, 1998
TAKE one pound of red kidney beans. Sort them carefully and reserve any pebbles and stones. (After you have saved a pound of stones, you can take them to the store for a refund.) Put the beans in...

TAKE one pound of red kidney beans. Sort them carefully and reserve any pebbles and stones. (After you have saved a pound of stones, you can take them to the store for a refund.) Put the beans in 6 cups of water, in a large (5 or 6 quart) pot. Bring the pot to a boil, and boil for two minutes. Turn off the heat, cover, and allow to soak for two hours. Pour yourself a beer and take a break; you deserve it. Plan to chop veggies....

When I was a kid, I could not tolerate the mealy taste of beans. But eventually I learned to appreciate them, and now I am making up for lost time. Thus, whenever my wife goes away on a trip, I make up a big pot of chili con carne. It's not that she never makes chili, and it's not a gas problem. I just like this recipe.

This started as a recipe from a Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, a rather good cookbook. But the printed recipe had several flaws, so I started customizing it—re-engineering it. (Someday I'll tell you how I reverse-engineered the recipe for Joe's Special Starlite Lobster, but that's a whole 'nother story. Has anybody seen this recipe recently? Last I heard, Maurice the Chef had moved from Sunnyvale to Sacramento—and that was 30 years ago.)

The original chili recipe had 2 lbs. of lean chopped beef, plus 1/3 cup of suet for frying the vegetables. It only takes one try at finding suet—when there is none at the Safeway or four other markets—to begin to realize that if you start with ordinary hamburger, fry it, and save the fat, it's substantially equivalent to the fat from suet. Plus, it's much cheaper—and more available. Similarly, the original recipe called for 3 teaspoons of salt and 3 teaspoons of chili powder. I amended that to 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 12 teaspoons of chili powder.

What's a mere factor of three or four or twelve?? I have made this recipe over twenty times. (My wife does a lot of travelling.) I usually make 1.5 recipes, and it makes a great breakfast for 10 mornings in a row. Here's the complete recipe:

RAP's Chili con Carne con Frijoles (with Beans):

1 lb. red kidney beans, sorted
6 cups water
2 lbs. coarsely chopped beef or hamburger, not very lean
2 onions
2 green peppers
3 garlic cloves, minced
28 oz. canned tomatoes or fresh tomatoes, chopped coarsely
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 to 12 to 18 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon tagarashi (Japanese HOT chili powder) (optional)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Set the sorted beans to boil in the 6 cups of water for two minutes. Then turn off the heat, and cover and soak for two hours. Meanwhile, chop the onions and green peppers into fairly small pieces (1/5 by 1/3 in., or as you prefer). Chop or crush the garlic. Chop the tomatoes.

Fry the beef 1 lb. at a time over high heat in a large skillet, browning it well in some places. (It will be well-cooked later, so you do not have to cook it uniformly.) Set the beef aside in a bowl, draining the fat back into the skillet. There should be 3 or 4 tablespoons of this fat in the pan. Or, add a little shortening to bring it up to at least 2 tablespoons.

Fry the onions, green pepper, and garlic over high heat so some of it is browned and most of the onions are at least translucent.

IMPORTANT: Now, drain off most of the fat from the onions. You might put back a little fat later. But, as the fat takes in the spices, you have to do it now or lose the spices when you take off the fat later.

Then, add the tomatoes. When it gets back to bubbling, turn down the heat to simmer. Add the basic spices: salt, paprika, pepper flakes, and about 6 teaspoons of chili powder.

NOTE: As there are such great variations in the strength and heat of purchased chili powder—and such differences in each person's taste and enjoyment of hot food—you must start with a little chili powder. Add more, to taste, later.

Stir and mix. Add beef. Stir and mix. Allow to simmer at least an hour.

After the beans have soaked two hours, apply heat and bring to a boil. Simmer covered for an hour or two until the beans are more or less cooked, al dente. (Some people change the water, but this recipe doesn't seem to need that.) Add water as needed to keep beans covered.

NOW add the meat and spices and veggies to the pot of beans. Bring to a boil. Simmer at least 20 minutes.

Stir the chili and sample. Start to correct the seasonings, adding a little more salt, chili powder, pepper flakes, etc., per your taste. This is a good time to bring in 4 or 8 or 10 more teaspoons of chili powder. But, take it easy on the pepper flakes; they can always be added later. After the flavors have melded for 30 minutes, you will probably be hungry and eat some. But, if you let it simmer another hour or two, it gets better. It gets even better when you re-heat it the second day.

Serving options: Serve with grated cheese on top. Serve over rice. Serve with tortillas. Use green beans or broccoli on the side—or on top. Try a dab of sour cream. It's great with a fried egg for breakfast. That's what I am eating right now as I type. And it goes good with red wine, too.


  1. Take a pint of the chili and add a tablespoon of water. Blend for several seconds in the blender. Return it to the pot to make a richer, thicker sauce.
  2. Take 2 cups of the chili, hot, and add 1 square (1 oz.) of UNSWEETENED chocolate. Heat gradually until the chocolate is melted. Stir in completely. You have an excellent molé.
  3. Add veggies: carrots and more tomatoes. Add corn.
  4. Fool around with the spices. Try more of this and less of that. I often sprinkle a little of the hot pepper flakes on top of my bowl so the main batch is not so HOT, but my bowl can be as hot as I want.
  5. Try some different kinds of meat, such as ground lamb, turkey, or whatever is marked down this week. (But turkey is so lean, you'll have to add shortening or butter to fry the veggies.)

When you are finished with the chili for the first day, cool off the pot for an hour in a sink full of cold water so it will not overload the refrigerator. I usually heat up one bowl at a time in a microwave oven. But, you can re-heat the whole pot, stirring almost continuously.

Cooking and recipe engineering can be fun, challenging, and tasty. And, if you avoid making a stupid move, you can avoid a huge pot of inedible "food."

Does the engineering of a recipe take good planning, good processing, good JUDGEMENT—and good skills at interfacing with people? Yeah, for sure. That's why my wife is a much better cook than I am, in general. (But, I can honestly say that I am, at least, an adequate cook on many dishes....)

All for now. / Comments invited!
RAP / Robert A. Pease / Engineer
[email protected]—or:

Mail Stop D2597A
National Semiconductor
P.O. Box 58090
Santa Clara, CA 95052-8090

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