#ChiliThoughts – Cooking up a Project

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#ChiliThoughts – Cooking up a Project

Recently I was preparing an entry for Avanceon’s annual Chili Cook-off (recipe below), and I started thinking about how engineers tend to make good home chefs. The analytical mind craves to understand how things work; this can include cooking techniques and ingredient combinations. Two of my inspirations in the kitchen are Alton Brown (host of Good Eats) and Kenji J Lopez Alt (editor of Serious Eats). Both offer more than just recipes; they provide data driven insights into the cooking process. They explain much more than the how, and dive into the why that I need. If you’re a food nerd like me, I highly recommend checking them out.

While I was idly stirring the pot, I realized that there are parallels between cooking and an automation project. While this analogy might seem like a bit of a stretch (and it certainly is), bear with me. Cooking is a project, after all. Here are some of my musings:

All projects start with documentation detailing how the system will work. This is essentially the recipe.

Projects often require specific technologies to make the system perform optimally. Cooking is all about technology and choosing the right tools! You could use a microwave to make a batch of chili, but the results are likely to be less than optimal.

The ingredients are like the team members. They work together to build subsystems, which later go together creating the final product.

The cook is the project lead, orchestrating the successful execution of the dish. The cook has to interpret the recipe and coordinate a schedule of tasks, followed by sampling throughout the process to make sure things are on track (like a code review!). Ultimately the cook has the ability to pull certain levers and adjust ingredients to make the dish perfect.

Commissioning is when everything comes together and pays off, just like plating your dish and serving your family or guests. You finally get to eat your creation!

Are there any common threads between your hobbies and your profession? If so, let me know in the comments below.
Image Source: Freepik

Braised Beef Chili Recipe
This recipe describes a technique for making a rich and saucy chili with tender chunks of meat. At a high level it involves creating a flavorful braising liquid, then using it to slowly cook beef. I prefer to use an enameled Dutch oven for this recipe. I stay away from a crock pot because the technique requires searing meat to get maximum flavor. Modern crock pots have a ‘sear’ function, but I have not had much success with them. I also avoid a bare cast iron pot because acidic ingredients (such as tomato) don’t play well with the seasoning on the iron. If you don’t have an enameled Dutch oven, a large stainless steel pot would work fine for this recipe.

– 2-3 lbs of beef cut into 1-2 inch cubes. You can use pre-cubed stew meat, but the meat is the star of the show and I prefer to get a hunk of chuck, then cut it up myself. The stew beef is usually made from bottom round which is lean. Chuck roast has better marbling, allowing it to break down easier and impart better flavor.

– 1-2 ounces of dried chili peppers, stems and seeds removed. I typically use about 8 guajillo peppers, but any combination of ancho, pasilla, arbol, and guajillo peppers will work.

– 1 large onion, diced. Any type of onion will work.

– 4 cloves of garlic, minced. This amount can vary according to your taste. Sometimes I’ve used an entire head, so if you are a garlic lover, go crazy.

– 1 quart of stock. Any type of stock will work. I typically use chicken stock since I always have it on hand.

– 1 28oz can of whole peeled tomatoes

– 1 tablespoon of ground cumin

– 1 sprig of fresh oregano

– 2 dried bay leaves

– 2 15oz cans of black beans. Beans are totally optional in this recipe, and if you prefer you can use a pound of dried beans. Just remember to soak the overnight ahead of time.


1.) Add the stock to a sauce pan, and bring to a boil. While waiting for the stock to heat up, use kitchen shears to remove the stems and seeds from the peppers.

2.) Heat a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the peppers to the sauté pan, gently toasting them. Once the peppers become fragrant, immediately remove them from the pan and add them to the stock.

3.) Boil the peppers for about 5 minutes, then remove from heat. Let them sit, covered, for another 30 minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. This allows the dried peppers to reconstitute. After the peppers have sat, blend them and the stock together. You can use a countertop blender, but I prefer an immersion blender for easier cleanup. If you like a smooth consistency to your final product, strain this liquid to remove particulates.

4.) Heat the Dutch oven over medium heat and add about a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Season the beef with salt and pepper and begin to sear it in batches. Being careful not to crowd the bottom of the pot, you want to cook the meat for a few minutes on 2 or 3 sides. The meat should be dark brown before turning it. Once the meat is seared, remove it from the pot to do another batch. Once all the meat is seared, set it aside. A nice deep brown fond should have formed on the bottom of the pot.

5.) Add the onions to the pot with a large pinch of salt. The salt will help the onions sweat. As the onions start to give off moisture they will begin to deglaze the bottom of the pot. Use a wooden spoon to stir the onions and scrape up all the good bits.

6.) Once the onions start to turn translucent, stir in the garlic. The garlic only needs to cook until it is fragrant, about 1 minute, so be careful not to brown or burn it. At this point dump in the braising liquid made from the pepper and stock, tomatoes (liquid included), beef and any accumulated juices, cumin, oregano, and bay leaves. Turn the heat up and bring the whole pot to a low boil.

7.) Once the mixture is bubbling nicely, reduce heat to a simmer. The beef will take about 4 hours to get fork-tender. Stir occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot.

8.) At about the two hour mark the tomatoes should be nice and tender, use a wooden spoon to smoosh them. If you are using beans, now is the time to add them. Taste for seasoning towards the end of the cooking time, once the sauce begins to thicken. It’s easy to over season early on, and as the pot reduces it will only amplify any mistakes.

9.) The chili will be finished cooking when the chunks of meat can easily be split with a fork, and when the sauce has thickened. If the sauce starts thicken too much before the beef gets tender, splash a little more water or stock in to thin it out. I cook mine until a wooden spoon will stand up on its own in the pot. Once it has been deemed ready, remove the oregano stalk (the leaves should’ve fallen off) and the bay leaves. Ladle some into a bowl, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

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