Wrong: Mark Bittman's Chili Recipe Will Have You Cooking Black Beans in Espresso

August 20, 2012 5:46 PM EDT | By Anthony Smith
Espresso Black Bean Chili
Mark Bittman's Car Alarm Chili (Photo: Creative Commons)

We're fans of Mark Bittman in that we agree that ingredients can be nice. It pretty much stops there. There's an element of wrong-headedness, even culinary negligence, that goes into a few of his recipes. Since even non-cooks have been having a lot of laughs at the expense of the Food Network's resident strawman Sandra Lee, we feel it necessary to apply the same pressure to Mr. Bittman-- especially in light of lofty book titles like How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

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Make no mistake: Bittman either can cook or does cook. His recipe for fettucine with eggs is one I return to constantly, especially when I'm drunk or hungover. But sometimes he suggests something so offensive, and maybe even completely antithetical to his supposed minimalist approach to cooking, that they're worth noting.

All you have to know about where he falls short is that, in How to Cook Everything, he recommends using vermicelli in Pad Thai. All of a sudden, Sandra Lee comparisons aren't too far off, but let's keep going.

Take his chili recipe as probably the perfect example of what we're talking about. We love a black bean chili just as much as the next person-- especially when it's topped with a metric ton of sour cream and sliced green onion. However, what we can't get behind is how Bittman recommends cooking it.

Say it with us now, if your gag reflex doesn't stop you: he steeps the beans in espresso. And if your mental tastebuds just flatlined, well, let's just say they'll be in good and plentiful company in the morgue.

How can anyone that claims to understand flavor profiles combine black beans with one cup of freshly brewed espresso? How can anyone that understands the relationship between espresso and coffee recommend that you can substitute double the amount of coffee for the espresso and get a chili that preserves the same taste?

Above all else: what kind of monster with hams instead of fists could possibly conceive of something as appalling as an espresso black bean chili, if not as an ironic starter for Kwanzaa Cake during the holiday season?

To his credit, there are unexpected places into which one can place an espresso. Take Justin Warner of Do or Dine's espresso aioli as the perfect example of someone who understands the chocolatey sweetness and the more acidic components of espresso's flavor profile, and how they can be used to bring out the inherent spiciness and sweetness of an accent of a dish. The keyword there is an accent. As long as we aren't boiling our hot dogs in ketchup and mustard, let's be mindful of how much of a good idea is too much of a good idea.

And to be fair, he does make an attempt to balance the chili by way of one 3-inch cinnamon stick and 1/4 cup of dark brown sugar. But we'll let the combination of all of those flavors with your black beans speak for itself.  

For a man who writes books called How to Cook Everything, it sometimes appears that he doesn't know how to cook anything. But in the interest of being fair, we'll end with a recipe that he puts together perfectly. 

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