Salvaging the Chernobyl chili
In response to a recent column about quick reconstructive surgery for oversalted dishes (add some sugar!), a reader wrote with the news that it's also possible to salvage dishes made inedible by too much chili heat. The procedure is simple: peel a raw potato, preferably a russet (starchy is better than waxy here), put it in the afflicted dish, and cook until it shows signs of disintegrating. Remove the still-whole spud, cross fingers, and serve.
Thanks to Gabriel Bereny for this intel, which apparently he got from his wife and her mother. My only question: where were you 23 years ago, when I was making so-called Chinese chili from a recipe in the Chicago Tribune, a reputable newspaper, and the directions called for a quarter cup of cayenne pepper, which did seem like quite a bit, but I put it in anyway because that's what it said to do? The result was what I came to call, in later years when time had softened the episode's more severe edges Chernobyl chili. I ate the Chernobyl chili, I suppose to prove that it could be eaten, but I glowed in the dark for days afterward. And that wasn't the worst of it: for our guest, who scorched her lips with her first tentative taste, I whipped up some hasty pasta. I still have the Chinese chili recipe, but I have corrected what even my neophyte eye should have seen as an obvious typo; a quarter cup is now a quarter teaspoon. There is a meaningful difference.
Starch's value as a culinary fire retardant extends beyond the potato. If you find you've taken a bit of something too incendiary for your comfort, you can find relief in plain starch: a mouthful of white rice, for instance, or unadorned bread. Boiled white rice is standard-issue with some of the world's spicier cuisines, including those from India and Korea.
And a final word in defense of sugar as a savory player: add a pinch of it the next time you make a vinaigrette (I use the darkest brown sugar I can find) and note the pleasant balancing of salty, sour, and sweet. You can make a pretty good vinaigrette with some Dijon mustard, a quality vinegar (balsamic, red wine, rice), and some good extra-virgin olive oil, but good becomes great by adding just the tiniest hint of sweet.