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Smoke & Mirrors: Recipe Selection to Improve Your Cooki

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Joined: 24 Jul 2006
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Location: Camp Hill, PA

PostPosted: Fri Oct 05, 2007 10:37 pm    Post subject: Smoke & Mirrors: Recipe Selection to Improve Your Cooki Reply with quote

Everyone knows one of those people who seem to do no wrong in the kitchen. Everything they cook seems almost too perfect. It’s as if they employ some wizardry unavailable to the rest of us, some secret touch for which they’ve sold their soul. Or they possess a genetic coding developed by their ancestors in the Old World and passed down through the generations. They make cooking look incredibly easy. It’s as if they decide they are hungry, stick their head in the fridge, and throw random ingredients over their shoulder to have them careen off of the spice rack, bounce through a heat source to land deliciously on a serving platter.

I am not one of those people.

I do ok. Much of what I cook is appetizing. Some is pretty good. I can even dare to say that it’s been quite some time since my last total flop. But let’s be clear: I do not make it look easy. Folks must look into my kitchen with a sense of concern. They must see a guy having a spastic fit with a carrot while drinking a beer and re-reading a recipe for the billionth time. They must wonder how that guy hasn’t fatally harmed himself with the sharp cutlery. They must wonder about the flour in my hair, BBQ sauce on my chin, and balsamic on the back of my shorts. I wonder. So I’m always a little surprised when people say they enjoy my food. I’m downright shocked when people tell me I’m a good cook.

I’ve been thinking, I don’t possess the skills or training to be considered a good home cook, nor can I produce sufficiently consistent results to be considered a good cook. So why do friends and family think otherwise? Certainly experience and self education have had a positive impact on my abilities. But my secret to alleged success is an almost whimsical aspect of preparing meals, a facet that seems commonly overlooked and inadequately considered, something that happens before the fridge is opened or a dish is dirtied, something that can make or break a meal. I’m talking about the art of recipe selection.

What we choose to cook significantly skews our likelihoods for success or failure. Careful consideration of our meal plans make us better cooks, or can at least make it seem that way to casual audiences. Focusing on our personal strengths while limiting exposure of our culinary soft underbellies is essential to success. And our strong points extend beyond our breadth of cooking knowledge and cooking skills. They also include the extent of kitchen equipment we own and ingredients readily available to us.

Experience is an excellent ally. Repetition as well as exposure to different cooking techniques, equipment, and ingredients bolsters our abilities. To apply your experience level to the selection process, ask yourself a few questions. Am I comfortable with the methods employed by the recipe? Have I previously used the cooking vessel, heat source, blending machine, or other tools required? Do I have a clue what all those exotic ingredients taste like or what they do to the dish?? If you’re answering “no”, it may be time to file the recipe in the ever overflowing “future experiments” pile and open a different cook book for today’s eats.

Do you have the equipment called for? You may get away with using a blender instead of a food processor, or a wide pot in lieu of a skillet. But a waffle cooked without a waffle iron will not be a waffle. The same goes for ingredients. You might get away with one or two substitutions. If you’re winging half the ingredient list, it’s time to move on to a different dish.

The first time or two through a new recipe, variations and “improvements” should be avoided. Make sure the recipe works (for you) with desirable results as it is written. It can be upgraded with better success after it has been proven functional. If you can’t shake the uncontrollable urge to bugger with the mix, urge yourself instead towards a different meal.

Forget about new recipes that are obviously flawed. If they are clearly flawed, it’s probably subtly flawed as well. For instance, if the ingredient list calls for a cup of sugar, step 1 in the instructions uses ¼ cup of sugar, and there’s no other mention of sugar in the rest of the recipe, there is definitely trouble a foot. Should the ingredient list read ¼ cup? Should step 1 involve a whole cup? Or is there ¾ cup missing from step 3? Even if you have a solid, educated guess, the question “what else is wrong with this recipe?” begs to be asked.

The same goes for confusing directions. If the instructions are unclear when read, it’s unlikely a flux capacitor level epiphany will be achieved during implementation.

It sometimes helps to work with flavors or dishes that you enjoy. The odds of success improve if you like the dish you are cooking or ingredients you are cooking with. On the flip side, avoid unappreciated ingredients. Don’t like hot stuff? Then leave chile laden dishes alone. Like hot stuff, but think habaneros have an unnatural, plastic flavor? Then skip the Caribbean, move on to Mexico or Asia.

Playing to guest’s whims can also be effective. Should company love seafood, but are usually too cheap to buy themselves fresh fish, by all means, serve them ocean fare. The importance of scoring a 10 on the dish is diminished by the simple pleasure taken by being served something special. But beware the picky bastard. PB swears he loves fried bologna sandwiches. It’s only after you serve him one that you learn he only likes a specific brand of bologna, it must be sliced extra thick, fried until just shy of browned, served on Wonder Bread with expensive brown mustard imported from Bavaria. And of course, nothing else will do.

Experimentation is an important aspect of culinary growth. It expands our skill sets and knowledge base to enable us to ultimately choose from a larger pool of recipes. In other words, it allows us to develop new strengths. For sake of this topic, it is important to note that careful recipe selection can also benefit experiments. Pick ones that limit the number of new things to be tried. If you introduce too many variables, the odds of hitting a home run go down, and debugging a strike out will be more difficult. If you try a dish using a new cooking method, a handful of unfamiliar ingredients, and an ingredient substitution, and the results suck, what do you do differently on the next attempt? Instead, try recipes having one new cooking technique, or one new piece of equipment, or one (maybe two) new ingredient. Then if the results are not as advertized, tinkering with that one thing during subsequent attempts should quickly lead you to better results.

Simplicity is a very effective tool. Uncomplicated recipes based on a few fresh ingredients produce very flavorful meals with minimal fuss. No fuss means fewer variables, which should parlee into desirable results. In fact, the K.I.S.S. principle can be the single most useful topic discussed herein when it comes to meal planning and recipe selection.

If I assume anyone bothered reading this far, I’ll also assume that some folks are thinking, “duh”. The notions of pre-planning, forethought, and playing to one’s strengths is obvious to some, or perhaps unconsciously intuitive to others. But through a mysterious left brain-right brain thing, there are normal people out there who have not reached this level of understanding. I know just such a person. For sake of this discussion, we’ll simply refer to the person in question as the Anti-Thor.

During a visit to Thor’s realm, “AT” noticed a recipe for white chicken chili in one of my old cooking magazines. The recipe features lime, cilantro and three varieties of chiles, Anaheim, poblano, and jalapeno. AT wrote down the recipe and I quickly forgot about the event.

I ended up making the chili for a small group of friends who kept me company during a Bears playoff game. These were the type of friends who have low standards and no expectations: perfect guinea pigs. The preparation was straight forward with the exception of pureeing a portion of the veggies in a food processor to thicken the dish. No big deal. The only ingredient unfamiliar to me was poblano chiles. I compensated by tasting each poblano for hotness. Likewise, I also tasted the other familiar chiles. I found no need to scale back the chile quantity to safeguard the masses. Said masses, arguably fueled by alcohol, tore through the entire pot leaving none for the cook. The plate of mini-burgers I’d made as backup went untouched. I was pleased with the results.

It was several weeks later before reports of AT’s chili attempt surfaced. It turns out AT needed a chili recipe to use in a church chili cook off, which had been the impetus behind the interest for the dish. AT has no prior exposure to aneheim or poblano chiles, and finds anything including jalapeno, or pepperoni for that matter, too spicy. Of course, the batch of chiles used turned out to be mouth scalding hot. AT was unable to eat the chili, and the triple batch entered into the cook off did not impress the judges.

So while I admire both AT’s sense of adventure and AT’s involvement in the community, I have a difficult time understanding the whys associated with this event. Why choose an untried recipe for a public affair? Why gamble with unfamiliar ingredients? Why pick a recipe with primary ingredients that are inedible by the chef? Why not at least test the recipe before tripling efforts for a cook off? This chili was certainly not appropriate for this circumstance. If this intelligent individual is susceptible to such a pitfall, there must be others as well. It’s for these folks that I ramble so. Let’s dig a little deeper.

My old Webster’s thinks a recipe is “a set of instructions for making something (as a food dish) from various ingredients”. Logic then suggests cooking is simply implementation of those directions. Amass the materials and tools needed, manipulate as per directions, eat. Therefore, cooking should be easy like putting together a prefab book case or assembling your kid’s two wheeled Christmas present. The results should be predictable; the result should resemble the picture on the box. But if three individuals make the same recipe in their homes and bring their result to the company picnic, why do all three look and taste differently? Each chef’s personal experience, collection of cookware and ingredients, collectively our strengths, all affect the finished product. Additionally, our personal interpretation of the instructions will also affect the outcome.

The experience angle is pretty straight forward. Someone who has previously prepared a dish dozens of times will have an easier time than someone struggling through their first attempt. Or a person who cooks a bunch may gleam a better understanding of the dish than a person who occasionally dabbles in the kitchen.

Someone using the appropriate cookware may get different results from those who have to improvise. Quality of cookware arguably produces variations. Type of heat source, be it electric, gas, induction, or grill may also leave a mark.

But the choice of ingredients coupled with one’s interpretation of the recipe lends the largest impact. Let’s consider chicken stock in the ingredient category. This source of prevalent chickeny flavor comes in a variety of formats all having slightly different tastes, all having potential to provide a different outcome. There’s homemade, canned, boxed. There’s also salted to death or unsalted, makeshift from bouillon or paste, or freezer burned. And if store bought, there’s brand variation. Throw in something equally as variable, say white wine, and your pan sauce becomes wholly unique. You picked sauvignon blanc, your neighbor chardonnay, her neighbor pinot blanc from France, the person who wrote the recipe pinot blanc from Oregon. . . .

Now let’s factor in interpretation. Recipes, while precise in ingredient measurement, can be nebulous with regard to implementation. What the heck to these mean: “large” skillet, “medium” dice, “small” onion, “medium high” heat, blend until “just combined”, “medium” eggplant, “medium” garlic clove minced “fine”, “dry” wine, “fork” tender, stir “occasionally” until “golden”, etc. This type of imprecise terminology is extensively utilized. And these terms can mean wildly different things to different people. You and the person who authored the recipe are different people.

Because of this vast potential for variability, it’s necessary to think about the context in which the recipe is found. Considering where the recipe comes from can help you decide if your skills and supplies are appropriate for the tasks at hand, and hence, whether the recipe is right for you. It can also clarify some of the fuzziness associated with ingredient choices and non-specific terminology. For instance, good cookbooks include much more than just collections of recipes. They should also have tons of background information like descriptions of ingredients commonly used throughout the book, where to buy any special stuff if unusual, if any special treatment is required to utilize the stuff, and a recipe for the author’s chicken stock . Same goes for equipment and cooking techniques. There should be enough background to successfully complete the recipe in the fashion intended by the author.

On the other side of the coin there are those sources that lend very little insight. My favorite is the 3x5 card laden recipe box inherited from Mrs. Thor’s grandma. One side of each card sports the ingredient list written in a shorthand similar to Sanskrit. The other side has the cooking instructions, many of which are as elaborate as “mix; bake at 375”.

The quality of many recipe sources fall between the good cookbook and the 3x5 card levels. By factoring in some of the same considerations previously applied directly to recipes, we can decide if the recipe’s source fits our talents, and hence, the likelihood of successfully executing the recipes therein. If you understand the concepts presented, if you have the equipment commonly recommended, if you can readily obtain the ingredients specified, there are no apparent errors, and you feel that you have a clear picture of the author’s intent, then you have an excellent chance of successfully completing the recipes contained within the given source.

While there are no physics, chemistry, or differential equations needed to apply these principals, there is definitely a science to choosing recipes. A simply applied methodology based on forethought and a touch of self analysis can improve our cooking results. At a minimum, a good dose of these measures can create the illusion of cooking abilities beyond our means to impress and please our friends and families.
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Joined: 30 Jul 2007
Posts: 89

PostPosted: Sat Oct 06, 2007 12:32 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

That is a very interesting article, I hope you posted it in other places as well because I think only me, Michael, and DrBiggles will brave through it.

I couldn't agree with you more on most of the things you said. Sadly, I am one of those people that can't help but change the recipe the first time they use it. My nemesis up until now was sushi rice, every recipe had a different ratio, a different cooking time, a different cooking method, and a different seasoning. I have FAILED at making sushi rice around six times (meaning I literally had to throw a whole batch out), and it was partly because I thought it was a simple four step process:

1) wash the rice
2) put 1:1 parts rice and water
3) cook for 15 minutes
4) optionally add the vinegar seasoning

The only recipe that really and truly worked is the one I found on wikibook and videojug, which was more like 8 steps:

1) wash AND scrub the rice repeatedly in a lot of water until the water you put in the bowl runs clear
2) let the rice soak in 1:1.20 parts rice to water for at least 30 minutes
3) put the lid on securely and let it heat up to boiling
4) bring the heat down to low and let it cook for 15 minutes or less
5) turn off the heat and let it sit for no less than 10 more minutes
6) prepare the vinegar, sugar, and dashi seaoning
7) scoop the rice out into a large bowl and sprinkle on the seasoning
8) gently mix the rice and seasoning in one hand while fanning to cool it with your other hand.

This method has yielded consistent results that rival the sushi rice I've eaten in restaurants. In my earlier attempts skipping some steps like the soaking or the fanning, and I always felt it was way too much vinegar (turned out the one I was using just tasted terrible).

I just started going to college and I've exposed my cooking talent to people who've said "this is the best meal I've had in years", which surprised me because I felt like I overcooked the meat, and in my haste I let a whole dish of cooked food fall and splatter on the ground right in front of their faces (silicon oven oven mitt + greasy porcelain dish + a cook thats been cooking non stop for five hours = bad). I almost never follow recipes except for their method, and all the food I serve is to some degree of my own creation.

(I have more to say, so I will be back to continue my response)
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