Monday, February 26, 2018

My Kooky Method for Evaluating Recipes at a Glance

Great sign: Lots of quirky notes and tips around a fairly compact recipe

Good sign: A fairly compact recipe

Bad sign: A long, complex recipe (with no quirky tips) for something that seems like it shouldn't necessarily require many steps.

If you're tackling some terribly ambitious classical French recipe, or a Chinese dish requiring fastidious mise en place, or a Thai curry with myriad labor-intensive moving parts, then fine. Strap in to the multipage recipe and get to work. But for something like meatloaf, or Neapolitan pork chops with hot peppers, or some fun spuddy nacho throw-together, or really 95% of things you'd be likely to ever actually eat, a long, complicated recipe means the author is tap-dancing. Baffling with bullshit in lieu of dazzling with brilliance.

Understand this: unless you have a kitchen full of skilled prep cooks and 10,000 iterations of each dish under your belt, you're just not going to produce much in the way of seriously refined flavor layering. You might work with a long list of ingredients, and perform lots of terribly slick moves, but the result will lie somewhere on the spectrum between "muddled-but-edible" and "good, but way simpler than you'd expect considering what went into it." When it comes to complexity, the curve of declining results is no friend to home cooks - even great ones.

There's a world of difference between home and restaurant cooking, and in many ways I prefer the former. It's healthier, and it can be "deeper", in the sense of not resorting to cheap touches like massive fat or sodium infusions or in-your-face seasoning blasts serving as stand-ins for love, care, and patience. Home cooks needn't take shortcuts - a huge advantage. But those 10,000 iterations allow certain well-orchestrated complexities home cooks will never match.

My cooking is fast and incisive. You can expect a couple of flavor themes playing well with each other, and overall deliciousness. I average about an 8 even though I never treat every ingredient as an ambitious separate project. For instance, I prefer kale to spinach for certain panini, and I will simply chop and steam the greens. No sauté, no seasoning. If I were to coddle them, they'd certainly be more flavorful, but I don't need flavorful kale in this context; it's there to provide texture and health. The panini flavors come from the meats, the spreads, the sauces, the extras. If I made the kale a separate work of art, the result would taste muddled.

A professional kitchen can fit many highly-refined pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle because of those 10,000 iterations, but my tolerances must be looser, because I don't want to eat the same damned thing every day. So I have a general idea of how much flavor must be packed in, overall, for the sandwich to accommodate simple kale without its flavor diluting, and this allows me to serve reliably delicious panini in 10 minutes, rather than more technically meticulous - and flavor-muddled - panini in 30.

I've tried recipes where every ingredient's pampered like a princess. It takes an hour for the meal to come into even distant focus, and I very rarely taste the extra work. It gets lost, and I'm left feeling like little Mr. Star Chef wannabe. Complicated recipes for not-particularly-complicated dishes are almost always a sucker proposition. I just won't fall for them anymore.

Obviously, I'm generalizing. I'll bet you have that one recipe that's an exception. And perhaps it truly is, but in most cases I bet I could strip away 40% without harming the result.

So, cookbook authors: spare me your 23 ingredient, 90 minute pork fajita extravaganza. What I can use, however, are devilishly simple and balanced roadmaps for transcending the sum of the parts (this requires an enormous amount of consideration and distillation that few authors are willing to apply), ideally with interesting tips and pointers. The alternative is to make me to run to the ends of the earth to conjure up and mollycoddle a shimmering dollop of elk fat that may alter the final result by some homeopathic iota. But greatness is about the sum, not the parts, so the more part-obsessive your recipe is, the less greatness I'll expect. Simple recipes require courage, confidence, and grueling work on your end.

John Thorne's recipes are like granite. Tight, honed, thoughtful, monolithic, they whisk you directly to the fruits of weeks/months/years of consideration invested in evoking the dish's heart and soul.

1 comment:

Val in Seattle said...

Interesting ideas. When I need a recipe for something I've never cooked before, I go to Martha Stewart. Her recipes have way too may steps, but her ingredients lists and proportions are reliable, and she emphasizes good quality ingredients. She will never suggest unfortunate oddball combinations of flavors. I check on Martha for my ingredients list, and I shortcut my way through her prep instructions.
I take the Martha recipes from her books. Her web site tends to have recipes from various sources, and not always reliable.

She recently released a slow cooker book. For "crockpot" cooking. This book made me laugh. Nearly every recipe had several preparatory steps, before you even got to the crockpot. And then there were mid-point steps. "After 3 hours in the slow cooker, stir the ingredients, carefully scraping the bottom, and place a clean cotton towel between the lid and the pot, to absorb condensation." These were all recipes for leisure cooks who got bored with their many cooking gadgets and wanted to do fabulous gourmet crockpot.

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