Recipes: A Love/Hate Relationship

A quick glance at this website will tell you that we love to cook and we love to eat. No surprise, right? Dig a bit deeper, though, and you’ll find that we enjoy reading recipes, food blogs, and cookbooks, even when we’re not cooking. So, how is it possible that a family of avid cooks could both love AND hate recipes???

Let me tell you a story. When I was about 6 years old, I asked my mom how she prepared a particular meal that I had enjoyed. I don’t know what I was hoping for, exactly. Maybe a cooking lesson. A few tips she’d learned over the years as she perfected the dish I’d come to know. What I got instead was a thumb casually jerked over her shoulder in the general direction of the shelf on which she kept a random collection of assorted cookbooks and recipe cards. She said, “you know how to read and follow directions. Cookbooks are over there. Have at it!”

Now, please don’t misunderstand. My mother is a kind woman and a generous teacher. Her suggestion was neither callous, nor haphazard. Rather, I believe she gave me an incredible gift. Instead of just telling me what I wanted to know, which would have been easy and created a dependency neither of us needed, she encouraged my independence and self-sufficiency. She allowed me the freedom to experiment with the information at hand and learn for myself the many lessons that cooking has to teach each student who is willing to explore. Here are just a few:

Lesson #1: There is an order in which to do things, a list of requirements, but these aren’t always fixed.

Its no accident that recipe steps often have numbers. Detailing the order in which to complete a task chronologically is exactly how a recipe can take us from a collection of raw ingredients to a finished meal in a clear and (hopefully) easy-to-follow series of directions. If you’re anything like me, you often want to run before you’ve mastered crawling and practiced walking. Or, started dicing onions in a tiny, poorly-ventilated kitchen before having taken out the pan and butter with which to cook them. Believe me when I say, that’s a tear-filled mistake you’ll probably only make once!

Or maybe you find yourself a bit scattered mid-task or easily interrupted. I have been thankful to many a recipe for reminding me what’s supposed to come next after a crying child or a ringing phone has distracted me from the cooking at hand. Sometimes it can be helpful to have a written list of ingredients to make sure you don’t accidentally leave out a critical element, instructions to walk you through a process that’s new to you, or reminders to help you remember how to do something that you haven’t done in a long time.

However, I often find it irritating that so many recipes discourage substitutions. I find troubling that sometimes, the fact that the steps have been written in a particular order is automatically assumed to be the only order in which those steps can be appropriately accomplished. Or that skipping, consolidating, or rearranging steps in a recipe will produce an inferior result. We have become so conditioned to accepting printed text as the correct answer that any deviation from it can only be considered something to be avoided at all costs. I have a friend who really likes roast chicken, so I happily shared a recipe she could use to make her own. A few weeks later, I casually inquired as to how her chicken had turned out. She informed me that she never made it because there were too many ingredients, too many steps!

Our Little Sous prepares a whole chicken for roasting.

Lesson #2: New learning experiences often require new vocabulary.

How do you pronounce Worstershire so as not to feel foolish when asking for it at your local grocery store? What on earth is a mandolin, and why would you play it in the kitchen (that’s a joke!)? How, exactly, does one brunoise a carrot, and what should said carrot look like when it’s finished? What’s the difference between a Hollandaise and a Béchamel sauce, and why do so many chefs worldwide consider them essential kitchen knowledge? Cooking opened up a whole new world to me, much of it linguistically French. It sent me to my dictionary on countless occasions (which I know my mom secretly loved) to figure out just what a new recipe was asking of me. Learning new words, new concepts, even learning a whole new language can be a key to unlocking new worlds of flavor, new experiences, and new relationships–in and out of the kitchen.

Unfortunately, many recipe and cookbook writers throw these tongue-twisting French words and phrases around and just assume anyone reading knows what they mean and how to accomplish what they’re describing. Fortunately for you, dear reader, we live in the magical age of Google and YouTube, so we quite literally have innumerable written descriptions and pictures and demonstration videos galore right at our fingertips! Please don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by loads of unfamiliar ingredients and/or terms in a recipe. Use the tools at your disposal to break through the wall of unintelligible nonsense so that you can discover the marvelous new dishes that await you on the other side! [Glorious as these new technologies are, the teacher in me still implores you to have an actual physical dictionary around, especially for the benefit of any young children in the household! Thank you.]

 

Lesson #3: Know yourself.

I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to follow a recipe, only to have it turn out poorly. I succeeded in making something according to a new recipe, but the final product was not something I wanted to eat. Now, before I let you think that this was the fault of a bad recipe, I should mention that–in these particular instances–I failed to follow my instincts and I failed to taste as I worked. I was just following the recipe. Let me be clear, I think that is a recipe for disaster!

A huge benefit of cooking for yourself and for your family is that you know what you like and you know what your family likes. A recipe doesn’t know you or your taste preferences. I chuckle sometimes when I read reviews that go something like this: “We didn’t like this recipe at all! It had too many onions and it wasn’t salty enough!” Guess what?! It’s all right to cut back on the number of onions in a recipe, especially if you know that you don’t like them so much–although, you might want to steer clear of recipes for French Onion Soup! (Don’t laugh, but I have seen the comments!!!)

Not sure if you like Duck a L’orange or Huevos Rancheros? Pull out a recipe and give it a try! Enjoyed that Rosemary Chicken last week, but think you’d prefer it with a bit more garlic (or a bit less)? Adjust the quantities next time and see if you like it better! Don’t forget to jot down a note regarding the changes you made on your recipe if you’d like to replicate your results.

 

Lesson #4: When you make a mistake, try and try again.

When you enter the kitchen to start cooking, it tends to be with the expectation of consuming the finished product. But notice I said WHEN you make a mistake, not IF you make a mistake. Rest assured, you WILL make mistakes, dear reader. Just as no child learns to walk without falling down, every cook who enters the kitchen will eventually mess something up. It may be something minor, like nicking a finger while you slice vegetables or shattering a plate on the floor. No worries! Grab a bandage, grab a broom, and get back in the kitchen. It may be something major, like dropping a fully-cooked roast on the floor right in front of your very hungry German shepherd or forgetting to check the oven temperature and having a raw (or completely blackened) main course come dinner time. No worries! Pull out Plan B and get back in the kitchen! We Montessorians call this a built in Control of Error:

Control of Error is a way of providing instant feedback. Every Montessori activity provides the child with some way of assessing his own progress. This puts the control in the hands of the learner and protects the young child’s self-esteem and self-motivation. Control of Error is an essential aspect of auto-education.

–Dr. Maria Montessori

Dr. Montessori recognized that one of the ways that young children learn best is by correcting their own mistakes, rather than relying on the teacher to make corrections for them. Not only is making mistakes a natural part of learning, but the learner develops self-confidence by recognizing and correcting his own errors and deciding how to correct them. Under bake a cake? It will be very clear when you cut into it that it’s not finished; you don’t need anyone to tell you! Burn the toast? It’ll be really obvious that you let it go for a little too long. The question is, how will you choose to address your mistake? Can you put that cake back into the oven to bake a little longer? Can you scrape of the burnt part of the toast, or do you simply start again?

Recipes can give you measurable quantities of ingredients to incorporate, temperatures at which to cook, and even the length of time in which a dish should be completed, but the recipe itself has no Control of Error. The cooking process itself presents this to us.  We can’t always trust that simply following the recipe will produce the desired result. We must look and see if the roast has browned to the color we want, feel to see if the vegetables have cooked all the way through, tap to hear if the loaf of bread is finished banking, smell to check and see if the garlic is giving off enough of its pungent aroma in the sauté, taste to see if you’ve added an appropriate amount of salt to the soup. In short, dear reader, you must use all your senses; they are your Control of Error. Listen to them, and adjust accordingly.

Lesson #5: Once you know the rules and why they exist, you can break them!

I suppose this is one of the biggest reasons I have a problem with a lot of recipes and the way they are written. Recipes usually start with a checklist of ingredients and quantities that many cooks assume are super rigid and inflexible. Just how big is a medium onion, anyway? If a recipe calls for 100 grams of flour and you don’t have a scale with which to weigh it out, or 1/2 a tablespoon of oregano and you have loads of parsley but you’re all out of oregano, suddenly that recipe is impossible to make in your kitchen. It doesn’t help that so many in the food industry reinforce this inflexibility with constant repetitions of kitchen truisms like “baking is an exact science that requires precise measurement,” or “without using a [insert super expensive kitchen appliance here], you simply cannot replicate this dish!” Countless grandmothers around the world scoff at this nonsense daily as they measure ingredients in varying pinches and handfuls, all the while employing “old-fashioned” kitchen utensils with a lot of elbow grease, and a hefty dose of patience, to turn out mouthwatering meals that even Michelin-starred restaurant chefs would agree are more than worthy of gracing their tables. And yet, all too often, recipes and their writers will still insist that you must follow them to the letter, and failure to do so will result in disasters of catastrophic proportions. Ugh, please!!!

We already know that we will make mistakes in the kitchen (see #4, above), so we’ve agreed to learn from them and move on, right? Right! But I’m going to suggest that we need to take things a step further. What if we purposely do things differently from the way a recipe suggests? What happens when you poach your protein in liquid first, then sear it afterward? What would happen if you reversed the process? What’s the difference between deglazing your pan with water versus wine, and why would a recipe suggest one over the other?

Now, before you experienced home cooks and chefs out there insist that I’m leading all those less experienced down a dangerous or incorrect path, remember that this is a learning environment. I’m simply asking, “What IF . . .?” What would really happen if you did something the “wrong” way?

I fear the biggest problem with recipes is not in the writing, but in the reading and the following of the printed information as if they were the final and conclusive authority on the dish at hand, rather than a series of guidelines to help the cook achieve what s/he believes is the tastiest version of this meal s/he can produce at a particular moment in time. If we limit our thinking, we limit ourselves. I believe this is why the best and brightest innovations are created by rule-breakers. Chefs who defy convention are celebrated for the creativity of the fare they present. I believe this is a skill which can and should seep out of the kitchen and soak into every aspect of our daily lives. For it is only when we test the rules that we really learn the extent of their authority. It is only when we break the rules that we can truly internalize their importance and understand the role they were intended to fill. By blindly following recipes, rules, and authority, I fear we are slowly losing a crucial element of education, in food and in life.

 

So, what does that mean for this blog? If we both love AND hate recipes, does that mean you’ll see tons of recipes with each post, or none at all? Well, yes and yes! Sometimes, you might find a recipe with some very detailed instructions and/or photos of how we prepared a dish. Other times, you might see a post in which we discuss a dish, but don’t include a specific recipe. And then, of course, there will be occasions where we talk food, share a recipe, and then purposely deviate from that very recipe. Why? Because this is what we want you all to learn, to practice, and to enjoy! Read a recipe, even follow it as it’s written when you’re starting out, then throw it out the window and play with the ingredients, the steps, the whole process as you make it your own. No recipe included? No problem! Feel free to scour your own cookbook collection, visit your local library or bookstore, or just search online for something that looks appealing, then give it a go. Our goal is to see you grow in confidence as you do it again and again in your own kitchen. If our Little Sous can do it, we know you can, too! And, we’ve all got plenty to learn in the process, so let’s learn together, shall we?!?!

 

Sound off in the comments and let us know how you feel! Recipes: love ’em or hate ’em? Cookbooks: own one or two, a hundred, or none at all? What are some of your favorites (or least faves) and why? What has cooking taught you?

Buon Apetito!

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