Understand My Recipes

A recipe can be a tricky beast; one day your best friend; the next, a plate of inedible smudge.  What is a recipe? Why do we have them, and what’s the best approach?
In an ideal world a recipe is a template that can be recreated over and over with perfect consistency, but nature doesn’t give us perfectly consistent ingredients to work with. So, in reality it’s just a guideline, a rough draft of a dish that one must edit with every publication.

FOR THIS REASON, you must always taste as you go, adjusting where necessary.  For instance, if you taste a vegetable you're cooking and it tastes done to you despite the recipe calling for more time.  Stop cooking it and trust your taste.

In writing recipes, I try hard to find the best middle ground. Giving the cook enough info for inspiration, but with room for preferential variation. So keep in mind that I think of my recipes as foundations on which to build. Read them knowing that I hope you take license, and let me know if it works (or if it doesn’t). My goal with Grill-A-Chef is to encourage people to cook, and that takes a little experimentation and awareness. As the cook it’s your job to adjust for nature’s inconsistency, and whenever possible, enjoy the variations it provides.  All too often someone becomes hell-bent on recreating some dish or meal that made an impression, and we forget to appreciate what we’re eating while we’re eating it.

Below I list common problems spawned by recipe writing and my solutions to them. 

The Problem: Quantities
They’re where every recipe starts, but how do you decipher an amount? One recipe might say “4 medium potatoes”. In this instance, the quantity used can vary greatly with the size of the potato. Not to mention the problem that the word “medium” poses. How big is medium potato? And is that relative to all potatoes in the world, or just in the pile of potatoes at your market?  Another recipe might say “3 cups of potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes.” This is a much more specific quantity, but how many potatoes will this require when shopping? And what do you do with the remaining potatoes, some of which are partially cut up already?

My Solution:
It may seem counter intuitive but the way I write recipes varies completely. It’s purely circumstantial.   If I say “4 medium potatoes” the required amount is somewhat elastic and the recipe more about technique than anything else.  If I say, “3 cups of potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes,” then you need that amount exactly to get closer to the recipe’s objective.  In both cases I try to include a weight approximation for clarification.

The Problem: The elusive ingredient.
Unfortunately, some ingredients are simply unavailable in certain areas or at certain times. But often a simple substitution can be made for a hard to find component.   

Can't find purple shiso?
My solution:
Whenever possible I try to spot these specialty ingredients and throw out a few ideas for options what might be more readily available. ………..

A Sub-Problem: Semi-superfluous Ingredients
I have to mention one of my recipe pet peeves: the ingredient that you have to buy a whole container of for just one teaspoon, especially if it’s perishable.
A teaspoon of quark? Really?

My sub-solution:
I’m a professional, so my pantry has a plethora of rare items that I use regularly. Still, I try to recognize these when they come up in my recipes and isolate them as optional.
In other words, I try to avoid putting the cook in a position where she has buy something she’ll never use again.

The Problem: Vague or incomplete cooking step descriptions.
You have all of your ingredients ready to go, the pan is hot – the oil is smoking.  The cook in question is staring at the recipe transfixed on a step.  Like a deer in headlights wondering what exactly, does the word “sauté” means?

Execution of a recipe can vary exponentially. People have different stovetops, different pots and pans, even different lighting under which they see the food.  They cook perceiving all of these variables from different frames of reference.  Oversimplified recipe steps like “Sauté the onions.” can undo the author’s original intentions and leave the cook with a less than savory result.

My Solution:
Over time my goal has become to include three factors in each cooking step of a recipe. 
-       an approximate heat range (medium, medium high, high, etc)
-       an approximate range of time at said heat range (3-4 min)
-       a description of what senses this step might stimulate (listen for sizzling, sniff for this aroma etc.)
-       most importantly a description for what this step should yield before moving to the next step. (translucent vegetables as opposed to slightly crispy vegetables that are blistered in a hot pan, etc)

The problem: Seasoning
In many recipes advice on seasoning isn’t mentioned.  Some recipes call for specific amounts of salts, but I find it seldom works out. In my opinion it’s never enough, but in reality salt level is such a matter of circumstance, preference and/or medical necessity.

My Solution:
I put this ball in the cook’s court.  I always assume the cook is tasting as she goes and seasoning as she sees fits.  This is a principal rule in cooking.  I’m always surprised when people follow recipe steps to a “T” and are disappointed at the results.   Cooking is NOT a passive endeavor.  If you’re going to get in the kitchen and get dirty, you have to take the reigns and adjust as you go.
And never forget, no matter where you find the recipe, or how great your ingredients, if you don’t season well, flavors won’t reach their full potential.

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Grill-a-Chef by Joshua Stokes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.