How many times have you heard yourself say, “I need to find a recipe for (fill in the blank).” There should be a question mark in there somewhere, but I don’t know where to put it. Alas. Remember waaay back when we talked about the Road to Automaticity? I think that, when we say “I need to find a recipe for…” we have pretty much just started out on our journey. A recipe is safe. It provides us with structure: lists of interesting ingredients, cooking times, temperature settings, Rules for Success and a description of the End Product. That’s all well and good, but recipes maintain a Suspicious Silence when it comes to teaching us how to cook.
What a recipe really is is a marriage of an ingredient list to a set of techniques and procedures. Except, recipes don’t tell us that. No, they just smile a mysterious, small smile. They don’t allow us to generalize, or rather they hope we’ll generalize on our own, even though we are sometimes Nervous in the kitchen. And nervous folks don’t generalize very well.
Go look at your favorite cookbook right now. Look at the section on cakes. The ingredient lists change at least a little for every cake, sometimes more and sometimes less. There might be some cocoa powder in one or maybe some spices and diced fruit in one. Maybe the fat is butter; maybe it’s shortening or even oil. Maybe one is made with 3 eggs, one with 4 eggs and one with nothing but whites. Maybe the liquid is water or whole milk or sour cream. If you look past all the minor differences, though, almost all will contain the Basic Four: flour, fat, sugar and eggs.
Now, look at the procedure section of the recipes. Repetitious, repetitious, repetitious. I bet that most of them start in one of two ways: 1)”Cream together fat and sugar until light and fluffy.” or 2)”Combine dry ingredients, including sugar, softened butter, eggs and 1/4 of the milk and beat for two minutes.” You might have a couple in there that start with “Whip egg whites and sugar to medium-stiff peaks.” Rather than taking the time to teach you the mixing methods at the beginning of the book, the cookbook author has chosen to repeat the same instructions with every single cake. Granted, this is partly a product of our busy lifestyle. It is kind of nice to have the rules printed up right underneath the ingredient list, and I know many people who wouldn’t buy a cookbook that wasn’t set up like that.
But friends, the time for change has come. How great would it be to learn the mixing methods and then just apply them to ingredient lists? This applies to “hot side” cooking as well. Do we really need cookbooks dedicated to pizza? Aren’t we creative enough to come up with cool combinations of toppings? If we know how to make a basic dough (or can buy some from the local pizza joint), and we know how to make a sauce, and we know how to grate cheese and Place Toppings Attractively, isn’t that really all we need to know?
Here’s another thing that makes me just a little crazy. The folks who have gotten past the “I need to find a recipe for (fill in the blank)” generally move to this step: “I have x,y and z in the fridge. What can I make with them?” That’s wonderful, but then where do they end up? At a recipe search site, looking for recipes that contain said ingredients x,z and z. Once they have the recipe in hand, they’re catapulted back to being dependent upon the recipe. And it just smiles its little smile, because it just knew that they’d be back.
I contend that, if you pay close attention to the procedure sections of recipes, you’ll start to see patterns of preparation. For example, if the first four ingredients on your ingredient list are carrots, onions, celery and oil, it’s a safe bet that in Step 1 of the procedure section, you’ll be dicing up the veggies, 2 parts onion to 1 part each of carrot and celery and sauteing them up in the oil.
I think it’s possible to move beyond “I need to find a recipe,” and “Can I find a recipe that uses these items?” and on to “Oooh, I have x, y and z in the fridge. I know the technique(s) necessary to make them into dinner!” It’s not necessarily an easy leap, especially with FN and others droning on about where you can find the recipe for this, that or the other. But it is a leap that you can make; it’s one that I made, partly because I was forced to by my job. Let me tell you that after a brief period of discomfiture, just breaking down and learning the techniques was ultimately liberating.
Next time you come across a really great sounding recipe, you’ll know why it’s smiling a Mona Lisa Smile–it’s hiding something from you. Don’t throw it away in disgust, though. Study it and make it give up its secrets. It might take you an extra few minutes, but you will come away understanding the techniques and procedures used in creating that dish and can now generalize it to other lists of ingredients.
So, a challenge to you all: go out into the Hinternet and find a fancy-schmancy recipe, one that seems confounding but tasty. Send me the link, and I’ll break it down for you, live on the air tomorrow. If I don’t get any takers, I’ll go out and find my own Mona Lisa and interrogate her.