I begin as usual: reading the ingredients; checking I have everything; looking through the method; pre-heating the oven…you know the ritual before you begin to cook. Especially when you’ve never made it before. Except, as usual, I don’t have some of the ingredients required, or the time necessary to complete the cooking, or indeed the desire to actually make the final product. So what is wrong? Well, nothing. This is how most of my cooking and recipe following usually goes. Especially the part about never having the right ingredients. I either think I’ve got everything, begin, then find I don’t, or can’t find quite the right product at the supermarket, so choose what I believe will be a suitable alternative: It rarely is!
Goodshoeday (Linda) over at With Knife and Fork, tweeted recently that she was programmed never to follow a recipe properly and can’t resist tweaking each one. I feel much the same. It’s not that I don’t want to follow it: I prepare and embark on each recipe with all good intentions, much like John Thorne, one of America’s most loved food writers, who states that he was propelled straight to the stove after learning the science behind the cooking in Russ Parson’s ‘How to Read a French Fry’ (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2001), and was ‘ … sincerely expecting to stick to Russ’s recipe.’ (The Reviewer and the Recipe, Simple Cooking, Issue 75) Like him, however, what we actually end up eating often varies considerably from the original idea.
So why is it many of us, it seems, have tens, if not hundreds of recipe books which we regularly browse, but never seem to follow? What is it that makes us think we know best? Again, like John, I prefer to find my own way to solve the problem set rather than follow another’s method, which is why I rarely add amounts or definite ingredients to my blog recipes – I believe (rightly or wrongly) people just want the initial idea. When at school completing my Art GCSE and A-Level I could never ‘get started’. The inspiration often wouldn’t come. But once I had an idea, it grew, developed and metamorphosed along many, often divergent, paths to several ends. I find now that my cooking replicates this method…I begin by trawling recipes for the same, or a very similar outcome, much like Simple Cooking suggests as a ‘best way to learn more about a dish’, however, John also wonders whether ‘recipes for entirely different dishes might have something to say to each other’, which I had never considered. Should I be searching for recipes with similar main ingredients, cooking methods, or country of origin to see if there are common factors, then creating my own ‘combo recipe’? I don’t think so: I’m in agreement that a recipe should be a starting point painted in very broad brushstrokes.
One of the keys to successful cooking is, in my opinion, remembering to record key factors of a dish if it goes right and is particularly tasty. At least that way, you’ll know how to make it again perfectly. I was trying to come up with a take on Mince and Onion Pie and ended up throwing in, as I usually do, whatever needed using up from the bottom of the fridge. Ingredients included sweet potatoes and carrots as well as the more usual fare, but the thing that really made it tasty was the spicy pepperoni and cheddar cheese topping before adding the puff pastry. After eating, I quickly scribbled the main ideas down, just in case I forgot next time. Now when I make it, I don’t divert from these because it suits our tastes just as it is.
So, if you’re trying out a recipe and choose not to follow it to the letter, don’t worry. As long as you enjoy it, that’s what’s important: it’s all a question of taste.
You can find John Thorne online here, but he has, unfortunately for me and many others, decided to ‘wrap things up’ at Issue 100 of his popular subscription ‘Simple Cooking’. Having only just discovered this food-based newsletter I will definitely be subscribing to the remaining issues. At least there are nearly two-years worth of quarterly reading remaining!
Many thanks to Linda for suggesting delving into John’s archives, so to speak, and to John himself for the prompt response with exactly the right article. Thank you.
References: Simple Cooking, Issue Number 75, Sept. – Dec. 2001, John Thorne