Recipes, like rules, are meant to be broken.
Over the weekend, I read an article by Alex Halberstatd in the recent Food & Drinks Issue of the New York Times. It was all about Christopher Kimball, the driving force behind “Cook’s Illustrated.”
If you watch PBS on Saturday afternoons, or are a recipe hound, then you know Kimball and what he does. He and his team work diligently to make sure that the recipes that you read, consult and re-create are nearly idiot-proof. The preamble to each recipe is filled with copious notes of the mistakes, the ideas and the trial-and-errors that came to be so that you, the intrepid home cook, don’t have to repeat them. It’s an admirable endeavour.
And that got me thinking about recipes.
I love a good cookbook the way I love any book: as an access point to somewhere I want to be or something I want to know. I want to know why these cookies tend to spread (the butter wasn’t cold enough when I made the batter) or I want to know what temperature the hot milk should be so that I don’t curdle my eggs (and screw up my custard).
My partner rarely cooks with a recipe. It’s kind of a joke in our house. He just puts things together. Some of the time it works, and sometimes it’s even a bizarre stroke of genius. He once made peanut butter cookies with a couple tablespoons of ketjap manis make for sweet and salty kick with a hint of molasses. They tasted amazing. But the texture was off because his ratio of fat to flour wasn’t right, or something like that. But because he didn’t use a recipe, he came up with a great idea. And I admired that.
There are things that recipes don’t teach you, things you learn from making certain things over and over. Like how darkened cookie sheets will leave the bottoms of your cookies darker than lighter ones. And sometimes recipes need a personal tweak. I like my ma po tofu to be really spicy, so I add more doubanjiang (fermented chile and soybean sauce) than most recipes would recommend, and I don’t add the sesame oil until the end because I find that sesame oil tends to burn too easily if you add it at the beginning. Or when I make pastry for pies, I find that using frozen butter that has been rasped using a microplaner makes for the best way to incorporate the butter into the flour. You don’t learn those things from recipes.
I have a really good friend who comes over for dinner at least once a week. I make all kinds of food, some from recipes that I know by heart, others that I am making for the first time. The other day he confided to my partner that he is sometimes too intimidated to invite us over for dinner at his place, as he feels a little inadequate.
Little does he know that when I first started cooking, one of the things I often made was carrots glazed with honey and rosemary. And when I say glazed, I mean that I put ridiculous amounts of honey over the carrots. How my friends ate this, I have no idea. But they did. I remember the first time I bought lemongrass. I had no sweet clue what to do with it. By the time I realised I wanted to use it, it had dried up and shrivelled in the back of the fridge. I remember making tofu burgers for a friend of mine that left us both really gassy. Or the time I made chicken for a date, and it was undercooked.
But I learned. I learned from recipes, and mistakes, and repetitions. Recipes, when really well written – and executed – are like kung fu masters. You can learn the technique, you can know the answers, but things take practice. And even with practice, you will have moments when you forget something, or get distracted, or something will happen and your dish will just fuck up, sometimes inedibly. But the recipe, like a master, will remain steadfast and accountable. It will be there when you need it to guide you.
But you can’t always depend on your master, or your recipe, or a phone call from your mom. You have to take the plunge and trust in yourself and your senses. That is what a good recipe will tell you: to trust your own rules, your own measurements, your own timing. That’s how you will learn to cook.
So to my friend who is nervous about cooking, I say this: read some recipes. Practice. Then invite me over for dinner. You have much to learn young grasshopper, but I know that you can outshine your master.