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Wednesday, April 23, 2008 08:47 pm

Reading and writing recipes

Don’t forget common sense when deciphering a cookbook

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When my husband, Peter, was a college freshman, he and a friend developed a shared longing for liver and onions. The friend had an apartment, so they decided to make themselves a liver-and-onion feast. “It says here to dredge the liver in flour,” said Peter’s friend, reading the recipe. “What the *@#$ does ‘dredge’ mean?”
“I don’t know,” replied Peter, “but I can only think of one thing to do with liver and flour.”
When I started teaching cooking classes, one of my biggest challenges was writing accurate, easily understood recipes. Cooking involves all of the senses, not just taste. I knew what I meant when I said “well browned.” I knew what it tasted like, looked like, smelled like, the sound made by browning at the proper temperature, how it should feel to the touch — but now I needed to communicate it to others. Students would see the recipes demonstrated, but would they be able to re-create what they’d done and seen months later? What if they gave a recipe to a friend? The recipes needed to be usable by themselves.
There was terminology: Should I explain the difference between “chop,” “dice,” and “mince”? Between “braise” and “stew” or between “rolling boil,” “boil,” “simmer,” and “bare simmer”? I found myself using words like “squish” (as in “squish the contents of the bag around to make sure everything is coated with the marinade.”) It sounded unprofessional, but, with any luck, conveyed what needed to happen. Cooking times may vary widely, depending on a burner’s heat intensity, pan type and size, oven temperature (rarely exactly what it says on the dial), and even humidity. What about fruit and vegetable size? I’m irritated by recipes that call for a “small” onion, or one carrot, or two cloves of garlic (Should I define “clove of garlic”?) What’s small to me might be medium to others. Some carrots and garlic cloves (or apples, tomatoes, celery stalks, etc.) are two or three times as big as others. It doesn’t always matter, but an onion that yields 2 cups or more chopped can make a dish very different than one made with an onion that only yields a cup. I decided to use only measured amounts: 1/2 cup equals a small onion, 1 cup equals a medium onion, 2 cups equals one large onion; 1 teaspoon of minced garlic equals one clove, and so on.
Then there’s the number of servings. Unless the recipe produces individual portions (one steak, one tomato, two slices of French toast, etc.) or yields specific amounts (makes 2 cups or one cake), the amount a recipe yields depends on diners’ appetites and what else is served. For example, pasta that serves four if preceded only by a salad may serve six if appetizers and bread are included in the meal or eight or more if it comes in between antipasti, salad, or soup and a main protein course.
I agonized over those first recipes, spending days getting them just right. Giving recipes to friends is one thing, but people would be paying for these. I asked friends and family to test and critique. I lay awake at night reviewing them. Fortunately, those first recipes turned out fine. Recipe writing eventually became easier, but it always took an incredible amount of time and I’ve never quit fretting about clarity, omissions, and mistakes. A primary reason that I was obsessed about getting recipes right was that I knew how many are vague, confusing, and simply inaccurate. I’ve seen cookbook pictures of dishes that contained ingredients not listed in the recipe and vice versa. The Web recipe for something prepared on TV can be substantially different than what’s shown on the screen. Unfortunately, professional chefs are sometimes the worst culprits. Some just don’t seem to be able to accurately translate restaurant preparations for home cooks. Chefs use a kind of shorthand when sharing recipes with each other: In a professional magazine such as Food Arts, a recipe for Lemon Raspberry Tart with Spiced Nut Crust might read, “Make pâte sucré with almonds and cinnamon, blind bake, and fill with lemon curd; top with glazed raspberries.” On the other hand, they sometimes make it needlessly complicated, such as Jimmy Bannos’ use of roasted-garlic purée in his cookbook. The chef/owner of Chicago’s Heaven on Seven restaurants calls for it in every recipe that uses garlic. Easy for him: He undoubtedly has vats of the stuff, made by his prep cooks, at his fingertips. Roasted garlic is delicious and has many uses; however, there’s no advantage to using it in long-cooked preparations such as sauces, stews, and soups and no reason that a home cook needs to take that extra step. Minced raw garlic will work just as well.
Chefs aren’t the only ones who have trouble writing cookbooks. Perhaps the most infamous blunder was made by Alice B. Toklas, longtime partner of Gertrude Stein. After Stein’s death, Toklas — well known for her French homestyle cooking — needed money and started writing about food. She signed a contract with Harper’s for a cookbook but soon regretted it, saying that the job was “miserable” and “tormenting.” Toklas couldn’t come up with enough recipes; she met the magazine’s deadline by frantically imploring friends for an entire chapter’s worth that she apparently didn’t bother to read, much less test.
Surrealist painter and writer Brion Gysin contributed a confection that “might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR.” It promised “euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personalities on several simultaneous planes.” The recipe called for butter, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, dates, figs, almonds, peanut . . . and “canibus [sic] sativa.”
Toklas might have been at the center of bohemian Paris, but she was no pothead: She had no idea what the mystery ingredient was; when she was told, she was furious. The publisher, who apparently hadn’t proofed Toklas’ manuscript either, quickly removed “Haschich Fudge” from subsequent editions. Here are a few recipe-reading suggestions:  Read the entire recipe: I can’t emphasize this enough. First, you’re making sure that you have everything before starting. Nothing is more frustrating than realizing that you’re missing a crucial ingredient — except finding out that the recipe takes longer or has more steps than you assumed. Deciding to make something for dinner and then realizing that you have to go shopping or that it must cook for hours either means eating at midnight or carryout. It seems obvious, but it’s a lesson many people (including me) have learned the hard way.
 Trust your judgment. Sure, the more experienced a cook is, the better he or she will be able to decide whether a recipe will work, but, even if you’re a novice, if a recipe doesn’t make sense you probably should skip it. Sometimes all that’s needed is to change things around a bit. I recently made a recipe from this month’s Gourmet that called for pork to be browned for eight to 10 minutes. What seemed wrong was the instruction to add fresh herbs to the pan at the beginning. Surely they’d burn, I thought. I compromised by adding them at the end of browning but quickly snatched them out — they’d immediately started smoking. I put them back when I was adding braising liquid. The roast slowly cooked for hours and was wonderful, suffused with the (unburnt) herbs’ perfume.
The reissued original Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook is great for novice cooks. Some of the information and recipes are dated, but the basic cooking information and techniques with illustrations and photos are timeless. It’s my standard recommendation for beginners. Michael Ruhlman’s 2007 Elements of Cooking is a wonderful reference. Ruhlman, a food writer who wrote about professional cooking schools by actually enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America and who has since co-authored cookbooks with some of the world’s most renowned chefs, created a guide that is part discussion of basics such as stock-making and part extensive glossary of terminology and techniques that ranges from mundane (including “dredge,” “mince,” “dice,” and “chop”) to esoteric (such as pâte sucré and blind baking). It’s an invaluable tool for those wanting to expand their culinary knowledge.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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