The Art of Not Following Recipes

Perhaps the best skill for any home cook is learning how not to follow recipes. That may seem like an odd thing to read in a book that contains a bunch of recipes, but I would very much encourage you to not follow the recipes in this book, or more accurately, to not follow the exact recipes. Recipes should be looked at not as a rigid set of instructions, but as a source of ideas and inspiration.   If you want to get the most enjoyment out of any recipe, you need to learn how to customize the recipe best appeal to you and your dining companions.

The most important thing you need to understand about recipes is which ingredients you should modify and which you shouldn’t. Building a recipe is a little like building a house in that there are some ingredients that are structural and some which are cosmetic. If you get a set of house plans, you can easily change the colour of the paint or the type of moldings without consulting with the architect, but if you start making changes to the foundation or the roof trusses you may find your house collapsing on top of you after you build. The same goes for recipes; if you tinker too much with the structural ingredients you may find your recipe collapsing into an inedible mess.

Every recipe has a foundation of recipes that make up the underlying structure of the dish as well as some flavouring ingredients like herbs and spices that give it some added character. Provided you have an understanding of what herbs and spices pair with various foods you can go ahead and modify quantities or make substitutions without any worries of ruining your food.

Understanding the structural ingredients in baking is particularly important. You generally should stick pretty close to the recipes ratios of things like flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. While cooking may be more like an art, baking is much more of a science, so you should not be too much a maverick when it comes to the structural ingredients in baking recipes. You can feel free to aggressively add or take away flavours. For example, you can take any recipe that calls for raisins and substitute chocolate chips, or double the amount of chocolate chips. One of the most reliable rules to live by in baking is to always substitute chocolate chips for raisins. Don’t like walnuts in something? Then use another nut or no nuts at all. It won’t make a difference.

When you are identifying structural ingredients, you need to look at what that ingredient is doing to the dish. Is it adding flavour, is it carrying flavour, or is it assisting the cooking process? When you add flour or cornstarch to a stew, it is doing little or nothing to alter the flavour of the stew; they are just meant to thicken the liquid in the stew. You can choose not to use any thickening ingredients in a stew, but you need to be aware that you will be fundamentally altering the look and texture of the stew. Substituting sage for rosemary will only affect the taste, not the structure. It is the culinary equivalent of changing the colour of the kitchen.

Later in this book I will provide a great recipe for baked chicken wings that uses baking powder. The baking powder makes the wings attain a level of crispiness that you might have thought was only possible with a deep fryer. You should feel free to modify my recipe by using spices with more or less heat or going with some more savoury spices, but if you don’t want to use baking powder, then you should just look for another recipe. It is the use of baking powder that distinguishes the wing recipe. Likewise, using these same ingredients with ribs will lead to spectacularly awful results.

You may have noticed that I have not referenced onions or garlic as structural ingredients. That is because I do not generally consider them to be structural ingredients, and even though most chefs seem to think that onions and garlic must form the base 95% of all recipes, I believe that in many, if not most cases, you can easily alter or omit these from recipes without hurting the taste. In some cases you may even improve the taste. Of course, there are recipes like French onion soup, garlic butter, or aioli sauce where onions are garlic are clearly the foundation of the recipe, but for many recipes their importance is overstated.

After understanding the structural ingredients of a recipe, the next most important thing to understand is what you like and what you don’t like. Some people like fiery hot spices while others will get physically sick from so much spice. If you don’t like too much spice and a recipe calls for jalapeño, then you can substitute poblano for it. If you prefer things the hotter the better, then substitute a serrano pepper. Garlic content can also affect people in different ways. A lot of professional cooks have built up a tolerance for garlic that the average home cook simply does not have. You will routinely encounter recipes that call for an entire head of garlic, but unless you are roasting the garlic first, most of your dinner guests will be overwhelmed. Personally, when I see a recipe that calls for an entire head of garlic I just use a clove or two.

Recipes are suggestions, not commandments. You are not going to turn a great recipe into a vomit inducing mess just because you used a half a teaspoon more thyme or left out a clove of garlic. Not only should not worry about altering a recipe, but you would be better off if you actively looked for ways to alter recipes, even ones that you enjoy.

Cooking Horrible Healthy Food

Cooking, like any field of endeavor, has its activities that bring nothing but sheer joy and excitement, but also has those mundane and joyless tasks that you do because you know you have to but hate doing all the same. Few things bring more satisfaction to a cook than the sound and smell of a juicy striploin sizzling on a cast iron pan with butter or taking a piping hot dish of macaroni and cheese out of the oven. Unfortunately there are some unappetizing, joyless dishes that you need to prepare if you want to ensure that your family has a healthy, balanced diet. Making something taste less awful is not nearly as motivating as making something taste amazing, but it is a valuable and necessary skill for any cook.

Do you like the taste and texture of quinoa? If you do, you are a liar. You may be lying to yourself, but that still makes you a liar. Perhaps you like to shredded cardboard as well. With the exception of Kale, nothing symbolizes the health vs satisfaction trade-off like Quinoa. It isn’t that it tastes all that bad, in fact it hardly has any taste at all; it’s that it is so good for you and so ubiquitous that it is becoming difficult not to eat it. Lobok tastes terrible but it’s no better for you than any other vegetable and you probably don’t even know it exists.

As uninspiring as it may be, you need to have a strategy for eating healthy, uninspiring foods. There several strategies that you can use. For some healthy green vegetables like broccoli and asparagus, you can serve them as a small side with a meat dish to make the meal healthier. If you take a bite of a steak, a forkful of twice baked potato, and then a piece of steamed broccoli or asparagus, you will hardly notice the taste since the taste of the steak and potato is so much more dominant and satisfying. You can eat a head of broccoli without hardly noticing.

Some vegetables have a bland taste but can carry other flavours fairly well. Quinoa is one of those, and if you want to eat it you need to boil it not with water but with some flavourful liquid. Some people like chicken broth but I prefer diluted lemon juice with some basil. I also through some lemon zest in with it. I don’t actually like lemon all that much but it sure tastes better than quinoa and the taste is strong enough that it does a good job of masking what I am eating from my taste buds.

When all else fails, you can simply pour some melted cheese over it or wrap it in prosciutto, and while both options can work well, they are a bit of a cop out. If you really want to eat more healthy things but can’t bring yourself to do it, then try adding them into pot dishes where they will get lost in the mix, like adding pot barley to your beef stew or throwing some lentils in your soup (no too many though, they soak up a lot of water). The point is you and your family probably need to eat more things you don’t like, and you need to come up with a plan that allows you to do so from time to time without completely ruining your dinner.

Pretension Is the Enemy of Great Cooking

I like cooking. I like eating. I like trying new things. I also find this recent nose to tail culinary trend to be repulsive and absurd. If I am going to spend my hard earned money at an overpriced fancy restaurant, I am not going to be spending it on any noses or tails. When I go to a restaurant, I want to be impressed by what I eat; I am not looking to impress others with what I am eating.

The fact is that 90% of those who pay through the nose to eat noses are doing so not because they truly enjoy it, but to show others how sophisticated they are. The taste of the food is secondary to the prestige that comes from eating it, much like the enjoyment that one gets from the use of a Louis Vuitton handbag pales in comparison to the satisfaction one gets from letting the rest of the world know that you have a Louis Vuitton handbag.

Valuing image over substance is perfecting fine for things like handbags, perfume, and wine, but there is something distasteful about it when applied to food. Food is not a luxury item; it is something every human being needs to survive. The purpose of great cooking is to take something that everyone has to do out of necessity and turn it into something exciting and enjoyable.

The faddish trend to treat cooking and dining as a way to broadcast one’s sophistication of one of the motivations behind this website. I believe that people should be adventurous and creative with how they eat, but they should do so for their own enjoyment of the food, and not because of how they wish others to view them. Pretension has no place in the world of cooking.