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Lexie's Journal
A perfect recipe for boredom 
18-Oct-2006 16:17
magic in the kitchen, cooking
There's an interview in today's Mercury News (via the Washington Post, link to Cincinnati Post because the MN is being weird about registration) with Christopher Kimball, the guy who does America's Test Kitchen. I'd heard of the show and it sounds cool -- my understanding is that they test recipes extensively and come up with the best workable make-at-home version that they can. (I can't tell for sure because their website is really horrible and uninformative, but that's another rant.) Even though I'm a fly-by-night cook, I appreciate the work that goes into truly extensive and rigorous recipe testing and why you would want to know what the best way is. However, I had a really mixed reaction to this:

Q. How much room do your books and magazine leave for creativity and interpretation?
A. None. Make the damn recipe my way.

On the one hand, a recipe generally is the way it is for a good reason, all the more so when it's been carefully tested. The accompanying recipe for red lentil soup seems simple, and at first I dismissed it as "not really a recipe at all", because it's basically identical to what I do with a lot of curry soups.

But then I thought about it, and I realized that they spent a long time creating and testing it. While a recipe I create that looks superficially similar to that is going to really be quite different, because I'm not carefully controlling my quantities. A curry root vegetable soup, something I've made at least six times, I've probably never made the same way twice -- different veggies, approximate spice amounts, different amounts of onion, etc. Maybe I should add more or less broth, or more or less ginger. I don't test it to find out.

But good recipes take the guesswork out of many things, especially baking. I started to appreciate this more when I was reading Julia Child's My Life in France, and she talked about recipe testing, and technique, and how she worked so hard to get just the right measures and timings, and explain the effects of important steps, which was not really done in those days (I remember my mom saying that all my grandma's cookbooks said "Cook until done.") After all, you can't just skip marinating, say, fajita chicken pieces and expect them to taste just as good. Brushing egg over the top of a pastry seems really strange and omittable unless you know that it's for getting a nice browned glaze on top.

He makes a very good case, when talking in more depth, for the logic of the recipe-based approach, and how even a lot of the stuff we think we know, we don't know, and we shouldn't try to guess. And that they do have to kind of decide what specific type of a dish they want to make, so if you just like a particular type better (like a chewy vs. crunchy cookie), then the recipe doesn't apply.

On the other hand...

1) I can't make the soup recipe his way, even though the idea of this soup appeals to me, because it's not vegetarian. So by that logic, either he has to create a different best recipe for vegetable broth, or I have to make a substitution. The first won't happen for a variety of reasons, not least that omnivore chefs are usually extremely opinionated about chicken stock making better soup than vegetable stock (I wouldn't generally disagree, but that's beside the point).

Anyway, once I have to make the one substitution, all bets are pretty much off as far as "best." I do know, as someone who knows her way around the kitchen, what will happen when I make the substitution. The soup will have a different, more vegetable-y, less rich taste. Maybe in that case it would be better with five cloves of garlic, or an extra 1/2 teaspoon of garam masala, to deal with that. But one important point here is that I do know what the consequences are, which is something he actually emphasizes a lot, it appears. If you want to make a great recipe, and you don't know what making a certain change will do, then doing it is probably not a great idea if you want to get something like the desired results. If you don't mind whether your pot pie is browned or not, skip the egg glaze. But if your picky aunt is coming for dinner, you might want to keep the egg step in. But I lean more to the side that once you know the reason for something, you can make a reasonable decision about its importance. He seems to lean more to the side that once you know the reason, you'll do it, period.

2) People's tastes differ. I like garlic more than some people. I like foods hotter than some people. What's best for you isn't best for me, and if your recipe for chile con queso doesn't have many chiles in it, I will add more, because that will taste better to me. If your recipe for raita has raw white onion, I'll change to green, because I like raita without white onion. What I produce as a result will be the best for me. Being the best common denominator is great, but it means that people with uncommon tastes will, and should, provided they know what they're doing, adjust your recipes. He says in the article that also in the spirit of being a common denominator, he doesn't use any ingredients you can't find in a supermarket. So there's almost no way I'd make Mexican or Asian food his way -- not when I have easy access to real ingredients for both cuisines. Why would I make enchiladas without my beloved NM green chile when I can get it easily? Or maybe I think this muffin would taste great with a pinch of cardamom, which many people don't keep around.

3) Ingredients differ. If he makes, say, pico de gallo with red onions from a supermarket, and I make it with onions from the farmer's market, they may not taste the same. So I should probably consider adjusting the proportions or other flavorings. There are many cases like that, mostly to do with local varieties or just seasonal variation. And I think there's a real value to using local material even for common-denominator cooking, in that it's tastier and cheaper a lot of the time.

A recipe can only tell you so much. It can't tell you whether you have older, milder garlic or fabulous fresh flavorful cloves. It can't tell you what to do if they grow a different kind of onion or chile pepper where you live. It can't tell you that your oven or stove is particularly powerful or weak, so the cooking time may vary. It can't tell you whether some obscure ingredient you love would make this dish Just So for you, or who the taste of the dish is calibrated for.

So I'd respectfully disagree with Mr. Kimball. I'd say, respect the recipe. If a lot of work went into it, look carefully at it, follow it as closely as you can, and see what you get. But don't feel like you have to let Christopher Kimball, or anyone else, tyrannize you in your own kitchen, telling you that you can't change it up if that's what makes life fun for you. And if you don't think the recipe was carefully tested (I can tell you, a lot of them out there weren't), definitely get in there and improvise whatever you want.
19-Oct-2006 01:20 (UTC)
I love watching America's Test Kitchen. They also test various products alone to find the best one, usually on a price-based scale (i.e., eight types of spaghetti sauce ranging from cheap to expensive) and offer suggestions. But I wholeheartedly agree with you about this interview. It makes me think that Mr. Kimball thinks awfully high of himself in the kitchen rather than celebrating the art of cooking.

P.S. Alexis, I love your food entries. Although I am horrible in the kitchen (well, aside from baking), I am always inspired and entertained. Especially since Bryan (the boyfriend) is a vegetarian and I will be cooking for him soon enough. So, just wanted to say thanks for sharing!
19-Oct-2006 15:56 (UTC)
Yay! I'm glad to inspire. :-) If you ever need some specific suggestions for veggie stuff, I'm more than willing to help out by email or whatnot.
19-Oct-2006 21:35 (UTC)
Thanks, I'll probably take you up on that in the future. Also, I like cookbooks so any and all suggestions would be appreciated. :)
19-Oct-2006 21:46 (UTC)
Hehe. You people certainly know what buttons to push with me. :-)

Some fave cookbooks of mine:
Almost Vegetarian by Diana Shaw. This is a terrific crossover book with poultry, fish, and vegetarian recipes -- this book has only gone wrong for me once and it may have been my fault that time. Health conscious but not big into calorie reduction.
The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook, same author, great for basics and variations, though not all the recipes are as good as the above.
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison. The bible of vegetarian cookery by the founder of Greens Restaurant. I know enshanam likes DM's Vegetarian Suppers as well.
Vegan with a Vengeance, by Isa Chandra Moskowitz. My boss made some apple cupcakes from this book. They. Were. Awesome. AWESOME I tell you. Best cupcakes ever! And vegan! So after a gander through the book I decided this had to be added to my bookshelf soon. Its being vegan shouldn't put you off, if the cupcakes are any sign at all.

I wouldn't recommend Nava Atlas's Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Cookbook. While it does have some good and easy recipes, many of them are not well tested.
19-Oct-2006 23:06 (UTC)
Thank you!
19-Oct-2006 07:01 (UTC)
Okay, I really loved this entry, because I think it's very true not only about cooking but about a lot of things in life. For example, I think it describes my approach to religion/spirituality very well. And writing-- language-- too, really. It's important to learn everything you possibly can and respect the fundamentals of what you have to work with, but at the same time, YOU are the one doing the working, and knowing enough to know how to tweak things to one's own specifications is what distinguishes a good cook (/writer/spiritual disciple) from a robot. But there's a world of difference between making informed tweaks and just plum making stuff up, which lots of people do and with which I totally understand his frustration. So yeah. Excellent post, great food (heh) for thought.
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