What’s for Dinner? /

Who Wrote This Recipe?


I cook a lot. My most basic cooking habit is to cook a couple of meals on Sunday night and eat those for lunch and a few of my dinners throughout the week. Having several meals planned ahead helps me take control of my time and it saves money. This is what “they” tell people to do in self-improvement magazine articles so I’m quite proud of myself.

I rate my cooking skills as “solid” for a home cook. I can follow a recipe, but I can also make a number of things without recipes. I can “save” a recipe if something seems to be going wrong. [“Ooops! I forgot to put in the onions.”] I can take basic ingredients and create a basic, satisfying meal. Solid.

But the first step is deciding what I want to eat and it has to match what I feel like cooking. This is a big decision!

If I’m not going to make something that’s in my head (of which I can do several soups, stews, roasts, stir-frys, etc.) I go searching for a recipe. I have three sources: The internet, my cookbook collection, and my green recipe box.

The internet is by far the most convenient most expansive way to find a new recipe to try. It’s lazy, really. Type in your ingredients or what you want to eat and thousands of recipes show up.

My cookbooks narrow the searching by simple math… the number of recipes I personally own is more manageable than the entire internet. But also, the books have been preselected by me according to types of food I like to eat, or by cooks or methods I prefer.

Logically, then, the green recipe box is even more narrowed down as it’s full of completely vetted recipes that I not only can make, but many of which I have already made, and many of which I make again and again.

It’s that vetting that’s the most difficult part of choosing new recipes.

To find a recipe, I ask myself what I feel like cooking/eating. What kind of protein do I want or am I going vegetarian. Ethnic? How long do I want to spend cooking? What’s on sale or in season at the grocery? In other words, the basics. At this point, the options are wide open.

Once I start narrowing down possibilities based on my general criteria, I can start looking at recipes with a more critical eye. How much stuff do I really have to buy? How much time will this really take? How much will this really make? Is it healthy? Do I care? How long will it take me to clean up?

I don’t believe very much of what a recipes have to say.

And the recipes don’t or can’t know what’s happening in my kitchen.

For example, the writer of a recipe can’t know what I’ll have to buy. But I want them to make logical assumptions. If the recipe is written for the home cook and calls for 2 tablespoons of parsley, the majority of home cooks who want to follow the recipe as written, are going to have to go to the store and buy a bundle of parsley. At which point they will use 2 tablespoons, and throw the rest away.  [This is a great moment for those of you with herb gardens to feel smug.] If you cook from recipes a lot, you’ll do this a lot. Then one day you will start skipping the parsley and never fall for that trick ingredient again.

This goes for recipes that call for odd spices or half of an onion or 2 green onions or a handful of spinach. C’mon. That’s not how home cooks shop (or how the grocery store sells).

And that’s just the minor ingredients. Lets talks about how much chicken or how many pork chops I have to buy. This is directly tied to how many servings (according to the recipe) does the recipe make. And again, I’d like the recipe writer to make some logical assumptions. Chicken or pork chops generally come in four-packs. If you’re lucky enough to have access to and money enough to buy fresh pieces of meat from a butcher, a recipe that calls for six pieces is no big deal. Otherwise, you got meat math to do.

Since I’m already cranky about this, recipes that call for six pieces of meat kill me all the way around. Six pieces is a hard number to buy, as noted, but also a hard number to cook. Most people don’t have kitchen equipment large enough to cook six pieces of chicken or pork at one time. This means re-configuring the recipe so the assembled ingredients fit in the chosen cooking vessel, probably cooking the meat in batches Immediately, that “helpful” tip the recipe might include regarding “cooking time”suddenly isn’t representing real time in a real kitchen. Professionally written cookbooks almost always underestimate the amount of time a meal takes to cook. I guarantee they are over-estimating the quality and power of my cooking equipment.

That includes the sharpness of my knives and my chopping skills in general. We’ve seen the chefs on TV who make haste with an onion, mincing it so fast, they don’t have time to shed a tear. That’s not how most of us work our way around the cutting board. Add time accordingly.

I also look at how healthy (or unhealthy) a recipe is. One way to manipulate this is to note what the recipe is calling a serving size. A recipe that calls for four pieces of chicken (which every recipe says will yield four servings), generally gives me five or six servings. That’s based on how much food the scientists recommend people eat and how much I prefer to eat so I don’t feel stuffed. That’s one way to eat healthier. But in the actual recipe, how much fat and frying, and cheese and sour cream, and bacon and sausage, and all the other good stuff is something I consider.

Finally, when picking a recipe, I look to see how many pots, pans, mixing bowls, and other tools are casually mentioned in the text of instructions. I don’t think I’ve ever read a recipe that takes clean-up into consideration. If I want to make something and the cooking instructions call for two pans, I carefully re-read to see if I can use one pan. I’ve made many recipes that start by sauteing chicken in one pan and combining the chicken with ingredients cooked in a second pan. To that I say NOPE.  Instead, I use one pan. I cook the chicken, take it out and let it rest on a plate while I put the other ingredients together in the now empty chicken pan. Then, the chicken goes back in and instead of having to clean up two pans, I clean up one pan and a plate. Like 50% easier.

Basically, what finding recipes and learning to cook has taught me is that recipes can’t be written for all people in all situations. I have to work with them. I’m the one doing the shopping, cooking, and cleaning around here, and I choose my recipes and create my meals accordingly.

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