Friday, December 17, 2010

D-Feast Friday: The Soul of a Recipe

I have a love-hate relationship with recipes. I love them when they teach me what I want to do, but I hate referring to instructions as I cook. Alas, unless I'm just making something up as I go, I do need the recipe.

Here's my main quarrel with most recipes: they tell me too much and too little at the very same time. The lists of ingredients and detailed procedures usually fail to convey what the recipe is really about. What ingredients and steps are necessary to for the dish work from a chemical standpoint, which are necessary for a pleasing flavor, and which just give the dish that extra something?

What is the soul of a recipe, its essence? If the recipe went to Nepal to find itself, what would it learn? When I experimented with breadmaking a decade ago, I learned from my reading that all you need for yeast bread to work are yeast, some kind of sugar for the yeast to much on, flour, and water. I haven't made bread in ages, but I'm reasonably sure I could bake acceptable bread just from those ingredients, using no recipe. All the other ingredients you find in bread recipes are there to enhance flavor, texture, shelf life, nutritional value, etc. I'm not saying those thing are unnecessary, because they are necessary if you're after the characteristics bring. But the SOUL of yeast bread is flour, water, yeast, sugar or something, and the steps needed for the yeast to make the dough rise.

I once tried to make a curry sauce by stirring curry powder into unflavored yogurt. The result was incredibly bitter, one of the worst things I've put into my mouth: I can almost taste it now. Today, I used the Internet to track down a number of yogurt based curry sauce recipes. The first few I looked at didn't seem to be quite when I wanted. When I pulled up the fourth one, I almost fainted from the length of the ingredient list. Once I resumed breathing normally, I deduced from the list that the author was basically asking you to build your own curry powder from whole spices - a fine idea, but not a process I would find necessary. When I had mentally crossed off the curry-powder ingredients, what was left was pretty much this: yogurt, curry powder, and sugar. I had been on the right track, all those years ago: I just needed some sweetener.

These days, I'm working on growing as a cook. As I do so, I find that I'm getting better at reading recipes and finding the soul that I seek. And that, in turn, makes the recipe easier to cook from. Because I'm not doing anything very elaborate, I start cooking knowing what I need to do: I just need the recipe as a memory jog. Why? Because I know that recipe's soul.

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T Minus Two by Bob Pedersen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.