recipe for success

I love cookbooks with photos. I want to know exactly how to plate a new dish, and how appealing it will look after my labor. With holidays and company and potlucks upon us, it’s time to peruse the ol’ cookbook collection for a photo of Stellar food. You’ll know it: the page on which you pause, salivate, and remind yourself that it’s unhealthy to consume paper. If you are looking for Something Different this year, and seeking inspiration beyond this baby of a blog, spend some one-on-one with a cookbook from days of yore.

I found many discouraging trials in my early days of self-taught cooking when my meal rarely resembled the recipe’s promises. Should you find yourself apprehensive about risking your time and ingredients on the unfamiliar, here are some thoughts you may find helpful upon opening your cookbook:

Serves Eight

In our home, I’m cooking for two. When it’s a meat dish, that’s only one and Andrew is not always up for a week’s worth of leftovers. Be practical with your ingredients; a freezer-friendly casserole or soup may be more economical to double. On the other hand, if you also have a small household and consider the recipe more daring, cut the recipe in half to avoid waste. As I suffer arithmophobia, I usually pencil the ingredient adjustments directly in the cookbook to avoid simple, serious errors. Because that’s what happened on my math tests.

Unfamiliar Ingredients?

An impearative (ha!) disclaimer about Indian cuisine here: I insist you step out of your cabinent comfort zone for this wonder. However, a lengthy list of ingredients, especially the exotic, are a frequent turn-off in other circumstances and perhaps not your best bet for weeknight experimentations.

Pantry Finds

Similar to the idea above, seek out recipes with items you keep in stock. This makes a recipe more accessible and budget-friendly.

Serve Immediately

Beware the Serve Immediately finale. Many of my favorite dishes (egg noodles + brown butter + feta) need be served straight from the stove. However, a new recipe for company is not the time for a dish that risks sogginess as it sits. For company, those recipes recommending “flavors meld at least several hours or overnight” are ideal for cooking in advance and attending to your guests. The Serve Immediately dishes are wonderful, but be sure it works with your meal’s timing.

Read the Recipe to the End

This got me in a lot of trouble in my early repetitive cooking flops. If I did read it to the end, I often did not read the recipe through several times. Those painful paragraphs with four steps-in-one often led to my skipping crucial components. Familiarize yourself with all the aspects of the ingredient preparation and techniques, and look up any pieces that may be confusing. This is why the Internet was invented. YouTube has wonderful tutorials for cooking techniques.

Equipment and Tools

Understanding what tools you need for a recipe will prevent much frustration, and precisely why it’s important to read all the way through a recipe. After drooling over endless recipes stating, “Now with your food processor…”, I skipped many appealing recipes due to equipment limitations. For me, the food processor investment has been worthwhile: a 2-cup Cuisinart miniprep got me through college, now I find plenty of use for my 11-cup Kitchenaid.

It is important, too, to consider whether a paring, serrated, or chef’s knife is most appropriate for ingredients that require slicing. A 6-inch skillet also does not count as a “very large saucepan”. If your pot or pan is not large enough for the amount of food, simply divide the food evenly between two pans. This is crucial for searing and roasting where ingredients must have space to caramelize. Before I invested in a 12-inch skillet, I found much more success dividing my dishes between two medium skillets than crowding and steaming foods in one pan.

Assessing your recipe before committing will hopefully lead to greater success with your culinary endeavors. As recipes are rarely perfect, be certain to taste your creation about 3/4 through cooking and also before serving. Salt is usually the answer, but you can never take it away—underseason first.

What’s new in your kitchen? It’s Lebanese on our stovetop, recipes soon! Click here for some favorite cookbooks from my shelf.


Filed under dinners, here to share, the basics

2 responses to “recipe for success

  1. Mary Andrews

    These are good reminders not only for new cooks but also for those of us who have been cooking for 45 or more years and sometimes take short cuts where we should not!

    • Great point, Mary. Like my mushroom turnover post, sometimes those recipes sitting around for years—or decades—are truly the most reliable. My great-grandmother Ta’s potatos au gratin simply cannot be beat. I often laugh at myself for bookmarking so many recipes online when I have many inspiring cookbooks in my kitchen!

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