Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

The Kitchen Manifesto

It recently occurred to me that some of you are new to Simple Spoonful—or, at least, so claims Google Analytics.That being the case, I thought it might be a good idea to give you a bit of background on the way I write recipes, particularly after that much-annotated recipe for agave-sweetened spiced pumpkin cake I just posted.

As a general rule, the purpose of a recipe is to provide a clear-cut set of instructions that anyone can follow to achieve a specific end product.

My recipes don’t really work that way.

My recipes treat cooking as a process and a finished dish as a snapshot in time of the way I did things at a certain point. That’s why you’ll get notes about what happened when I swapped out some applesauce for oil or some barley malt for agave. My cooking is also largely dependent on what’s in the garden, what the CSA provides any particular week, or what produce is on sale at the grocery store. Not surprisingly, while technique may be sacred to me in a particular recipe, ingredients rarely are. I measure when I bake, but I almost never measure when I cook…unless I am tracking it as I prepare it a given day in order to be able to post it here, so you can enjoy in your own kitchen! It’s true: I do all this for you. *MWAH!* In any case, that’s why one of my recipes will often instruct you to add a particular ingredient to taste or mention that you can substitute X, Y, or Z as desired. The only other time I keep careful track of what I’m doing is when I am experimenting with adapting an existing recipe, particularly anything for baked goods. There’s chemistry involved in baking, folks, and you just can’t pull a fast one on science. Science has rules, and we gotta obey its authoritTAY.

Not only do I not write rigid recipes for my own food, I also don’t use other people’s recipes in a particularly rigid way. Maybe the parsnips I get will be less sweet and I will have to compensate, maybe I don’t want quite as much marjoram in my soup, maybe I want to use less garlic (not likely), or maybe I need a diabetic-friendly version so mom can enjoy the finished dish with us. Whatever the case, I adapt like a madwoman. Case in point: the agave-sweetened spiced pumpkin cake started as this recipe for pumpkin cream cheese bars. However, I don’t like cream cheese baked into baked goods, so that got scrapped fast. And I wanted it to be diabetic-friendly so that mom could enjoy some pumpkin goodies, so the sugar had to beat a path on outta there. Then, when I made my first batch, it turned out to be very cake-like and not especially bar- or brownie-like (probably because of my substitutions). I decided to take that direction and follow it, and a few iterations later, a household champion was born. (Cue “Eye of the Tiger.”)

All that said, recipes do have an important place in the kitchen. When I want to make a specific dish that I haven’t made before (think something like moussaka, tamales, or vegetable korma), I leverage the power of the Intertubes to look up several well-rated recipes for that dish. I see what they have in common, how they differ, and I decide what’s most likely to suit my tastes. Then I go for it. If it works, beautiful. If it doesn’t, I try something else another time. Recipes also rock for those adventurous souls who acquired unknown produce from the market and have no idea what to do with Buddha’s fingers or kohlrabi or tat soi. Specific recipes support those with less cooking experience who are still figuring out flavor combinations and cooking techniques. As those folks figure out what recipes they like and don’t, they become better cooks themselves because they can identify what works and doesn’t work for them. I keep a pencil nearby when I cook and make quick notes in my recipe books about alterations and about what I thought of the finished product. Not only do those notes help me remember what worked and what didn’t, but they offer options to anyone who wants to try out one of these recipes as well as suggestions on what I can do if I need to make a dish, say, gluten-free on the fly.

My philosophy is that cooking is about making something wholesome and tasty out of what is readily available at the time. This flexibility means you will generate less waste (yay!) and enjoy the taste and nutritional bang that comes with consuming the freshest ingredients possible (yum!), since you will alter recipes in order to use the flood of red Russian kale or the generous peck of pickled peppers you just picked from the garden or got out of the sale bin at the grocer. Yes, it’s about flavor and taste, but it’s also about the fact that there is not a speck more room in the fridge for another zucchini.  Which reminds me: I need a zucchini dish tomorrow. Our fridge is about 30% zucchini at the moment.

Enough with the long-windedness. The goal was just context. The takeaway is simply this:

Be fearless in the kitchen. When you use recipes, honor your tastes and the guests at your table. Play. Have fun. Try something new. It’s how we all learn.

Guten Apetit!

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