Cooking By Committee

Navigating Too Many Recipes and Arm Chair Cooks

Cooking By Committee

Navigating Too Many Recipes and Arm Chair Cooks

For me a bonus to come from our newspapers moving from print to web is the reader comments. There are days when I will ignore the paper copy of The New York Timesresting on my lap while I instead read the web version so to not miss them. Often there's an insight or two that manage to lift the original article to a new level. But other times, when the topic is contentious, I take guilty pleasure in how others argue my point of view.

I'm not so open-minded when it comes to recipe comments. The most useless are at the blogs that use lots of hyper-detailed photography, where usually all you get are expressions of reader appetite:  "ooh, this looks good, I'd eat that."  As if someone were ogling photos on a restaurant menu, something that occurs to me I've never seen outside of Greek coffee shops and Chinese restaurants. This may be a missed opportunity for chefs to dump their menus and instead just use Instagram. Are you listening Danny Meyer?

But there are some food websites with useful comments. I first read recipe responses on AllRecipes.com, the huge database launched in 1997 by a bunch of anthropology graduate students as a place to store their cookie recipes. A million recipes later, there is much to learn from its readers who actually first cook and then share. I also like AllRecipes because its community of cooks seem unpretentious, folks for whom home cooking is a normal activity, not a lifestyle. Here professional chefs might be welcomed, but they are not assumed to be superior.

Albeit more urban and edited, Food52 is another community of cooks. The recipes themselves are often a bit fancy, or maybe it's just the art direction that makes them seem so. But I appreciate the rigor that many of its readers use in their kitchens and how the rest of us can benefit from it in ours.

Home cooks also have many useful things to say at Epicurious, which recently did a terrific re-design. Here recipes are judged using little forks instead of the usual stars, but there are also comments, revisions and fixes, some of which make you wish the readers were writing the recipes instead of the site's editors, they're that good. At The New York Times Cooking, which is all about the recipe, you can give one to five stars but there's no place for comments. For some reason, Sam Sifton, The Times' food editor, and his colleagues decided they didn't want readers' responses, whether good, snarky or constructive. But that leaves us with a meaningless star system since there's no basis for it. Does one star mean there's an error in the recipe?  Or too much cilantro?  Is it too difficult?  Too expensive?  Do five stars only mean popularity?  We'll never know.

I think it's silly when someone rates a recipe after posting their changes and corrections, especially if the changes are major. Such as using a loin instead of a shoulder cut, or replacing romaine lettuce with broccoli, or tomato paste with catsup (all changes I recently spotted at Epicurious). It might be that the changes are smart and helpful, but it makes the recipe rating no longer meaningful, unless of course they're rating their revision.

I don't criticize changing recipes -- many of us do this, whether to suit our own palate, or adapt to our skill level. But if it comes from an author I trust, it's my preference and practice to follow a recipe the first time I make it. Then I'll make margin notes with any changes and adjustments for the next time.

Another comment on automatically changing new recipes:  if in an effort to make a recipe our own we get into the habit of routinely adding a favorite flavor -- agave, or red pepper flakes, or sesame oil -- it means that everything ends up tasting the same. Our finest cookbook authors, even when cooking from a specific ethnic tradition, avoid this. Instead, they stay within their canon while creating distinctive flavors that trigger our appetites.

Our best recipe writers -- such as Patricia Wells, Ina Garten, Barbara Kafka -- know how to combine flavor pitch with the right combo of ingredients and spices along with technical knowledge so to inspire and guide us. This is their genius and it's why we turn to them in the first place. Watch for how they'll call for a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice added at the finish to spark the flavors, or how they'll add herbs and spices at various points in the cooking to deepen a dish's complexity. It is their skill of creating something whole that then lets us work the edges and adjust it into something that is ours.

So the next time you're making a new recipe, try to resist reaching for your hot sauce/hoisin/ground cumin/butter (pick your flavor), and give the author a chance. Then make it yours and give it five stars.

The Uncommitted

I may not make premature revisions but I do have another bad recipe habit. When making something new and challenging, in an attempt to get educated and avoid failure, I will read multiple recipes for the same dish. It's as if I think that by reading many, one will emerge as the chosen, like Botticelli's Venus rising from the sea to be the most beautiful of goddesses. It never does. And the more recipes I read, the more confused I get.

Doing this has some definite risks, especially if you're not a confident cook who can parse things like different cooking methods (cook low and slow versus high and fast) or how to treat ingredients (Leave the onion whole and remove it later!  Mince the onion and cook slowly until it softens!  Use a crushed garlic, and no onion!). Perhaps matchy-matchy is a bad thing in fashion, but in cooking, a single perspective is useful.

A recent food writing gimmick suggests we can put recipes together by choosing one thing from column A and another from column B, and so on, a method advocated by Mark Bittman. I do not agree. I really don't believe in tossing a matrix of ingredients into a pot and hoping for the best. I prefer refinement -- not necessarily in the cooking but in the thinking that takes place before the chopping begins. After all, isn't this why we seek the best recipes and try to learn about technique and ingredients?

Having such a perspective, I will often over-think a recipe when making something new. I did so a couple of weekends ago when my girlfriend Maureen and I shared the work, expense, and stress of making cassoulet, the quintessential hearty, fatty meat and white bean baked stew from Southwestern France. This is no 30-minute meal. More like 30 hours.

We were determined to do a very authentic cassoulet, of which there are as many versions as there are duck farms in Languedoc. I began by pulling from my files an out-of-print 2001 article from Gourmet (another example of why we miss that splendid magazine), written by author Michael Lewis, who seems to be settling control scores with his mother as he makes his first cassoulet while living in Paris. His claim that he's demystifying Julia Child's version picks an unnecessary fight as Julia's cassoulet recipe is very clear. A bit of work, but clear. Here is his recipe. Julia's is in Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume I.

After reading Michael Lewis and Julia's versions, I moved on to Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of Southwestern France, one of my all-time favorite cookbooks that even features a cassoulet on its cover. Wolfert devotes an entire chapter to the subject, with four distinctive cassoulet recipes. Not quite ready to admit that I was heading for an overdose, I checked out David Lebovitz's recipe, another from Saveur, a scaled down version in Fat by Jennifer McLagan, and finally, just to make sure I'd get completely lost, I added a Google search.

Fortunately my friend Maureen and I realized that like many other things in life, you need to choose and commit. We chose Julia. I spent two days making confit de canard (see our link), Maureen spent one prepping the white beans, bacon and pork skin, and on day four we together assembled our prepared ingredients -- beans, four confit de canard legs, strips of meaty bacon, chunks of lamb shoulder, fat slices of garlic pork sausage (excellent, from Whole Foods), chopped plum tomatoes, white wine, beef stock (store-bought at Citarella), and a surface of bread crumbs. The destination was my 8-quart Le Creuset pot and in Maureen's oven, it baked it for three hours.

The result was spectacular. Thankful that we hadn't second-guessed her, Julia's recipe was a triumph. She may call this baked beans, but every ingredient had its own flavor and texture while at the same time it all was combined into a hearty finish with the whole besting its parts. As others joined us at the dinner table to tackle this huge pot of French tradition, we spooned bowls of cassoulet alongside plates of crisp romaine lettuce, radicchio, and thin slices of red onion that we had tossed with mustard vinaigrette. We drank big glasses of Vin de Pays, and finished with a dessert of tiny madelines I had bought at Eric Keyser's, plus sweet Moroccan clementines.

While it's easy to complain about this long winter, on a cold February Sunday two friends had spent the day having fun in the kitchen knowing that by evening we'd be at the table with others we love, eating well while having good conversation. Outside a light snow was falling, and on this night, we were content.

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