Saturday, November 12, 2011


Recipes are both copies and examples. The written recipe should exactly copy the kitchen. Followed exactly, you should get the same result. Followed loosely, you can improve on the result. You can vary ingredients by season and by what’s on hand, adding or removing, and adjust for taste.

However, recipes are shorthand instructions for cooking. They are brief summaries. They leave out details. Instructions typically use shorthand keywords like roast, saute, simmer and boil, and assume the reader understands these terms. Keeping the recipe short lets the cook see the idea of the recipe, and follow without getting lost in text. Recipes are made of ingredients and directions.

Because a recipe is only a brief summary, it’s necessary to detail elsewhere common ingredients (pantry section), along with substitutions and preparation, and common kitchen techniques (kitchen section), along with tips and troubles. Sometimes these make good sidebars.

Ingredients are listed in the order used. This gives a clue about timing. This makes the recipe easier to follow. Switching between recipes for multiple dishes, I often find myself asking, “Where am I?“ and “What’s next?” Ingredients that take longer to cook are typically started first, and ingredients that cook quickly are typically finish last.

I divide my ingredients by their function in a dish, and then divide my instructions into steps to match. Recipes can be thought of as layers, with each layer adding complexity to a dish.

  • Base: Ingredients that are chopped small, largely invisible, slow cook or cook the longest, break down, or are blended. These are the supporting actors in the dish. Onions are a common base. Many European dishes start with an onion-carrot-celery base. Note the Indian pantry usually doesn’t include celery (bitter green), but often uses the spice fenugreek (bitter spice).
  • Spice: Tiny but flavorful ingredients that enhance flavor, adding a layer of complexity. Usually added to season the base. Since the base is often slow cooked, these can be whole spices and whole dry herbs. This is the orchestra in the dish. Usually not mentioned. Many Indian dishes use garlic and ginger  (both hot herb), and cumin (pungent and slightly hot spice) and coriander (earthy spice). Garlic-ginger is often a paste, and cumin-coriander is often a spice mix.
  • Main: Feature ingredients. Chopped larger, visible, lightly cooked or steamed. These are the leading actors in the dish. Usually the base of the dish name.
  • Finish: Small and flavorful ingredients that would over cook or disappear if added earlier. Often herbs, which are best fresh, and powdered spices. They adjust and garnish the dish. By adding at the end, they stay somewhat separate, adding a final layer of taste and aroma. Fresh cilantro leaves are a common herb (bitter herb) and lemon or lime a common (sour agent). Garam masala (hot spice mix: cumin-coriander, hot chili and cinnamon-clove) is a common powdered spice mix finish.

These functions describe the common pattern for stove cooked vegetable and water soups, stews, sauces and gravies.

I prefer recipes from scratch. So everything is open and following recipes I can learn taste and seasoning. Everything is whole spices, roasted and ground fresh, and fresh herbs and citrus, chopped and mixed. I can always substitute a mix, jar or can. This will make a recipe have a few more ingredients, as a veggie broth is listed by ingredient, and a spice mix is listed by ingredient, and a sauce is listed by ingredient. Prepared broths, spice mixes, mixed vegetables, and jar sauces have their place, and can make a quick and easy version of a recipe. But prepared products hide their ingredients. Reading labels is often like game of cat and mouse. Whole ingredients, salt, sugar, oil, preservatives? Labels do order ingredients by volume, but don’t provide quantities, and multiple flavors are often hidden under the single term spices.

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