Friday, March 07, 2008

on following a recipe

For someone who enjoys cooking, proclaiming to all who will listen “I’m going to challenge myself to cook from a recipe” might sound a little strange. Sure I read recipes but usually I am substituting ingredients and tweaking them before I even enter the kitchen. Quite seriously, I attended the Recipe Writing session at “Out of the Frying Pan” because I thought a little remedial action would be good for me.

But first a little recap from the session:

While writers should assume that recipes will be read by novices, they are not always written with the home cook in mind. A professional chef will think nothing of calling for litres of fresh stock forgetting most homes aren’t equipped with a cool room or have minions doing prep each day. While tomes like Stephanie Alexander’s have a comprehensive basics section, different skill levels tend be implied by some of the big name chefs.

There was some chat about pet peeves; the first was missing ingredients, followed by a lack of warning about steps that need to be prepared in advance, such as the aforementioned stock.

Interestingly the recipe I selected stumbled on those 2 points.

Picture this – bedtime the night before my regular market trip. A book of recipe cuttings, class notes from cooking classes and laptop with ‘clippings’ from websites. I wanted something very simple but not what I would usually make, no more than a moderate list of ingredients and it to be a main dish with the necessity of a minimum of sides. Amongst my word files I found it – Poached Blue Eye with Saffron, Fennel & Tomato. A quick look over the flavourings – saffron, fennel seeds and garlic, all on hand so there were just a few fresh ingredients to grab on the day.

On rereading the recipe the next day, the first problem I noticed was the recipe I had (from an unknown source) omitted the fresh fennel. Just how many bulbs did I need, that the method told me to slice? A quick internet search found me a near identical version, written slightly different to the one I had grabbed. Who copied whom I wonder? The panelists had also listed non-attributed recipes to the pet peeves, which I can totally understand (not looking at any gyoza recipe snatchers in the blogosphere!). I went with the Sydney Fish Market version (though there were other very similar ones online), jotted down a shopping list and headed off.

My selection criteria took into account that the key ingredients would be available at this time of year – it was simply onion, tomato, fennel and fish. It would be too frustrating to search for something obscure or way out of season. Also I was relatively confident that Blue Eye/Trevela would be available, after all what was the point of slavishly following a recipe if I substituted the star for the understudy on the opening night? I usually buy fish based on freshness and price. I bristled at searching for just one, quite pricey species. When using fillets – I usually point at the desired size but to honour the recipe I got the fishmonger to find pieces as close as possible to the prescribed 180 g each. The whole experience just kept reinforcing how much I prefer to devise a menu on what looks best on the day.

Later in the afternoon, an hour or two before starting to cook I thought it best to thoroughly scour the recipe again for cooking times and other such things. I noticed then that I had to source 3 cups of fish stock (the panellist’s second pet peeve), which fortunately I did have in the freezer. An unknown quantity of simple fish stock, made a couple of months earlier from flathead bones. I was pretty sure it would come very close to the desired amount, so I took it out to thaw. The other bonus was the small amount of white wine, meaning there was an excuse to open a bottle of sauv blanc on a ‘school night’. At this point I began thinking what sides it would need to make the meal complete. The recipe(s) suggested mash or crusty bread, both were possible.

So onto the cooking, could I actually do it? Two extremely minor transgressions. I sliced the fennel rather than dicing – I just couldn’t help myself. However as much as I desperately wanted to put in more than 2 cloves of garlic I managed to resist. The recipe called for ‘salt flakes’ but I used ground sea salt instead. The oven was up to speed, the potatoes were ready to mash - all set, the dish went in the oven for it’s 10 minutes of cooking. All there was to do was pour a glass of wine and set the table.

The verdict. Initially I thought it a little ordinary. But the poaching liquid – stock, wine, fennel, garlic and saffron, was perfectly balanced. The Significant Eater waxed lyrical saying it was delicious and that he wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Well, not a thing but maybe some leeks – Yes I agreed just what I had thought, next time leeks instead of onions, maybe a touch more garlic. Was 1/2 a teaspoon enough saffron…and we were off, back to our old tricks!

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5 Comments:

Anonymous glutenfreeforgood said...

Who wants to follow rules or color inside the lines, anyway? It's far more fun to play with your food. Just what I would expect from anotheroutspokenfemale!Nice post, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Take care,
Melissa

7:08 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Thanks Melissa. Just once I thought I should try to play INSIDE the square to see what happens! The other downside of using a non-adapted recipe is by it not becoming my own I have no right to reproduce it - hence the link. It is worth a click as it is a tasty dish - just can't wait to tweak it a little next time!

9:18 am  
Blogger stickyfingers said...

A few years back when I was pulling together a cook book, some recipes where sourced direct from restaurant chefs. None of them worked, most came without clear directions or measurements. We had to start from scratch with all of them and build something from the ruins of these recipes. The one thing about this book was that all recipes were to be fool proof in a home kitchen so that's how we tested them. Years later I noticed one in a new friend's kitchen and they proclaimed it to be the most reliable cook book in their collection - phew!

As for me - I only ever stick to a recipe when baking, and even then the intuition has a habit of kicking in. Especially when I'm using eggs from Farmers Markets that can vary in size and fresh butter from the Vic Market which is creamier.

1:12 am  
Blogger Lucy said...

Leeks - yes, they would make it subtler and sweeter. Love fennel in everything. It's frustrating being bound by the rules, isn't it?

I got quite a lot out of that session, but perhaps what I enjoyed most were the panellists themselves.

Might just try and follow a recipe myself this week. Shall let you know how I go!

7:45 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Lucy - Absolutely. I challenge all other intuitive cooks to "cook by the book" just once this week. Anyone else up for it?

Sticky - I was a very confident baker as a child and there wasn't anything I was afraid to tackle. I think I was one of those kids who liked rules and boundaries. My internal chemistry changed some time in my teens and I've never been the same since :) As for chefs. I'm sure I read a few years ago that of all the big name TV show chefs, Jamie Oliver's were the worst written.

8:16 am  

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