Cindy - Column for 4/12

Evil Cookbook Tricks

So, I've been cooking a bit more lately, which means I've been reading through a lot of cookbooks. I love cookbooks, I really do. But like all things you love, you eventually start to notice certain bad habits they exhibit.

The virtually nonexistent ingredient.

I suppose it's got to be difficult writing cookbooks. You have a handful of truly great recipes and several more decent, if not phenomenal, recipes -- but since you want to maximize the monetary return on your knowledge, you don't want to blow your entire wad on ONE cookbook. Why put your three most kick-ass, must-have recipes in one cookbook for $19.95, when you can spread them across three separate volumes? So you need padding. Lots of padding. If the "padding" recipes taste bad, though, people might try them and decide not to purchase your future volumes. The secret: include recipes that no one will ever make because they revolve entirely around ingredients that no one can find. Make them sound delicious, but make them require Kaffir lime leaves, pink juniper berries, and Mieu Liu Chieu rosewater liqueur. If readers try to make these dishes with substitutes, and the results are awful, they'll think it's their OWN fault.

The twenty-seven part ingredient.

These recipes look simple. They're about half a paragraph long, and have four ingredients: 1 lemon. 2 tsp. cornstarch. 2 lobsters thermidor. 2 sprigs fresh parsley. So you leave yourself a half an hour to throw it together, and end up swearing a lot and going to Burger King. If your involvement with an ingredient includes more than "chopped", "peeled", "diced", or "sliced thin", it is PART OF THE RECIPE. Include its preparation as a step, you bastards.

The clearly-never-been-tested recipe.

Sometimes it becomes obvious that no one ever really tried this recipe before. It's filled with lovely ingredients that should go together, only combining them in the described manner is either physically impossible or creates something inedible. Maybe the author made something like this at one time, but eyeballed all the quantities and made half as much as she's asking you to -- and the liquid content is off by so much it turns into a soupy, flavorless mess or an unrecognizable charred lump that's still, somehow, raw in the middle. Low-fat and non-fat recipes are particularly guilty of this, because they generally just swap out good ingredients with fat-free substitutes on the theory that they'll work the same way on the stove. Besides, if the recipes worked and tasted good, the people who wrote low-fat cookbooks would be straight out of a job, now wouldn't they?

Gratuitous food snobbery.

Sometimes there aren't substitutes for fresh, ripe, carefully chosen ingredients. I make one pasta sauce that's essentially just fresh tomatoes, an onion and butter, and it's fantastic. Making the same dish with canned tomatoes, or even poor quality tomatoes, just isn't the same. It isn't bad, but it tastes so different it's not even the same sauce. Then again, I'll also read recipes that call for half a cup of "fresh, ripe, peeled tomatoes" (read: a special trip to the store and 15 minutes additional work) mixed in with 8 cups of heavily spiced, deeply aromatic other ingredients. Why not save a little time and just open a can? Because the authors are evil yuppies with too much free time. When labor or money saving shortcuts won't make a tangible difference in the end result, LET ME KNOW. I try to follow recipes exactly the first time I make something, and if it takes me three hours to make something that could have taken 45 minutes, all I remember is "tasted good, but not worth the fucking work."

The "I'm in Love with Me" Cookbook.

Some cookbooks include little charming "pre-recipe" monologues. Sometimes they provide directly useful information, such as "this works well as a side dish with a roasted lamb entree, or can be a centerpiece when complimented with a roasted red pepper salad and smoked eggplant." Other times, it's interesting but not vital information about the dish's origin, or how popular it is in its native country. Keep reading through modern cookbooks, though, and personal stories about how this dish was invented turn into the charming spat the author had with her husband while testing this dish. Then how this other recipe helped emotionally sustain the author during her divorce proceedings. Eventually, you'll end up reading so much about the author you'll wonder if she didn't just stick some recipes in the middle of her diary so she could justify publishing it.

The hopelessly vague recipe.

These are terribly cute to read, but are really just the cook's vague notes about how they usually make a particular dish. "Put in whatever vegetables are in season, roughly chopped with half an onion or so, moisten with just enough wine to cover, toss in a few handfuls of oxtail..." Oh, thanks. Give me examples of vegetable combinations, how many oxtails to buy, and if I'm adding wine "to cover" tell me what color and whether I'm using a sautee pan or a stock pot, ok? The idea behind recipes is to pass along some SPECIFIC knowledge about techniques and ingredients that go well together. Not to show off how laid back and European you are about the culinary arts.

Columns by Cindy