Aug 19, 2011

How do you approach a new recipe?

Cooking is not difficult.

Seriously, it isn't.  If you can read and follow directions, you can cook a lot of stuff.  Unless you're eating a steady diet of junk food - or at the opposite end of the spectrum - gourmet meals prepared by top chefs every night, it's probably a safe bet that more than half the foods you enjoy eating are easily cooked by anyone willing to take a stab at the task.

But choosing how to approach cooking...there's where people tend to divide into camps.

Camp A:  Recipe followers.

Before Martha Stewart,
there was Marion Powers
You know who you are.

We know who you are.

Ever since you mastered the basic motor skills, you've always colored inside the lines and you were the kid that actually read test directions in school before lifting a pencil.

You probably heed speed limit signs, too.  No white shoes or handbags for you, unless it's between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Precision, order, logic and organization are  your guideposts, yes?

Domestic perfection
Before you cook, the recipe is reviewed, ingredients are lined up and measured, equipment is at the ready.  No surprises, no substitutions, no scrambling.

Your dishes turn out according to plan, every time.

Sometimes I am in your camp.  If I try (and like!) a food and the cook shares the recipe, I know what to expect, and I tend to follow it faithfully (at least the first time through.)

I tend to follow my own tried-and-true recipes, too.  Why mess with success?

However, even the most precise execution of a recipe can fall flat if the recipe is faulty.  And cookbooks and internet sites are full of recipes that do not live up to their billing.

Which brings me to the second camp.

Camp B:  Culinary renegades.

Oh snap.  Can I make it without eggs?
Your byline is "we don't need no stinkin' recipes."  Impromptu cooking is your forte.  (Which is pronounced "fort," not "for-tay, just in case you care about those things.)  You are committed to creativity and the pursuit of excellence, even if it means you wind up with some epic failures, too.

I confess I often fall in this camp, but I hedge my bets. When I want to cook a food I've eaten but don't have a recipe for, Google becomes my BFF.  A little cooking experience helps out here - you kind of know what ingredients will yield a certain texture or flavor, so you can narrow your search down to recipes that are likely to give you the desired results.

No use crying over spilled milk!
Since recipes are like opinions (nearly everyone has one), I try to narrow my results down to two or three variations and take a little from this recipe and a little from that. I ain't skeered - that's part of the cooking adventure.

And never forget, you can't spell misadventure without adventure.  Risk-taking means sometimes you achieve greatness. Other times it can be summed up in a single-word tweet:  fail.

Between the two camps lies a neutral DMZ. Sometimes the results aren't spectacular but they aren't inedible.  A learning curve just needed to be scaled and a second attempt will yield much better results.

A lot of my cooking falls into this zone: the first time through is passable, but it leaves room for improvement.  Thankfully my family overlooks the disasters, grins-and-bears-it when I test-drive a new 'un on them, and they celebrate the triumphs with accolades.

Take my last week's squash casserole attempt, for example.  One recipe sounded promising, but used only yellow squash and was heavy on the mayonnaise.  Other recipes used a combination of yellow squash and zucchini (which is what I had on hand), and sour cream, hold the mayo.

My experience has been that sour cream and mayonnaise work pretty well together in this genre of food (think poppy seed chicken, hot chicken salad, etc.)

And another recipe had a tip for cooking the squash and squeezing out the excess moisture, which sounded good to me.  My one and only objection to a lot of otherwise good squash casseroles is encountering watery, warm squash.  Blech.

So I picked and chose from all three recipes, creating my own amalgamation (now there's another fun word to use on your friends.)

It was mostly successful.  Next time I will probably dice them a little finer and cook them a tad bit longer before mixing them together.  And add a little more cheese and dairy to the whole shebang.   If I can get it perfected, I'll post it for you to try.  And tinker with to suit you.  Because that's what makes cooking fun, and why there are a gazillion recipes out there - everybody adds their own little somethin' somethin' to make it their own.

Happy creating!