Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Recipe Deal Breakers

I read this article from the New York Times and had to share it. I read cookbooks for fun. I collect recipes in numbers that I could never cook unless I lived 500 lifestimes. What makes me choose one recipe over another? Well, this article has a few of the answers.


NY Times

June 4, 2008
Recipe Deal Breakers: When Step 2 Is 'Corral Pig'

I was reading a recipe for apple strudel when I came to a sentence that
stopped me cold: "If you don't have a helper," it began.

If a dish needs a helper, I need to move on.

Although I didn't end up with a strudel, I did end up on a quest. I
began asking good cooks I know about recipe deal breakers - those
ingredients or instructions that make them throw down the whisk and walk

Whether for reasons practical or psychological, even the most
experienced cooks have an ingredient, technique or phrase that will make
them bypass a recipe.

Some deal breakers are simply a function of place. People in small New
York apartments don't execute recipes that require well-ventilated
spaces. They rarely char peppers or broil salmon, lest the apartment
stink for days. They rarely deep-fry.

"Not because of health reasons," said one adventurous cook who divides
his time between kitchens in Manhattan and Fire Island. "But because
it's messy, requires disposing of lots of oil afterward, and is a pain
to get the temperature right."

Recipes that involve absurdly local or obscure ingredients are also
problematic. Paula Wolfert, in one recipe, requires 48 tender young
grapevine leaves, freshly picked. Diana Kennedy, in her recipe for the
Mexican sausage moronga, calls for two quarts of pig's blood. "If you do
not kill your own pig," she advises, "order it through your butcher."

Melissa Steineger, a good cook I know in Portland, was long a slave to
such recipe tyranny. It started with the Coyote Cafe cookbook from the
Southwestern chef Mark Miller. She recalls recipes that required
ingredients like "wild boar from the hills surrounding Santa Fe." They
went unmade until her cooking skills improved and she had an epiphany:
she could substitute.

"That freed me," she said.

Beyond place, general fussiness is a common deal breaker: stuffing an
olive, for example, or cutting vegetables into precise shapes like

The chef Thomas Keller is the modern king of the fussy recipes. His
books are stacked with one deal breaker after another. To make his
cornets filled with salmon tartare and crème fraîche, one must first
figure out how to make "a 4-inch hollow circular stencil." Then the cook
must balance a baking sheet on the open door of a hot oven and set the
tips of cornet molds on par-baked circles of batter at the 7 o'clock
position before rolling.

These are the kinds of instructions that make people open a box of
brownie mix and call it a day.

Other deal breakers are techniques. "I won't truss," one friend said,
"and I won't lard."

Anything that requires long sessions pounding food in a mortar or
forcing something through a sieve stops Fran Gage, the San Francisco
pastry chef and author. "Not that I won't try the recipe," she said,
"but I'll read it carefully to see if I can use a machine instead."

Others avoid recipes that require wearing rubber gloves, handling
something carefully with tongs or removing all jewelry before proceeding.

"Serves 18" gives some pause. Others won't make anything that varies
with the weather, like a meringue recipe that cautions against trying it
on a humid or rainy day. The recipe within a recipe can be a deal
breaker, especially if the minor player needs to be made days ahead of time.

Unusual equipment is a common deal breaker, too. How many times has a
couscous recipe been cast aside because there is no couscousière in the

Cindy Burke, a friend and food writer from Seattle, usually enjoys any
excuse to buy another pan. But she found her deal breaker when she read
the recipe for a honey-glazed beehive cake on the cover of the June
issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine. The perfect pan for the job,
according to a note in the back of the magazine, is an out-of-production
Martha by Mail version occasionally available on eBay. (An alternative
from Nordic Ware was on backorder this week.)

And then there are the irrational deal breakers. People who might find
dishes like Richard Olney's mousseline forcemeat an intriguing kitchen
romp have outsize reactions to certain phrases or techniques for reasons
they can't articulate.

"Working quickly" may be simply too anxiety-producing, especially when
combined with "before it hardens." Others fear recipes involving a candy
thermometer or ones that take food to the brink of burning, like caramel
or a roux.

People shy away from recipes that require split-second timing to assure
culinary success with expensive ingredients. The word "just" is often
involved, as in "cook the scallop just until it turns opaque."

And then there are the specific foods that have scarred a cook for life.
One friend's most humiliating culinary failures have involved sheet
gelatin, so she shuns recipes with gelatin. Barbara Fairchild, the
editor in chief of Bon Appétit magazine, avoids pie recipes. Years ago,
as a new bride, she was to make the Thanksgiving pies for her
s dinner. She botched the crust completely.

"It's really hard to sit down and make a pie because I flash back to 25
years ago," she said. "It's a total phobia."

For the recipe writer, finding the fine line between a deal breaker and
an important technique or ingredient can be difficult. Arthur Schwartz,
the Brooklyn-based food writer, is working on a new book on the food of
southern Italy. His conundrum: whether a recipe should call for
filleting fresh anchovies, a task he says is nearly impossible to do
well (unless you're Sicilian, presumably).

As an author, he believes they are an essential ingredient for an
authentic recipe. But as a cook? " 'Fillet and butterfly 12 4-inch fresh
anchovies' is an instruction that would stop me dead," he said.

The question of how far is too far is often pondered in the test
kitchens of Gourmet, which built its reputation on recipes that took all
weekend and a small bank loan to produce.

Kemp Minifie, the magazine's executive food editor and a 30-year veteran
of the magazine, had sympathy for my dislike of recipes that demand
helpers. She recalled a stuffed squash blossom that required one person
to blow into the flower while the other stuffed it with the contents of
a pastry bag.

The recipe didn't run in the magazine. Nor do ones that call for glove
boning, which is a way to turn a bird inside out to bone it without
cutting into the skin.

"It's a marvelous technique, but who is going to do that?" Ms. Minifie

And then there was the British chef who gave the magazine his recipe for
slow-baked salmon with a sauce of cream and Avruga, a smoked herring
roe. Within the recipe was another recipe for making fleur de sel from
buckets of seawater.

"That," she said, "was one of those rolled-eyeball moments."

The magazine did print the salmon recipe. It called for store-bought salt.

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