What is a recipe?

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You’ll be pleased to hear that the Ham and Cheese Strata turned out well and our guests sent the plates back to the kitchen clean! It also gave me a chance to use small quantities of food in the fridge that alone were not sufficient for a single serving. A strata, quiche, frittata, or casserole is a great way to use up “odds and ends” in the fridge, stretch your grocery budget, and turn out dishes that your family will enjoy. Easy on the cook as well!

Today we are going to try to determine “what is a recipe.” I am in total agreement with what Mark Bittman (author of multiple books and a weekly column The Minimalist in the New York Times) said in the March 2011 issue of Better Homes and Gardens, “I sometimes joke that there are only nine recipes in the world. But there’s a lot of truth to that. At some point I realized that the same patterns crop up over and over again.You can apply these flavor patterns to almost anything. It’s like multiplication: not hard at all once you learn it.”  I was so pleased to read this confirmation of what I have observed over the years, cooking in different regions around the country and trying various new international recipes.

We all know a recipe contains pretty standard stuff; ingredients and instructions on how to prepare.  But how did all of this get started? One of the funniest stories that circulates in the South tells the following:  Several generations of cooks were working in the kitchen at a family reunion (you know how we Southerners love to eat – any excuse is a good one to cook) and were discussing how to properly cook the full ham as one of their relatives prepared it. The major point of contention was to cut, or not cut off, the bone end of the ham.  So, one of the younger cooks went in and asked the great grandmother why she always cut the bone end off.  Her reply – “it wouldn’t fit in the only pan I had to cook it in.”  Tradition or maybe just lack of communication, but either way it demonstrates how recipes evolve.

Good, experienced cooks rarely prepare a dish exactly by a documented recipe. So when a younger and less experienced cook needs to know how, then the “writing and documenting” begins. That younger cook takes the recipe, makes it a few times as written and then starts experimenting and comes up with a different version which in turn is passed on and most probably the whole process is repeated again.

This blog began because of a similar instance. Barb requested a recipe from me for our blueberry pecan waffles I had served to some of our guests. One of those guests wanted the recipe, and had asked for it on Facebook.  I just giggled when I sent Barb a note and said, “Good Lord, it’s just my everyday waffle batter and I had a handful of left over toasted pecans and just a few fresh blueberries, so I just tossed it all into the batter and spiced it up a bit with some ground nutmeg!”

Now that we know a recipe is just a guide to get started, let’s see how we can take a very simple thing and expand upon it.

For example, let’s take something simple like a grapefruit. It is probably one of the most universally either liked or disliked citrus fruits and it is so good for you. Now, what would you do with it?

Cut it in half and serve it. Section it and serve the sections in a mixed citrus fruit cup? Add the sections to a fruit salad? Juice it. Yep, all of that works! But what if you kick in your imagination and don’t limit your creativity. How many different things could you do with that simple little grapefruit?

How can you make it a great brunch dish or a first course for a nice breakfast? What if you add a small sliver of butter to the center, mixed up some light brown sugar, a little ground cinnamon and nutmeg, sprinkled it on top, and run the fruit under a pre heated broiler. Now you have a brûléed or broiled grapefruit, warm, very juicy, with a slightly crunchy sugar topping. Serve it with a big fat plump raspberry in the center with a mint leaf and cinnamon raisin toast points.

Anyone got another idea? Can we use it for lunch or dinner? What if we use the juice as a basis for a white balsamic or champagne vinegar dressing, mixing with some good olive oil, fresh black pepper, a little water, and some honey? Use a small Bibb or Buttercrunch lettuce, spread out the leaves, tuck in the grapefruit sections, sprinkle with some fresh finely chopped green onions and drizzle the dressing and top with some candied pecans.

How about a side dish for dinner? Come on, I need some help here!  What if we add some of the chopped sections to cooked and pureed sweet potato flesh along with some butter, a little cream, a grating of the grapefruit skin, a spoon full of brown sugar, and for some fun add a teaspoon or so of adobe sauce from a can of chipotle peppers. Puree until smooth, adjust taste with salt and pepper. Then fill small 1 cup ramekins, top with some brown sugar and broil for a crunch top. Guaranteed the kids will even eat this as it has a slight Southwestern kick to it.

Or, go for a stretch – how about making candy out of it? What if you take a potato peeler and peel off the yellow skin, being careful not to include any of the white “pithy” material under the skin.  Slice these thin yellow peels into slivers, boil in plain water, drain, and then cook in a simple sugar syrup with some fresh ginger until they become soft. Drain, toss in granulated sugar and spread out on a cookie sheet to dry. Presto, some fabulous candied ginger flavored citrus peel that is divine with a good cup of tea or coffee. It can also be chopped and sprinkled on cereal and even certain salads.

So by now I think you have the idea and can see how over years and passing recipes around just how a “favorite” recipe is born. It is pretty obvious that most people just sit don’t around and dream up ingredients and procedures to write down and pass on to friends and family?  I am convinced that is how most recipes evolve.  Next time you might add another ingredient, or cook the dish just a bit differently, so we are all constantly modifying what we cook.  And goodness, what happens when we don’t have an ingredient that is called for?  What can we substitute? Creativity, this is when you know you have really begun to be a “cook!”

And last but not least, what about those persnickety people that say “oh so sorry, I just don’t share my recipes?” Yes, there are still some of those out there. Perhaps they are technology challenged and do not know how prolific and populated the internet is with good “recipes.”  If you don’t believe what I have been saying in this blog, just go Google any recipe and see how many different versions of the same thing you will have returned on your search! AMAZING!!

I will without any reservations tell you that if I put 6 of you in the kitchen at Stonehurst Place, using the same recipe, the same ingredients, the same equipment, and the same appliances, I will get 6 different products. Some call it the “hand” in cooking, as in “she has a heavy hand with the salt shaker,” or “he works the bread dough as if it is part of him; he instinctively knows when it has been kneaded sufficiently.” The end product will be similar, but each will taste slightly different and sometimes even significantly different. I wonder if the chemicals in our own bodies do not affect a dish when we handle the ingredients.

So to close out this epistle, we are blessed in this country to have such an abundance of fresh, good, and healthy food ingredients. Each of you has the ability to use your imagination, the internet, old cookbooks, and any other source that inspires you. Please do not insult yourself by telling me or anyone else “I cannot think of a thing to cook.”  Go try a new spice or herb you have never used before. Try having breakfast for dinner.

Next time we talk about how to use what is in the fridge or pantry to create a dish, instead of using a recipe that calls for ingredients you may or may not have on hand and means another trip to the store and another bite out of your budget.

Caroline

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