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.I'm not an experienced enough cook to say that there are dealbreakers for me--I'm still learning an awful lot of techniques. But I must say there are some technique accomplishments that I am awfully proud of:
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 away.
Whether for reasons practical or psychological, even the most experienced cooks have an ingredient, technique or phrase that will make them bypass a recipe.
1) Jam, jam, jam: This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who knows me, but in the past 5 years I've gone from someone who laboriously fretted over the exact ratio of fruit to sugar to pectin, to someone who can let her strawberry jam burn, and it still tastes good. (Maybe I shouldn't be proud of that!) While what Mom taught me is true--you need to be precise in jam making--it's also true that once you understand the proportions you can experiment at will. The only preserved food that I've made that didn't work was an unfortunate batch of grapefruit curd. I like lemons better anyway.
2) Custard: My dad's favorite dessert is trifle. And since he's so d*mn hard to shop for, one year I decided to make him a batch for his birthday as my present. I was terrified--what if the eggs cook? what if the cream curdles? what if it tastes horrid? Joy of Cooking (which really is more of a technique than recipe cook book anyway) helped me out with their detailed instructions, and it really was delicious.
3) Risotto: My first birthday in the working world (wihtout friends or family nearby), I was sick with the flu, and was completely miserable. As it happened, I had recently borrowed from the library Nigel Slater's excellent cookbook Appetite. Appetite is one of my favorite cookbooks, because it doesn't give recipies; it teaches techniques. Nowhere in the book will he say "use 1 cup of flour"--he doesn't even regularily give temperatures. Instead of telling you what to do he tells you how to do them. Thus, his "recipes" are wonderfully lucid, if you take the time to read them.
So, anyway, I was sick as a dog, and feeling sorry for myself, and I cracked open the pasta and rice section. In it there was a photograph of a rich creamy bowl of risotto, and I just had to make it. The technique was so well described and thoughtful that I never have to look at a "recipe" for risotto again. It was completely delicious--a real sucess--and remains one of my favorite comfort foods. Again, with mastery of the technique, it becomes endlessly adaptable to your tastes, ingredients in season or on hand.
4) Baking: I am a terrible baker. Really, just awful. I have no sense of consistensy, proportions, etc. But I can make three things very well: Popovers, Bicuits, and Nigella Lawson's Chocolate and Stout Cake, from her book Feast. I can make these three things well, and dependably. But that's about it, baking wise.
SO, those are my sucesses. What are yours?
(Photo Credits: 1, 2.)