Veggie of the Week - Tyranny of the Recipe
sponsored by Coleman Farms
In more traditional cookbooks recipes for something requiring a lot of stirring - jam, pudding or polenta, say - will often specify 'stirr with a wooden spoon'. Why wooden?. Wood holds on to tastes and smells - do you want even the suspicion that your strawberry jam is going to share something with ham gravy or Madras curry? - and wooden cooking spoons typically have awkward dowelly handles, to my mind cancelling any advantage gained from wood's low heat conductivity. After wondering about this for a number of years, I got the answer from a retired French chef: wood won't damage the tin lining your copper pans. The last mention of copper cookware in my family that I know of was over a hundred years ago. How many people do you know with a copper batterie de cuisine?
That a no longer relevant instruction has been passed without question from one generation of cookbooks to the next is an indication that recipes have achieved something of the status of sacred texts. As with sacred texts, provided you consult recipes at all, there are two polar approaches to their use: follow them in the minutest detail, even when you don't understand why, because you believe this is the way to get the right result, or study them to abstract guidance and techniques which you hope will carry you through difficult encounters in life or in the kitchen.
It's possible to adopt a position somewhere between these poles, of course, which is what many cooks do, depending on the extent of their experience either in general or with some particular sort of dish. But a lot of cooks, even experienced ones, often treat recipes as inviolable. We see this at the market, where customers will wander all over looking for a particular, and even fairly minor, ingredient - an herb, perhaps - because it's in the ingredients list of a recipe they have in their hand. If they can't find tarragon, they'll have to change their dinner plans.
In any case, following a recipe is no guarantee of culinary success: you can follow one and end up with a mess, or ignore one and have a delicious outcome. Recipes may look well-defined and complete, but generally they leave a lot out, matters of technique and judgement, the variability of raw ingredients, the mood of the cook. That cookbooks often present cooking as an algorithmic activity can result in huge disappointment for the novice cook who, after following a long list of instructions, is left with a kitchen full of dirty pots and pans, and a dish that looks and tastes nothing like the description in the cookbook.
Very little cooking requires exact adherence to a recipe: only certain sauces and confiserie depend critically on precise measurement and method and order of assembly and other details of preparation. There are good reasons for following recipes, such as establishing a baseline for a new dish or practicing a particular technique of preparation or decoration. But there are probably more reasons to let go: to save time, to use up spare ingredients, to see what happens if you change something. This is one way new dishes come into being. And if you can't find a particular ingredient, substitute: if you substitute mint, marjoram and a bit of anise for tarragon, your kitchen won't be struck by a thunderbolt.
But I once had a customer who was shopping for his wife. There was something on her list he couldn't find, and he was sure she would accept no substitutes. "Ah", I said, "the tyranny of the recipe". "No", he replied, "the tyranny of the preconception."
thanks to Hans Holbein and Alfred A. Knopf for our illustration