Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Problems with recipe books.

I really like recipe books. Lots of people do. I can sit and read them, though I suspect this actually causes me to put on weight. But more people buy them and read them than actually try to make the food they describe. If you have more than a couple of recipe books, and have tried very many of the recipes, you will have encountered one or more of the following problems.
  • Photographs that are nothing like the result you get.
  • Ingredients hardly anyone sells.
  • Ingredients that have not been manufactured for years.
  • Disgusting ingredients.
  • Items missing from the ingredients list but in the method.
  • Items in the ingredients list that are not used in the method.
  • Incomprehensible procedures, and obscure terminology.
  • Steps missing from the method.
  • Preparatory steps part way through the method.
  • Method that is just a solid chunk of text.
  • Ludicrous measurements.

Photographs that are nothing like the result you get.

One of the causes of this is that recipe books often have really terrific photography, which takes time. So the food is actually photographed cold, which stops the picture being blurred by steam. And the photographer often constructs a beautiful composition by arranging the food carefully, which is easier if it is very undercooked. I don't know if this Phoenix Cold Meat Combination was actually constructed by the photographer or the cook. Either way, it looks wonderful, would probably taste very good, and would be far too much like hard work unless you were trying to impress someone.

Ingredients hardly anyone sells.

That delicious-looking phoenix contains a small amount of abalone. If you want that, you are going to have to go to your favourite Chinese Supermarket. They will have it in tins, but it's less edible than fresh abalone, according to my favourite Chinese cookery book. It costs a fortune, and you will have most of the tin left over. Do you have a recipe that requires three quarters of a tin of left over abalone? Nor do I.

Ingredients that have not been manufactured for years.

When we lived in Hong Kong, in the early 1960's, we used to buy Daw Sen curry paste, because it was really good. I have been searching for it for the last five years, in every oriental supermarket I have visited, and on the Internet. (This was written over twenty years ago, and I still have not seen any.) I know how to search, and I know how to look at jars in shops. So it is understandable that I become irritated when I see recipes on the web that tell me to use Daw Sen curry paste, because it is so good. Like this one, for instance, quoted from a tediously Messianic vegetarian web site-
This is an excellent winter dish. It has all the flavor of a long-cooked stew, but is quick to make. The Chinese generally use an oil-based curry paste ( Daw Sen brand from Calcutta is good), which can be found in most Asian grocery stores, but a good-quality curry powder will do.
So I asked Bryanna if she really knew where it could be bought, and the reply was an airy "oh, just look in any oriental supermarket". I politely replied that I had looked, and all my messages vanished from their web site. New ones I send don't appear.

The fact is that these people have copied their recipes from somewhere else (probably "Recipe Hound", who also mentions Daw Sen curry paste) without bothering to see if the ingredients are actually available. They have never cooked the recipe themselves, they are only interested in selling their faddy diets to misguided vegetarians in order to make large sums of money. Well, their web sites are long gone, but I'm just getting started...

Disgusting ingredients.

I am reasonably sure I will never want to cook any recipe that contains a "Hershey Bar" or a "Twinkie", even if I accidentally find out what those things are.

Items missing from the ingredients but in the method.

This is absolutely infuriating. And it is always something you don't have in the house.

Items in the ingredients that are not used in the method.

This is also quite annoying. At least you now have some of the ingredient in the house. I hope it wasn't abalone.

Incomprehensible procedures, and obscure terminology.

I know, we all have to learn some time, and then the terminology is no longer obscure. If we are truly committed to this noble art, we must be prepared to learn how to spatch-cock small creatures. Except abalone. But it is annoying to have to stop cooking your steak and find out how to de-glaze the pan.

Steps missing from the method.

What on Earth am I supposed to do with this abalone...

Preparatory steps part way through the method section.

This one is a real pain. Having to stop cooking, take the octopus outside, and whack it against the wall for an hour to tenderise it before you can continue is fairly irritating. When you find out that you must then marinate the octopus for three days, you may wish to tenderise the author.

Method that is just a solid chunk of text.

The author cannot be bothered to make things easier for you with a clear layout. Numbered steps would have been a start. Increasingly, recipe books are "step by step". Mostly they have four photographs, each with some text underneath. Perhaps some day they will use a sufficiently large number of small steps...

Ludicrous measurements.

I know most American recipe books use cups as the only way to measure things, and I don't mean to offend the authors very much, but how big is a cup? Also, let us not even talk about recipes where some things are measured in "cups", unless everything in the recipe is in the same units. Then we can at least determine the volumes of the various ingredients by ratio.

Also, let us calmly throw away recipes that say silly things like "three tablespoons of butter". Would that be level, heaped or a big block of butter balanced on the spoon? How big is a tablespoon? We have several sizes.

Mixing pounds, grams, cups and tablespoons in a recipe? Hanging is too good for 'em.

So what do I suggest?

I had been re-writing some of my favourite Chinese recipes using a format of my own devising, twenty years ago, intending to use them on some recipe pages. I devised the format when I was trying to write a book with the working title "How to Cook Like a Computer Programmer". It never got finished, and I have some doubts about whether it would ever have been accepted by a publisher.

The basis of the format is the TV cooks' ready prepared containers of ingredients, but I found it just wasn't general enough for every recipe you might want to cook. However, it did work well for most Chinese food, where many (but by no means all) dishes are cooked rapidly from carefully prepared ingredients.

You need a number of containers. Cleaned yoghourt pots are acceptable, but lots of small plastic food containers or glass dishes will be easier to maintain in the long run.

The ingredient list is pretty much the same as everyone else's, except that I organised it according to which pot the ingredient went in.

The preparation proceeded in a number of discrete steps, each of which resulted in a prepared container of food. These can include cooking steps.

Finally, the containers are all combined during the cooking process, using a method much like the other recipes have.

Sometimes, you have things in your cupboard that no recipe requires...

I was given this tin by my brother Stephen. Eventually, I ate the contents. If you see a tin like this, you might wonder what the contents taste like. I am unable to describe them. They were drier than I expected, and less piquant than I had hoped.

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