Today I am inspired by the sauce I just ate. But I’ll get to that later. My story begins with a long standing conflict that I have with my lovely wife. Karen, in general, has the role of telling me what to cook. Left to my own lazy devices I’d just eat ramen noodles and hot dogs every night. Thus, Karen spends her time making up shopping lists and handing me recipes for the dishes that she’d like to have that week. Then I look at the recipes and make the food however I want. This causes a certain amount of friction.
In my defense, all I can say is that I do this because in my experience the recipe is almost always wrong in various ways.
Now, I am by no means some kind of cooking genius. I know how to cook a few fancy Chinese dishes handed down to me from my mom. I know a little bit about Italian food. I know how to put butter into the sauce at the end to give it that French Bistro richness. Everything else that I can do comes to me not from any sort of innate talent as much as a lot of rote practice over the last 20 years or so. If you go through the motions enough times, you get a feel for what will work and what will not. This is all I really bring to the table, so to speak. I have no deep universal culinary insights. I’m not as good as Remy in Ratatouille.
Having said that, when reading a recipe, keep these things in mind:
Never use raw “seasoning” vegetables as the base of a dish. If there are onions, carrots, celery, peppers or whatever, always saute them. Always beware of recipes that start with something like “take vegetables A, B and C, mix with meat D and dump this into a pot with water and turn the heat on”.
If you are sauteing something, season it. Don’t dump a pound of salt on everything. Just a small pinch of salt and pepper to get the taste out and into the food. Never put all the salt in at the end. What you have done then is just added salt to something that is tasteless. The recipe will never tell you to do this. But this is what you should do.
Don’t use plain water when you have stock and wine around. Whenever a recipe calls for water, I at least mix water and white wine. Ideally you’d use stock because you are presumably making a soup or something. But, the rigors of modern life often dictate that there isn’t an ample supply of fresh made stock around, and if you use the canned stuff I’d have to kill you.
Many food magazine recipes put in little foofy flourishes that might make sense in a restaurant, but are useless to you and I. If I’m just making dinner, I don’t bother with garnishes, colored sauces on top of the soup, multiple blender stages with some of the beans but not others, and so on. I try to streamline things to be more convenient.
There is no meat stew on earth that takes less than two hours to cook. Don’t believe the recipe when it tells you to simmer the meat for 45 minutes and then claims that it will be tender. These people are lying to you.
Be wary of instructions that tell you to cook thick pieces of food in a frying pan. What they almost always really want you to do is finish the damn thing in the oven.
If the recipe calls for more than about 20 minutes of total prep work and the result is no fancier than a piece of fish on a plate, or a nice stew or something, they have done something wrong. If you have the right stuff in your kitchen, there is very little that you can’t do in 20 minutes, not counting things like simmering time. After all, that’s how long you wait for even the fanciest dish at a nice sit down restaurant where they make everything to order.
Finally, the best way to learn how to make a certain dish is to go over to someone’s house and watch their mom do it. This is the one universal culinary truth that I will offer up. Which brings me back to the sauce.
I wrote down a recipe for a tomato sauce that I made sometime a while back, and made the regrettable mistake of mentioning that I thickened it with the old Chinese corn starch and water trick. I know for a fact that this horrified many of our readers. All I can say is I wish I hadn’t written it down, and I didn’t mean for people to think that I do this on a routine basis. I was in a hurry and I got desperate.
Anyway, last night a good friend sent us home with some proper red sauce and meatballs, which inspired me to formally apologize for my little gaffe from before. With any luck, I’ll be able to go over to their house and watch them make the stuff so I can do it right in the future. Without the corn starch. Sorry about that.