Tuesday, March 27, 2012

How to write a recipe..or perhaps, how not to write a recipe

It has occasionally been brought to my attention that my recipes are not particularly detailed, precise or instructional. I'll say 'a few glugs of oil'; or 'get into a hot oven for a while'' or 'chop into spirited chunks'; or 'liberally grate some nutmeg'. I often wonder what is the best approach to writing a recipe.

Well, on the topic, I have blogged about Sanagans Meat locker in the past (here, here and here), well I just discovered they actually have their own blog which I assume, is written by Peter Sanagan himself. And although sparsely updated, it contain a small, albeit rich, collection of butcher's recipes. They are written like my recipes: no measurements, no cooking times, just ingredients, actions, emotions, articulations and meandering streams of gastronomic consciousness.  For example, there is a recipe for Pork Head Terrine:

Brine the head overnight in salt, maple syrup, cloves, cinnamon, juniper, garlic and water. The next day poach it in a court bouillon. Once cooked, cool in the liquid. Using your hands, strip all of the meat from the head. Slice the ears. Put every thing in a terrine mold and strain the liquid over the meat. Refrigerate. After it sets, unmold, and slice portions. Plate with a small salad of frisee dressed with grainy mustard. Serve with hot grilled bread and a pot of mayonnaise mixed with lots of chopped capers, gherkins, parsley, chives and mustard.

This recipe absolutely speaks to me. I don't need anymore information than that which is presented. There is a real economy of words in this writing. I like recipes that are written this way because it allows me to simply acknowledge the logic of the combined ingredients and flavours; which things go with other things so to speak. There is also so much more information between the lines that you don't see. For example, for the brine - there are no measurements. However, I have a plethora of recipes for brine in my cookery library. I also know that between 4 and 6 percent salt to water is pretty good for a brine. Everything else, just eyeball it. Cook by feeling your way through it. What about the statement 'once cooked'? How long would that take? Well, I've braised plenty of things before (although never a whole hog's head), but I'm willing to guess it is cooked when it is very tender. This will require hours not minutes. What more do you need to know? If braising something large, set aside a day that will allow you to wander into the kitchen periodically and check on what ever is bubbling away in the oven.  The house will fill with the beautiful and heady aroma of  bay leaf and slowly liquefying animal gelatin. That's my kind of day.

When someone who cooks this way writes a cookbook, they sometimes will run into problems. Take for example, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Meat Book. This book is a tome...a bible of all things meat. It is so much more than a cook book. However, if a novice chef were to cook his paprikash of hearts and tongues, they would discover that two hours of cooking is not even close to the time required to create a tender braise. Same goes for his roast pork belly. I have roasted pork belly plenty of times, and I am aware that ovens differ, pigs differ and so on, however, to make it tender, one must cook it about three times longer than Hugh indicates in his book. Particular to this cookbook, is that about 50 percent of the text is not dedicated to recipes, but the generalities of roasting, braising, grilling etc. The method itself is so much larger than any single recipe. But then again, I knew that. So in a sense, I almost wish he would instruct the reader to simply "cook it till it's tender". Hugh's approach to cooking is very intuitive and instinctual, I think, a little like my approach. If I were ever to write a cook book (a fanciful thought), I'm afraid I would probably stick to the method I'm using. I mean, really, is some novice cook going to have a go at a pig's head terrine or a braised lamb heart? Not likely. So I would write these recipes for people that already have a lot of braises under their belt. It's so much more enjoyable to read! (And trust me, I take cook books to bed with me for my evening reading, right now I'm working my way through one of Rick Stein's enormous seafood cookery books).

..and yet there are times an authority is required. For example, if I want to make a really good stock, I will turn to the masters such as Thomas Keller. His French Laundry cookbook is quite precise, but then again, it is his technique that I pay the most attention to - straining multiple times, skimming, using the freezer as a tool as opposed to simply a storage place. Similarly, Hesten Blumenthal is all about precision, although there are times his precision appears to be more to invoke incredulity than actual results. I have cheated and cut corners on many of his steps and ended up with a product that was nevertheless, superlative.

Pig's Trotter Pierre Koffman

In Marco Pierre White's classic 1990 cook book, White Heat, he has a recipe for Pig's Trotter Pierre Koffman, which is a pig's trotter, completely boned out (no small technical feat), braised delicately until it achieves a beautiful mahogany colour, then stuffed with morel mushrooms chicken mousse and veal sweetbreads, stitched up and finished by gentle roasting. It is served with pureed potatoes, sauteed morel mushrooms and a jus made from the braising liquid and veal stock.  It is a two day process to a make this dish; a real nouvelle cuisine classic of the late 1980's and one that MPW says is his favourite. Now, how difficult would it be to work one's way through this dish without a recipe? Well, someone did: Pierre Koffman, the chef who invented the dish. The written recipe always comes AFTER the creation of the dish, so if anything, that very notion should be enough to boost the confidence of anyone who is afraid to cook 'freestyle'.

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