Wednesday 1 August 2007

How hard is it to write a clear recipe?

I'm pernickety about the way recipes are written (everyone has a monkey, right?).  Is it too much to ask that cookery writers measure things accurately, give clear instructions and, occasionally, test the recipe before they send it to print?

I can't tell you the number of times I've eagerly rushed out to buy expensive ingredients, and then had to throw everything away because a recipe writer has omitted an ingredient, given a wrong measurement, or failed to mention some some vital step in the cooking process.

Look, I'm not saying my recipes are perfect, but at least I've actually made them, and accurately measured the ingredients, in a rounded-off and sensible form. I recently came across a recipe that called for 47 ml of crushed garlic, and another that wanted 58 g of sugar. Fine if you have a microscopic measuring spoons or a digital scale, but useless for home cooks.

I was freshly annoyed reading a soup recipe in The Times yesterday ('An easy soup for TV night'). Like so many of the recipes in The Times, it's lousy. It's badly edited, ungrammatical, vague, and contains no seasoning at all. (In fact, most of the recipes published in The Times specify neither salt or pepper in the ingredients list.) The recipe calls for a total of one litre of liquid for a soup to serve six people. Even making allowance for the 600 g of leeks and potatoes, each slurper of this soup would end up with a serving of around 180 ml each - that's a teacup!

And what's this 'allow to cook off' nonsense? What's wrong with just saying 'simmer until tender'? Why are the ingredients not listed in order of use? Why's 'sauté' got an accent on the e, but not 'puree'?

It seems to me that the cleverer and more creative the cook or chef, the sloppier their recipes are. I wouldn't dream of mentioning names here, but Braam Kruger, who writes in The Weekender, springs to mind. I can forgive Braam's disorganised recipes because he writes so knowledgeably about food, but I would like The Times to pull up its stocks. (How about smaller photographs and headlines, and interesting, new recipes that are tested, precise and unambigious?) I suggest that the people who choose the recipes for The Times take a good look at the fastidious, well-tested and original recipes of brilliant non-cheffy home cooks like Lynn Bedford-Hall, Hilary Biller (Angela Day), Ina Paarman, Carmen Niehaus and Phillippa Cheifitz.

Here's what I expect of a perfect recipe:

1. Make sure it works. You've actually made it, preferably more than once, and during that time you've improved and then - even better - perfected it.

2. Give us your own recipe. If it's not yours, acknowledge who you've nicked it off, or who inspired it. Believe it or not, there are many cookery writers who, under pressure from deadlines set by magazines or publishers, don't actually test their recipes. More than a decade ago, I worked for a leading Cape Town publisher with a thriving cook-book department. I will never forget being given the task of reading a cookery book sent in by a famous local cook. The 'manuscript' included several photocopied Martha Stewart recipes that were liberally plastered with Tippex. The 'author' had metricated these American recipes using her trusty white-out kit, changed the recipe titles, and was passing them off as her own.

3. List the ingredients in order of use. This is an established recipe-writing convention for a good reason.

4. Convert the quantities with care and good sense. It's just annoying to be told to measure out 28 grams of flour. Yes, I know that's the metric equivalent of 1 ounce, but are two extra grams of flour really going to break the back of your sponge cake? Say 30 grams, and be done with it. And please don't ask me to add '55 ml' egg yolks to a sauce. One, two, or three yolks?

5. Give clear instructions. Please don't specify that should I 'braise or fry or sauté' the lamb pieces in oil, or butter, or the eyelash greasings of Andean sacrificial virgins, for about 5 to 60 minutes, over a hot or cool heat, until they are 'done'. Don't ask me to put a tembling wobble of beaten-by-hand-for-45-minutes mixture of egg, flour and sugar into a hot oven, without asking me to preheat the oven first. I want precise, unambigious instructions. I felt very grumpy yesterday making the sainted Simon Hopkinson's Lemon Chicken Soup when he forgot to say what I should do with the chicken bits he'd told me to set aside in a bowl. Blend them with the rest of the soup? Tip them in at the last moment? Knit them into a jersey?

6. Be realistic about serving sizes. A chicken cut into eight joints, fine - if you're serving four people. But if you have six over for dinner, does that mean that two unfortunate guests get only a chicken wing each?

7. Don't specify ridiculously exotic ingredients. Or, if you must, remember to tell me where to buy them. Recently I read a long, pretentious feature in a local South African foodie magazine that called for pomegranate seeds in virtually every dish. When last did you find a glistening packet of pomegranate seeds in your local Pick 'n Pay? Look, I appreciate a new and exotic ingredient as much as the next chap, but please spare me the shaved white truffles.

I could go on forever, but I'm off to drink my 180 ml of soup.
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1 comment:

Di-Di Hoffman said...

Way to go Juno. And, ouch, I'm also guilty of 'lazy recipes'. Thanks for this post.