» Archive for December, 2011

Gut instinct and gambling on new recipes

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011 by kara

The Pumpkin and I have been working toward cooking all of our own food, for frugality and health. I say that we are ‘working toward it’ because let’s face it, there is a place in our world for Wanchai Ferry dinner kits and Jet’s Pizza. But we are trying.

We’ve collected tried-and-true recipes that we enjoy and that make it into the weekly menu rotation on a regular basis, but lately we’ve been branching out and trying something different. So when we see a recipe that looks appealing, we clip it from the newspaper/scribble a new recipe card and magnet it to the fridge.

Like my mother did, I enjoy reading new recipes, and then collecting them, but  hadn’t actually made any real effort to try them out. And until you actually try the recipe, you don’t know if it will turn out well. Sometimes a recipe that looks good in print just doesn’t make it in real life/the pan/slow cooker.

We have been spanked by recipes that seemed like a good idea at the time, and having been burned, we’re a little shy about trying new stuff. A recipe that fails is a waste of time and food, and wasting money on food is especially heinous. Then on top of that, one must scramble to put something on the table in lieu of the experiment.

Back when Rick and I first got together, I was determined to be a good little homemaker, and to that end I bought a set of recipe cards (plus handy filing box, only $29.95 plus shipping!) that were named something similar to “Lite and Fit American Favorites!” The idea behind the collection was to substitute lower-fat seasonings and ingredients for those pesky-but-tasty staples that make us corpulent. (The lesson here is unrelated but simple, something similar to ‘don’t buy recipe cards that are oddly shaped and require their own special recipe box, because the author’s conscious effort to be different with the cards and recipes themselves will result in cooking sorrow.’)

One of the recipes was for a version of tuna noodle casserole that should have been a hit. After all, who DOESN’T like tuna noodle casserole? That’s pretty impossible to mess up, right?

Yeah, no. In my determination to be the good little homemaker, I indulged my OCD urge to follow the recipe to the letter, and in doing so, I ignored my gut instinct to leave out the tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce that was hanging on to the tail end of the ingredient list, like some cut-and-paste mistake or afterthought.

WHY would one want Worcestershire sauce in tuna noodle casserole? It just didn’t make sense, and my cooking instincts were screaming “Don’t do it! It’ll just be a mess!” But no, I had to follow the recipe to its bitter end, and as I dumped the tablespoon of savory liquid into the casserole, it showed me immediately how wrong it was by turning the entire casserole battleship grey.

Okay, so it wasn’t a pretty casserole any longer, but it might taste good (or maybe just okay), right? That was a lot of food to throw out just because it wasn’t visually appealing, so I gritted my teeth and put the casserole on a cutting board in the middle of the table.

But nothing can bring a dish back from battleship grey, not even garnishing it with buttered breadcrumbs and baking it for the proper length of time.

Rick stared at the casserole for a minute, peeking between the appealing breadcrumbs to the unappealing noodles and cream sauce underneath.

“What IS it?” he asked me, finally.

“Tuna noodle casserole, silly!” I was trying to brazen it out, reaching for the spoon and plopping a healthy portion onto my own plate. The Worcestershire even muted the spring-green of the peas to a colour closer to death than springtime.

“What’s wrong with it?” Rick asked, still measuring the risk with his eyeballs.

“Nothing is ‘wrong’ with it. I followed the recipe to the letter!” I explained, as though complete compliance could protect us from untasty food.

He hesitantly followed my lead, cursing his plate with a spoonful of the greyish glop. We both forked up a bite at the same time…and shuddered, pushing our plates away. Just as it might be difficult to explain what Worcestershire sauce tastes like, it was difficult to explain exactly how it polluted the casserole. Maybe ‘metallic’ is the right word to describe the taste…eh, let’s just say that it put both of us off tuna noodle casserole and Worcestershire sauce for a while.

To this day, he is scarred by the Worcestershire sauce in that casserole, and delights in reminding me.

Another recipe ‘fail’ came from our local newspaper a few months back. This potato-and-zucchini soup recipe read like a champ, containing cheap seasonal ingredients and spices that I thought we’d like.  Rick saw it first, and clipped the recipe, so it got added to our weekly menu rotation. Again, I followed the recipe as closely as I could, my only substitution being Mrs. Dash seasoning in place of the rosemary–but Mrs. Dash has rosemary IN it, so that should have worked, right?

Meh. Even with the EXTRA seasoning from adding more Mrs. Dash than the recipe called for, the resulting glop was tasteless and hunched ponderously in the stomach, like a wad of plaster threatening to set permanently in the shape of one’s gullet.

Yet another fail comes from a menu/shopping planner service called E-mealz. The good folks at E-mealz produce a weekly menu and shopping list for subscribers, helping busy people manage their food budget and saving them time, while putting healthy meals on the table. This is a useful, frugal idea, and I highly recommend it. I enjoy being able to turn over menu planning to E-mealz. Most of the time, that is.

One E-mealz sandwich recipe called for pastrami and ciabatta rolls, along with a can of SHOEPEG CORN. That was one recipe that just screamed “wrong” to me, but we’re game, so we tried it in hopes of experiencing something really different and good.

The sandwich would have been enjoyable had it NOT been for the shoepeg corn, which added a weird aftertaste to the sandwich ingredients. Though I was hungry (seriously hungry!) I was unable to finish my sandwich, even after scraping off the corn.

But another recipe from E-mealz, called Greek Style Skillet Supper, was an unconditional win. It incorporated several ingredients that I’d never put together on a whim, but combined into a savory, interesting dish that’s one of my current favorites. This cheap and easy dish combines ground beef, onion, oregano, cinnamon (yes, cinnamon!), garlic, beef broth, tomato paste, penne pasta, spinach and feta cheese into a meal which is very easy to overeat.

Sometimes you can look at a recipe and have an idea how it will taste when it’s all put together, like the recipe for Thai Peanut Noodles that came recently from E-mealz: Angel hair pasta, peanut butter, lime juice, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, chicken broth, chopped/cooked chicken breast, and chopped almonds combine to create an appealing, protein-rich main dish that satisfies sweet and savory cravings alike.

Or consider this recipe for Sausage and Lentil Stew from Stephanie O’Dea’s blog, A Year of Slow Cooking. I can skim through this ingredient list and actually taste how this stew will turn out, and know that we will enjoy it.

Sometimes a recipe is a gamble, nothing more and nothing less, and we just have to cast the dice and see what happens.

I guess the best practise is to try to know each ingredient individually, so that we can accurately imagine it in partnership with other ingredients in the recipe. And, of course, to listen to our gut instincts even when a recipe reads well, but sets our teeth on edge. But even with losses of time and groceries from dinnertime fails, it still pays to take chances now and then–our food world would be awfully small otherwise.