Is there anything more annoying than spending time and money on a recipe that falls short, or doesn’t brown right, or takes hours instead of minutes, or doesn’t look anywhere close to the freaking picture? Never again! Herewith eight questions to ask before you decide to make a new recipe for the family.
Is there a recipe buried within your recipe? If a recipe calls for an ingredient that in and of itself requires its own recipe on another page in the book — back away from the cookbook. This drives me crazy. It’s a technique commonly found in restaurant cookbooks — not to be confused with restaurant chef’s cook-at-home cookbooks — where they think nothing of calling for blood orange vinaigrette “(see page 220)” and homemade veal stock “(see page 130)” in the same ingredient list. The only time this is acceptable is if sufficient warning has been given in the recipe note or if there is a substitution option that doesn’t make you feel like some kind of failure for not having homemade parsley pesto on hand.
Did a robot write it or did a real person? Do you know what a recipe headnote is? It’s the industry term for the little introduction that precedes your recipe. You know, the kind that says “I love this dish. It’s a great thing to make ahead for entertaining, because it just tastes better on Day 2.” Now that? That’s a good headnote. It’s helpful, it’s specific. You get the feeling that the recipe writer has done it before and knows what she’s talking about. (That very instruction is in the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, preceding her Balsamic-and Beer-Braised Short Rib.) But how about this one: “So delicious that everyone in your family will be begging for seconds.” Barf. Is this a cookbook or is it fiction? The person who wrote that is either a) Siri or b) someone who has never cooked for a kid who, this week, has decided to eat mashed potatoes and nothing but mashed potatoes.
Does it have a cutesy name? Like “Last-Minute Lasagna” or “Quickie Quesadillas?” These kinds of recipes might be perfectly fine, but I find it just too embarrassing to answer “Curry in a Hurry” when a family member asks me what’s for dinner. I don’t have any more scientific explanation than that. (Exception: Lazy Bolognese on page 98 of my book. Why an exception? Because I am a complete hypocrite.)
Does the timing seem right? Somewhere along the line — I’m tawlkin’ to you Rachael Ray — 30 minutes became the barometer for the hallowed “quick and easy meal.” As a result, it seems that everyone wants to deliver recipes that come in under the half-hour wire. And if they don’t? Eh? Let’s just say it anyway! This seems to happen all the time. How to avoid: Read the recipe all the way through — if the writer tells you that a soup which involves chopping a half dozen chopped vegetables takes five minutes prep time, you should think twice about trusting that recipe writer. (And if it happens again, I give you full on permission to un-follow him or her on instagram.)
Is the ingredient list longer than the recipe? That’s not a good sign. Save for the weekend, or when your kids are older — or hand to your butler and private chef to arrange themselves.
Are there too few ingredients? This sounds like a strange question to ask. Is there such a thing as a recipe that’s too easy? Not that often — but when a recipe calls for only two or three ingredients, you should probably make sure each one of those ingredients is pulling its weight if it’s going to turn out well. The other night I found myself explaining how to make polenta to my friend Naria. It’s so easy, you just whisk cornmeal into chicken broth and add some fat at the end like cheese. It’s a three-ingredient side dish (one that is excellent with those short ribs I might add) and it’s perfectly serviceable if you make it with cornmeal, chicken broth, and cheese. But if you take care to use homemade stock, authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano, and cornmeal from your local Italian market, it’s going to be more than serviceable, it’s going to be memorable, which means that most likely it will make it onto your table again. And that’s the mark of a success here.
Is the recipe handwritten? It’s gonna work.
Is the recipe handwritten by a family member? Recipe Gold. No further screening required.
PS: Recipe cards shown in photo are from Andy’s grandmother’s collection, courtesy of our Uncle Doug & Uncle Earl.