Nobody wants to take a whole bunch of time out of their busy day to cook something that ends up tasting crappy. And it's pretty frustrating even to make a dish that comes out great--if it takes twice as long to make it as you expected and you're sitting down to dinner with your family at 10:00PM.
So how can you tell, in advance, if a recipe will be any good? Will it be interesting and original? Will it ever make it into your heavy rotation?
Or, will it take too long or be too much of a pain in the ass to make? Or worse, will it end up tasting weird?
You can get surprisingly accurate answers to these questions just by learning to read a recipe with a critically trained eye. So today, as a teaching tool, I want to show you a new recipe that we tried for the first time the other night. I'm going to share with you why I chose the recipe, how I decided that it was likely to taste good, and other assumptions I made about the dish, including the prep work involved and how scalable the dish might be.
Basically, I’m going to walk you through how I went about thinking through the recipe in advance and why I decided it was worth making. Hopefully when you finish this post, you’ll also be able to judge a recipe BEFORE you make it. But first, here is the new recipe itself, borrowed without permission from The New Moosewood Cookbook. I submit it to you here with some modifications. Please read it through and keep it handy as you read the rest of this post:
White Bean and Black Olive Soup
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2-3 onions, chopped
2 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1 zucchini, diced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, crushed
black pepper to taste
4 cups water
3 oz tomato paste
1/4 cup dry red wine (don't forget: never use "cooking wine")
2 8 ounce cans white beans
1 cup black olives (canned okay)
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
Chopped parsley for toppings.
Heat olive oil in a large stock pot. Add onion, celery, carrot and seasonings. Saute 8-10 minutes over medium heat. Add zucchini, green pepper and garlic, saute 5 minutes more.
Add rest of ingredients to pot, bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat for 15-20 minutes. Serve topped with parsley.
Essentially I want to know if the grief involved in making this dish will outweigh the pleasures involved in eating it. So, what I’m going to do is consider this recipe with the following five key questions in mind. By walking through this exercise with me, you’ll see a practical example of how I think about a recipe before I make it:
1) Does it sound good?
Not if you hate olives. And I mean that in a serious way. You need to scan down the list of ingredients and first make sure there aren’t any ingredients that you hate in there. I know this sounds like a “duh”-type comment, because most dishes, quite expectedly, taste like the ingredients in them.
But my point here is that you can use this rule to instantly eliminate a dish from consideration and move on to another recipe. Hate olives? Okay, nix this one and turn the page. Next!
Yes, you will find some recipes that combine ingredients in such an original way that they don’t taste like their component parts. Believe me, however, a vegetable soup just won’t fall into that category. (Forgive a quick tangent: at some point I’ll share a great Pasta Puttanesca recipe with you that even anchovy-haters will love. My wife can’t sit in the same room with an anchovy but she still loves it.)
Now, here’s the next step in deciding if a dish sounds good: see if there are ingredients in the recipe that are combined in an original way. What grabbed me about this recipe was that it was a soup that contained olives. I love olives, but I have NEVER added them into a soup before. It seemed pretty neat and original. And thus, the recipe “sounded good” to me. Why pick a new recipe if there’s nothing interesting about it?
2) Does it contain any bizarre or impossible-to-find ingredients?
This is usually the second question I ask myself as I run down the list of ingredients. Again, it’s a quick litmus test to help you make an even quicker decision. If the recipe calls for saffron or something (I barely even know what saffron is, much less do I know where the heck I’d find it in my grocery store), it’s a quick deal-killer. Next!
With this recipe, this is an easy question to answer: No. All of the ingredients will be easy to find at any grocery store.
3) How much prep work am I gonna have to do? Will this be a pain in the ass and take forever?
Ah-hah. I thought we were sailing along with flying colors, but we’ve stumbled a bit here. There is a fair amount of chopping and slicing of veggies required here, a common and predictable liability of vegetarian recipes. What I’ll do next, then, is try and estimate the time it will take to make the recipe. My thought was that the prep work in this dish above would take me about 20-25 minutes, which isn’t too bad for a vegetarian soup dish. Adding in the other steps, this dish could be made in under an hour from top to bottom, and you can do something else while it’s simmering for the last 15-20 minutes (but please, stay near the kitchen!).
Many recipes do this thinking for you by listing (hopefully accurate) prep times and/or cook times along with the recipe itself. For me, if I think the prep time alone will be much more than half an hour, I know I’ll get antsy. (Next!) Figure out what your prep time tolerance is and use that as a decision factor.
Aside from a bit of extra slicing and dicing, this recipe is fairly low on the pain in the ass scale. There aren’t a lot of discrete steps in the recipe and frankly it’s not all that complicated. Yes, you’ll be washing and cutting up veggies, but then you just spend a few minutes sauteing them, and after that it’s all about chucking everything into a pot and forgetting about it until the timer goes off. So once the prep work is done, 90% of the total work is done too.
4) Can the dish be doubled easily?
At first glance you could make a case that this recipe partially fails this test because of the amount of prep work. But I disagree. There are ways to process vegetables to save time here. Does it really take twice as long to cut four stalks of celery vs. two? You have to buy a huge multi-stalk celery thing at the grocery store anyway, what’s so hard about stacking up four stalks into a pile and cutting them all at once? Line up the two zucchinis next to each other and cut ‘em up simultaneously. These are simple workflow suggestions so that you’ll be more likely to capture the great benefit of doubling a recipe: 2x the food for only 1.2x the work.
5) Will this dish be cheap to make?
How important this answer is depends obviously on how important frugality is for you. But I typically draw the line if a recipe contains any rip-off expensive ingredients (once again, saffron might be one obvious example. Next!). I have a feeling I’ll always think a little bit about this issue--even if I were a lottery winner or something--because at some crossover price it becomes cheaper to order take-out instead of cooking. Luckily, this dish is cheap enough to qualify for laughably cheap, so there’s no issue whatsoever here.
So there you have it, five easy questions to ask to help you decide if a recipe is worth cooking. The White Bean and Black Olive Soup recipe was a pretty clear winner here, as it passed three of the five questions with flying colors (#1, #2 and #5), and it got qualified but passing answers on the other two (#3 and #4). That’s good enough for me. There’s no hard and fast rule to apply here as far as how many no answers you’ll tolerate before saying “Next!” or which specific answers are recipe deal-breakers. You will decide for yourself which are most important and which, if any, are triggers for YOU to say “Next!”
If you read each recipe from now on with a critical eye and do your best to answer these five questions, I guarantee you’ll save yourself from a lot of bad recipes, and you’ll have a much better idea of what you’re in for when you choose a new recipe to cook.
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