I used to have a cooking rule, a rule I followed religiously, that I called Do It By the Book First. This rule essentially says you should never ever ever ever make serious modifications to a recipe without first making it "by the book," or making it exactly according to the recipe's specifications.
Here was my logic: you can't really change something for the better until you know what you're starting with, right? How can you improve a recipe without knowing what's wrong with it?
And, worst of all, what if the recipe was totally perfect as is? You'd never know if you modified it from the get-go.
The problem with this rule (and for that matter the problem with most rules when they are observed with absolutism) is that it occasionally would present me with an easily avoidable recipe fail. The bottom line: sometimes you can just tell that a recipe needs some adjustment--even before you make it for the first time.
Therefore, just as I've become a more relaxed person since I left my Wall Street career, I've also relaxed this once rigid rule in my kitchen. Nowadays, we often make pre-emptive changes to certain recipes, and not only has it reduced the number of failed new recipes we've tried out, it's helped us enjoy cooking more. A lot more.
Here are three of the key rules of thumb we use when pre-emptively adapting or modifying recipes. What rules would you add?
1) Remove salt
One of the modifications I now make--automatically--is to reduce the salt content of a recipe. Long-time CK readers know all about my issues with the use of excess salt, and whenever I see salt as an ingredient in a recipe, I always question if it needs to be there, or at least if it needs to be there in the amount called for.
Think about it: if you didn't like the ingredients in a dish in the first place, why would you make the recipe? And thus, why would you take the further step of masking those ingredients with excess salt? In most cases, it's highly likely that the dish can stand on its own without any added salt--and at the least it's worth considering adding less.
2) Add Heat
Some recipes just need some spice and heat. And again, you can usually tell with a quick glance at the list of ingredients. If you see a recipe that just screams "blaaand!!!!" (to be said in a zombie voice), a few generous shakes of Tabasco sauce or a teaspoon or two of cayenne pepper can save you from a tasteless meal. This adjustment works exceptionally well with soups, rice dishes, marinades and pasta salads.
3) Correct for "Midwestern Bias"
Hey, my parents both grew up on farms in the middle of Ohio, and most of my family is from midwestern USA. So I consider myself uniquely qualified to make the following statement: The Midwest may be the bedrock of our culture, but it's often the soft underbelly of our cuisine.
Thus I grew up in a house where everything was overcooked. Vegetables weren't considered "cooked" until you didn't need teeth to chew them. With pasta (whoops, I mean "macaroni"), al dente simply didn't exist as a concept. Therefore, a standard adjustment that you can confidently make with many midwestern-style recipes is to reduce the overall cooking time--often substantially.
Here's an example: my mother's lentil soup recipe contains the instructions boil lentils for one hour, add vegetables and boil for another hour. Please. I know I can reasonably cut down on that cooking time--as in cut it in half.
Readers, now's your chance: Which pre-emptive recipe corrections do you always make when you cook a recipe for the first time? Share your thoughts!
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