Saturday, August 05, 2006

We Don't Need Another Pita Chip Recipe

I am an avid, some might say obsessive, reader of cookbooks. I pore over them the way some people read novels. I’m always interested in the new ones that are coming out, whatever their genre. I read newspaper and magazine reviews, skim through tables of contents in bookstores, and read online responses from other readers. I love to cook from cookbooks, and I am a great admirer of those who are creative enough to actually make a living developing recipes I state right now that I am not. I would starve trying to develop recipes. When it comes to combining foods, I confess I am not particularly original in my thinking. This does not, however, stop me from criticizing those who are.

One thing I’ve found over the years is that there are some recipes that are repeated so often that they’ve become clichéd. It’s not possible to pick up a cookbook that doesn’t contain a recipe for vinaigrette dressing, garlic mashed potatoes and brownies. And, as one reviewer said, when reviewing a new “comprehensive” cookbook “Does the world really need another recipe for basic vinaigrette?”

And so, to put a stop to the endless repetition of recipes for which we all already have a thousand variations, I set forth my list of items for which we, the cookbook readers and users of the world, do not need any more guidance in preparing. Cookbook authors, cooking magazine editors and recipe developers, please take note.

Vinaigrette Dressing: By now, most of the literate world knows how to make a vinaigrette dressing. Vinegar or lemon juice, oil of some kind, salt, pepper. We know how to make a Dijon vinaigrette too, by adding a little Dijon mustard. We know about adding garlic, swapping out balsamic vinegar, using ginger and sesame oil to give it an “Asian twist,” using fresh herbs, and pretty much anything else you can think of. I’ve never been at a restaurant or a dinner at anyone’s house where someone said “This is the most fabulous vinaigrette I’ve ever had! How EVER did you make it?!?” Of course if you’re recommending a particular vinaigrette to go on a salad for which you’re providing the recipe, it’s only appropriate to provide the recipe for said vinaigrette, but it is just no longer necessary to print a recipe for vinaigrette alone and suggest that it might be wonderful over mixed greens. This is not a new idea.

Mashed Potatoes: Pretty much every variation on mashed potatoes has been done. If there is a combination of potatoes and something else that hasn’t been tried, ask yourself if there is perhaps not a reason for this. Ask yourself this before you put salsa in mashed potatoes and cue the trumpet fanfare. Potatoes mashed with milk, cream, half and half, broth, sour cream, roasted garlic, garlic that has been boiled with the potatoes, celery root, sweet potatoes, any kind of cheese and/or crumbled bacon have all been revealed to the world. We’re all pretty savvy about putting butter and salt in our potatoes. We even know the trick of using white pepper instead of black, to avoid those unsightly little flecks. Let’s move on.

Pita Chips: There’s not a diet magazine, cookbook, website, flyer or pamphlet in the whole world that does not proclaim that you can make your own pita chips! With a fraction of the fat of store bought ones! These sources then proceed to instruct us on how to cut a pita in half, cut the halves into triangles, lay them on a baking sheet and bake at 350 until crisp. How far below “functional” does one’s IQ have to be to need a “recipe” for pita chips? And yes, yes, offering suggestions about how to brush them with a little olive oil, scatter them with sea salt, sprinkle them with paprika and all those other add ons are nice, but the average hamster could elaborate on the idea of a cut, toasted pita bread and come up with any of these variations. This same rant also applies to home made baked tortilla chips, a related, equally done-to-death recipe.

Oven Fries/Oven Roasted Potato Wedges: In the same vein, it doesn’t take much intelligence to slice a potato into wedges or “fry shapes,” put it on a baking pan (either tossed with some kind of oil or not), and bake it until it’s done. Herbs are nice. So is salt and pepper. No more recipes for oven fries, please.

Hummus: Speaking perhaps only for myself, I have a hummus recipe I like, so the culinary world can stop trying to sell me on another version of it. The version I love comes from an old Weight Watchers magazine and calls for chickpeas, roasted garlic, silken tofu, a splash of olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper. I have been rather sniffly informed by a friend of Middle Eastern descent that the “dip” for which I have a recipe is not hummus. I will concede the point, as I recognize that classic hummus contains no tofu (nor roasted garlic either), but I will say that the tofu makes it much smoother than any other version I’ve had. Most hummus has a texture that reminds me of chickpeas blended with pea gravel or builders sand. As I tell the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’m happy with what I have, thank you.

Roasted Corn on the Cob: I have a personal bias here that makes me somewhat more caustic about roasted corn on the cob. I hate corn on the cob, and I don’t like grilled food. Corn on the cob gets jammed up in my teeth, it’s messy to eat and it’s just not that great. I don’t care if it says “summer” as nothing else can. I don’t need a starchy vegetable to remind me what season it is. I have a calendar, and full use of all of my sensory organs, so I can pretty much tell what season it is on my own. It doesn’t help that every time we go to the grocery store with the intention of buying corn on the cob (at the request of my husband, grudgingly agreed to by me on the condition that I’m not actually expected to eat any of it) we walk out with three times as many ears as we need, and no more than two ears will fit in our already overfull, undersized fridge. No matter how many times I point out that HE will be the only one eating it (or he and our two guests, or whatever), my husband always insists on buying at least three ears of corn for each person, including me. The result of this overpurchasing is that the stuff sits on our counter in the plastic bags from the store (because of the aforementioned fridge issues) and, likely as not, half rots before we can serve it. This necessitates another trip to the store the day of the intended corn consumption to purchase still more ears of corn.

I’m sorry—I seem to have gone off on a tangent about quantity of corn, versus the original intent of talking about why roasted corn on the cob recipes are excessively abundant. Well, it seems that absolutely anyone who insists on including a chapter on “grilling” in his or her cookbook (or even just a chapter on vegetables) feels the need to remind the world yet again the best method for roasting corn on the cob in the husk. People who like corn on the cob roasted in the husk know how to do it. Those of us who do not will never like it, so it’s just wasted space.

Caesar Salad: Like roasted corn on the cob, people who love Caesar salad know how to make it. People who don’t won’t make it. Offering suggestions like serving it with grilled chicken or shrimp is not new or clever. They’re on every menu in every restaurant in North America. Anything you can get at your average Wendy’s is not something that we need instructions for making at home.

Chicken Broth or Stock: The only really useful recipe for chicken broth I ever saw was in a cooking magazine that had you use a whole chicken to make the stock. Then you picked the meat off of the bones, and out of the stock, and made things with the meat and the stock combined. Chicken soup (another overprinted recipe) was one of them, but so was a very tasty chicken a la king that caused me no end of grief and heartache when I made it twice within a two month period and was told by my then-fairly-new husband that he didn’t, um, really like chicken a la king that much, in spite of having said it was “really good” when I’d made it the first time. Chicken broth recipes vary only a little from one to another, and this is a textbook case of “seen one, seen ‘em all.” Until they can come up with a unique twist on chicken broth, I would respectfully request that the cookbook authors of the world cease including recipes for it.

Brownies: In addition to there being far too many recipes for brownies in the world, there are too many introductory paragraphs theorizing how brownies came to be. Really, does it matter? We have them now. They’re wonderful. They make a fantastic base for a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a slathering of chocolate or caramel sauce, a huge pile of whipped cream, some chopped nuts and a cherry (got to get in those servings of fruit!). Also, the debate over nuts versus no nuts is tired. If you like them, put them in; if you don’t, don’t. If you write recipes for a living, just put “optional” in parentheses next to the quantity of nuts and let it go at that. The chances that you’re going to change a person’s mind on nuts or no nuts in brownies in your 75 word introductory blurb is almost nil. Don’t bother.

There are probably a dozen more recipes I could think of that fall into the category of overprinted and overexposed, but instead, here are a few things for which I’d like to see more good recipes. Things that are easy to make, good for you and readily available, and should have more recipe development focused on them, in my opinion.

Duck Breasts: These are becoming more and more available (unless you shop at either of the two grocery stores in my town, in which case you’d conclude by their scarcity that they were more precious than rubies). They’re yummy, can be used in healthful recipes (despite all that fat), and because they’re not everywhere all the time, they make even the most mundane of meals feel like a special occasion. Duck breasts are to our age what lamb was to the previous generation—something that you got only on special occasions, and often ordered in restaurants because it was somewhat daunting to make at home.

Cabbage and Brussels Sprouts: I group these together because they’re closely related in flavor. Most recipes for cabbage are for cole slaw, and most recipes for Brussels sprouts are cooked with bacon. Both preparations are good, but let’s branch out a bit, shall we?

Zucchini: steamed (with or without herbs) and bread are both old and tired. We need some new blood, like the zucchini slaw that Sara Foster provides a recipe for in her Fresh Every Day cookbook. Now that’s a good idea.

Oriental Greens: Admittedly, I haven’t checked out all the oriental cookbooks available, but my Australian ones provide an admirable selection of treatments for oriental greens such as baby bok choy, gai larn, chow sum. American cookbook authors should take a lesson and stop abusing spinach, kale and swiss chard. What fun things can you do with baby bok choy? It’s easy, yummy and different.

I would suggest that pretty much any cookbook that includes a “basics” or “foundation recipes” section in it can most likely just save the price of printing those pages. Direct people to cookbooks like Fannie Farmer, Joy of Cooking, or the Better Homes & Gardens cookbook if they really haven’t got a clue how to make chicken stock. If they’re so new to cooking that they don’t know how to make stock or a basic vinaigrette, they really need one of these foundational cookbooks more than they need a section at the back of a more advanced one explaining to them how to combine chicken bones, carrots, celery, water and an onion in a pot for two hours. Use the space for recipes that will really expand our horizons and give us new ways to eat things that are good for us. This is especially helpful for unimaginative cookbook addicts like myself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So several years ago when I had a garden and TOO MUCH DAMN ZUCCHINI, the Post fortuitously printed several zucchini recipes in it's Food section. One of them I still make to this day because it's so damn tasty. sauteed zucchini with sausage (i use Shady Brook Farms italian turkey sausage)in a white wine sauce over pasta. Happy to share if you may be interested.