Friday, May 25, 2007

The Rating Game

Many years ago, when we were first married, something transpired which has since become known as the Chicken a la King Episode. This occurrence prompted us to rate recipes. This past week a friend and I were talking about how we determined which recipes we would make again, and which we would not. She was saying that her husband would often say, “That was great, but I guess we’ll never see it again.” Like me, she has so many recipes that if she started today, and made a different recipe for every breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack every day, it would take her years to work her way through her whole collection, between books, magazines, and recipe file recipes. I explained how we rate recipes, and if they rate high enough, they’ll get made again (you know, someday).

The episode in question unfolded in this way: I found a recipe in a magazine for a chicken stock that was made using a whole chicken. Once the stock was done, and the chicken cooked, there were recipes for things that used both the cooked chicken and the stock. Several things looked good, including a chicken chili (which I made, and it was tasty), and Chicken a la King. For dinner one night, I decided that the Chicken a la King would be good. It was served over texas toast, and I enjoyed it very much. I thought my husband did too. I asked, “How is it?” and was told “It’s good.”

A few weeks later I decided to make the stock again, and again decided to make the Chicken a la King for dinner. He sat down to dinner, and a strange look crossed his face. I asked what was wrong. “Well,” he said reluctantly, “I don’t really like Chicken a la King that much.”

[Sound of crickets chirping.]

I’ll skip the drama of the few minutes that followed, but the eventual outcome was that, instead of just asking “How is it?” I began demanding a numerical rating of every meal I prepared.

We started with a scale of 1 to 10, but this proved too broad. Most things wound up getting a seven, which wasn’t very helpful. So we scaled back to a 1-5 rating. Now most things get either a 3 or a 4. Sometimes a 2 or a 3 could be changed slightly to get a higher rating. We discuss what we would do differently next time, I make notes in the cookbook (or on the recipe), and we try it again someday to see if it deserves the better score.

The value assigned to the numbers is this: a 1 is just barely edible. It will likely never get made again, and there’s not much to salvage it. A 2 is not bad, but not particularly exciting. Sometimes a 2 could be upgraded by making changes, but often a 2 is just a so-so dish that also probably never gets much attention again. A 3 is perfectly fine, but generally not very inspired. It’s tasty, satisfying, and could be made again, but probably not for quite some time. A 3 wouldn’t find its way into a regular rotation, unless there was some change that could be made to it to up its score. A 4 is really good, and is something we’d eat again soon. Fours are the recipes I fall back to when nothing new looks tempting, but we need to have something planned for dinner for a certain night.

Fives are gems. A five is on the level of restaurant quality. A five is the kind of meal we choose if we’re having a special meal at home (a birthday, anniversary, holiday). So far we’ve rated one recipe a 5, and one was given a “4 rising 5” because it was just served with the wrong sides, and changing the accompanying dishes would improve the overall experience and bring it up to 5 quality. For the record, the one true 5 is a pan seared filet mignon with mustard balsamic glaze served with “parmesan mash” (parmesan mashed potatoes), and the rising 5 was a quince glazed backstrap of lamb (lamb loin), which will get served with couscous or soft polenta next time, and a green salad.

I find the greatest benefit of this system is that it helps me keep track of what we really love. If I see a recipe that looks tempting, and I make it, and it turns out to be a dud, then making a note in the book or on the page in the recipe file that it was only a 2 means that the next time I come across that recipe, I won’t get all excited and remember that this was something I wanted to try and then be disappointed when I make it and it’s still a dud. Granted, if it’s a recipe file recipe that turns out to be less than wonderful, it probably just gets recycled. But in cookbooks, this system is really helpful—it helps me keep track of what’s good and what’s not. After all, if a book has a number of really good things, and one or two “misses,” I’m not going to get rid of the book.

Our stumbling block is the “and a half” recipes. It’s not quite a four, but it’s better than just a three, so how do we rate it? It winds up getting a fractional rating. I think we’re going to have to do something about these—they’re either going to have to be bumped down, or have something about them changed to move them up to the next level.

I’ve talked to several friends about how they handle this kind of decision—what do we make again? One friend said that they have just a binary system—make again, don’t make again. Clearly, this wouldn’t work for us, because the Chicken a la King recipe was deemed acceptable to make again, just not soon. I know that the test kitchens of a magazine I read regularly rates recipes on a scale of 1 to 3. I think this is too limiting a range. Clearly under this system, a 1 is unacceptable, a 2 is good, and a 3 is great. That means that most things are 2s, which doesn’t sort out which ones are merely pretty good, from those that are really good.

I anticipate that someday our children will be invited to rate recipes, which will serve two purposes. First, it will help us to decide as a family which things we have on a regular basis, so that the kids feel like they have some input in what we have for dinner. Second, it will give me some insight into what my kids really like to eat (other than Toll House cookies, and chicken nuggets), which is always nice information to have so that I can pick recipes that they’re more inclined to like in the first place. And when that day comes, how hard I will laugh if they give the Chicken a la King a four.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Denial (a non-food entry)

I live within spitting distance of Seattle. Most people have an image of Seattle as being rainy and cold most of the year. That’s not entirely true. It does rain quite a bit in the winter, and it can be quite chilly, but I find it interesting that a 65 degree day here feels warmer than a 65 degree day where I came from back East did. However, there is one thing I don’t understand.

Why people in Seattle spend a good part of the year dressed like we live in Florida.

In late February and March, when it really is quite rainy, and in some cases fairly chilly, I see people in shorts and flip flops. Not just kids either. Kids, of course, are notorious for wearing weather-inappropriate clothing just because it looks “cool.” I’m talking about adults. Adults who should know better. I don't remember this kind of flauting of the actual weather conditions back East.

Today, for instance, the temperature is 53 degrees (and might go as high as 55 or 56), and it’s what I would describe as partly cloudy—a little sun here and there, but mostly cloud cover. Although, as I say, this feels warmer than it did where I came from, it’s still not tropical weather, by any means. Yet in my office today there are two women wearing open toed slip ons, and I rode to work this morning with one friend who was wearing shorts.

What gives?

By late June, it will be warm enough for open toed shoes and shorts. In fact, in July and August, it really gets quite hot here, and it barely rains all summer long. In September they have to issue “no burn” orders so that people don’t burn yard waste and risk setting huge tracts of national forest on fire.

But that’s June, July, and August. Right now it’s May, and it’s kind of on the chilly side. Yet I see dozens of people who’ve broken out their summer wardrobes. Women in light sundresses and sandals. Men in shorts and sandals. I can’t imagine they’re not freezing, but at least they don’t complain.

Along with this total denial that we actually have long, fairly cool springs, come a few other facts that people in this part of the world refuse to accept.

First is that there are bugs here. Many houses have no screens on their windows because people seem to refuse to admit the fact that there are, in fact, flying insects here that get into your house and are annoying. There are all kinds of yicky little flying things, including the world’s laziest mosquitoes. These things land on you, and if you notice them, you can easily smack them into oblivion. Where I came from, mosquitoes were zippy buggers that could dart away before you even had your hand raised. People seem unable to accept that we actually have flying insects, so almost no one has any screens. I lived in a house that had no screens and almost lost my mind because it was impossible to open the windows when it was hot.

Which brings me to my second point of denial: that while it doesn’t rain all the time, it also never gets very hot here. Certainly not hot enough to need air conditioning. That’s bunk. It never gets to 100, or even to 95 very often, and the humidity is nothing compared to what it was where I came from, but it can get pretty warm in the summer, and when it does, you need air conditioning. You may only use it for three or four weeks a year, but having it makes the difference between being comfortable and being miserable.

My new house will have both screens and air conditioning. And if you come to visit in February, you won’t find me dressed for a 4th of July barbeque. I can’t say the same for my fellow Seattelites, but their attire generally provides some interesting food for thought about how cold they must be, and just what they were thinking when they picked that outfit. It helps to pass the time on the way to work.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

No Regrets

My kids eat a lot of typical kid foods. The other day I was thinking of the ones I wasn’t going to miss when they got old enough to eat other things. This was actually in the context of things I wasn’t going to miss in general about my kids being small: sippy cups, baby gates, pacifiers. Don’t misunderstand me—I know when they’re not babies anymore, I’ll look back and think how cute they were, and wish they could have stayed small forever. But there are some things I simply will not miss about having small children, and some of them are food-related.

Cereal Bars
Right now we buy boxes of cereal bars at Costco. They come in strawberry, blueberry, and apple. My older son will eat only the strawberry ones, the twins eat all the flavors. A cereal bar is their typical “first” breakfast. They also get another breakfast at daycare, and on weekends we often make something else around 9 a.m. or so. They’re really nothing but cookie with jam in them, but they serve their purpose. I’ll be glad, however, to see them go.

Eggo Waffles
Again, something else we buy in bulk at Costco (with four kids, there aren’t many things for the kids we don’t buy in bulk at Costco). My older son likes them cut into shapes with a cookie cutter, primarily Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (which then gets its nose dipped into a little tub of red decorator sugar). He dips the shapes into his syrup. The twins get no syrup. Nutritionally, these aren’t quite as bad as cereal bars (although the syrup is no gem), but they’re still something I’m tired of buying and making.

I had a debate with a friend about Gogurt. Her position was any yogurt was good yogurt. I said I agreed right up to Gogurt. Any of those kid yogurts are fine, but Gogurt is just garbage. There’s so little of it in a tube, and it has so much sugar, that I think any positive effects of active cultures or calcium is completely negated by the sugar. Although we buy it, it stays in the freezer and is an occasional treat. In truth, Gogurt is no friend of mine, and it does not get a Christmas card from me.

Chicken Nuggets
I don’t mean McDonald’s chicken nuggets. I sheepishly admit to kind of liking those. I’m talking about the ones we buy in bulk that are orange, for God’s sake. They’re fast—they heat up in the microwave in 30 seconds or something, and they claim to be made of whole breast meat (not mushed up reformed random pieces), but that doesn’t redeem them completely in my opinion, and I won’t miss them when the last of my kids stops saying she wants chicken nuggets for dinner.

Hot Dogs
We buy Hebrew National all beef hot dogs, and I actually like them, but I’m kind of tired of making hot dogs. Because the twins are under two, they have to be cut up in small pieces, and my older son actually eats his cold (yes, I agree that this is vile). I won’t mind when hot dogs take an occasional role in our diet, but their constant presence is tiresome.

Juice Boxes
I just seem to be down on all the common kid foods, don’t I? Juice boxes squirt when you squeeze them, which little boys think is hysterical. Mothers do not think this is hysterical because they have to clean it up. Yes, juice boxes are convenient, but they’re messy. I won’t miss them.

In general, I will be very grateful when my kids are old enough to eat the same things my husband and I want to eat (although I know it will likely be many years before they’re actually willing to eat things like fennel and lentils). Still, when they stop eating cereal bars and juice boxes, I won’t shed a tear.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Food Rules

Having just finished a somewhat disappointing takeout meal, I wish to share a few thoughts on what the rules of engagement for food and eating should be. This is not, of course, what they are, but the way they would be in my ideal world. Those of you who may have seen the Diet Rules that made the rounds maybe ten or fifteen years ago will recognize some of them—they were good then, they’re good now. Here we go.

If it wasn’t good, it doesn’t count
The lunch I just ate was from my favorite Japanese restaurant, but I think the regular chef was on vacation, because it was not up to their usual standard. I got the seaweed salad instead of the pickled cucumbers that usually come with my lunch (I think they may have run out of the cucumbers, because there was a guy in the bar eating a bento box, and he had the cucumbers, the bastard), and I hate the seaweed salad. It’s too fishy, or something. Then, the grilled beef short ribs I usually get that are supposed to come basted with a kind of sticky sweet soy-based sauce tasted as though they’d been grilled with no sauce at all. In short, the whole thing was a disappointment. But it still had the same number of calories, the same number of fat grams, the same degree of fillingness (if you will) that it would have had if it had been their best. The problem was, it wasn’t emotionally satisfying. Therefore, I propose that if a meal wasn’t good, and didn’t provide a significant emotional satisfaction in addition to filling me up, the calories, fat, etc do not count. I can go eat something that does satisfy and not have to be concerned that I’m eating twice as much.

If I wish I hadn’t eaten it after I finish, it doesn’t count
This is kind of related to the rule above, except that it also includes things that were fulfilling and satisfying, but that I just wish for some other reason I hadn’t eaten. If, for instance, I eat a big plate of amazing something-in-cream-sauce, or an incredible dessert, but later feel remorse over all the bad things that might have been in there and are now in me, doing their damage, I get to not count it. Any ill effects of what I ate are automatically negated.

If I split it with someone, it doesn’t count
If my husband and I split a huge dessert, neither of us has to count the calories, fat, etc. The same diet rule went around years ago as “If you split it with someone, the calories cancel.” Right on.

If no one knows I ate it, it doesn’t count
Again, and oldie but a goodie. This also carries over to Weight Watchers and other weight loss techniques that require a food journal. If you don’t write it down, it didn’t actually count.

Things that are really delicious are automatically good for you
And I’m not saying “I think Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese is really delicious, therefore it should be good for me.” It’s that something that is truly wonderful, a really high quality food, is good for you, no matter how bad it actually is for you. Things that fall into this category are really outstanding homemade mayonnaise (and by extension, anything made with it), homemade (or excellent quality bakery-made) cinnamon rolls, a fantastic blue cheese, homemade fruit cobblers or tarts. In fact, anything homemade should automatically be good for you, no matter what’s in it. If I undertake to make French fries at home, and go to the trouble of cutting them, soaking them, and deep frying them on my stove, then by God, they should be good for me. Things in really expensive restaurants, no matter how much cream they contain, should be good for you, too.

Everyone should get one day a month when nothing counts
We should all be allowed to choose one day in a month when we can eat any damned thing we want and nothing will contribute to weight gain, or health deterioration. Wish you could eat three large orders of McDonald’s fries? Wish you could drink five Appletinis and not get drunk (or wake up hung over)? Wish you could eat four fried chickens (bonus points to anyone who recognizes the movie reference)? There should be a day each month when we can do that. We could use it for a holiday—this month, for instance, I might choose one of the days of Memorial Day weekend as my “nothing counts” day, so I can eat everything. Or the month of my birthday, I might choose my birthday (difficult, since I have a November birthday, but I’d have to pick between that and Thanksgiving).

Foods from childhood should not count
Maybe that’s a little much, on reflection, but ok, how about this: We all get to pick three favorite foods from childhood that don’t count. I could pick potato chips, McDonald’s cheeseburgers, and…Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Then I could eat as much of those things as I wanted, whenever I wanted, and they would be completely neutral. The only catch to this one is, you can’t switch to a different childhood food when you get bored with one (or all) of the three. You must pick them and stick with them forever.

If it’s a beverage, it doesn’t count
Beer, wine, soda, shakes—they’re liquid, for pete’s sake. They shouldn’t contribute to weight gain. They shouldn’t be bad for you. They go with food. They’re necessary. They shouldn’t count. I remember in high school I truly did not believe that Coke could cause weight gain. How could it? You drink it, you don’t eat it. Ah, youth [takes sip from can of Diet Coke next to computer].

If I don’t realize I finished it, it doesn’t count
Despite the countless warnings and cluckings from diet gurus, I insist on reading while I eat. Sorry, I just do. Reading contributes to the pleasure of eating, and eating contributes to the pleasure of reading. The majority of the time it’s not a problem. While I might not be “eating mindfully,” I do derive sufficient satisfaction to feel full when I’m done with my meal. However, every now and then I take the last bite of something, and realize that, hey, that was the last bite and I didn’t get that “last bite” feeling after taking it. When that happens, the whole thing I just ate gets zeroed out. This is kind of a companion to the rule about things not counting when they’re not good, or when I change my mind about having eaten something, but it applies even when the thing was good.

If the jury is out on the detrimental effects of a food, it doesn’t hurt us
There have been so many swings of the pendulum as regards what foods are good for us, bad for us, totally neutral, that I feel like if they haven’t determined with an absolute certainty that something is bad for us, it shouldn’t have a negative effect on health or weight. Butter, for instance. We started out with butter being good for us; I remember the old “four food groups” and butter counted as a dairy product. Then butter was horrible, horrible, horrible for us. You might as well eat rat poison as eat butter. In fact, rat poison was probably better for you, because it didn’t have any cholesterol or saturated fat. Then someone started poking around in the margarine formula (which I’ve read is one molecule removed from plastic, but that could be an urban legend), and realized that margarine had trans fats, and that those trans fats were way worse than anything in butter. So the word went out that maybe butter wasn’t the Antichrist after all. I say, if the experts can’t decide, it just doesn’t hurt, period. And naturally, as far as I’m concerned, “they” haven’t actually proven that any one thing is bad for us. So guess what?

If I eat one “bad” thing along with a specified number of “good” things, the good things cancel the bad one
This is kind of the “good behavior” rule of food consumption. If I eat a big salad, loaded with vegetables and low fat protein, but eat it with regular Ranch dressing, the positive aspects of the vegetables and low fat protein cancel the negative ones of the dressing. This rule could apply to elements within a meal, or to the overall meal. If I eat a small, lightly dressed salad as my appetizer, then have grilled fish over sautéed spinach, and then finish off with a buttery slice of lemon tart, the first two “good” components negate the “badness” of the dessert.

I think that’s a pretty good start. I might add on to this in the future, but I think this set of rules, if adopted by…pretty much everyone, would serve to make my life much happier and easier. So, let’s eat!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Why I Buy

Today’s topic is why I buy a cookbook. I know everyone cares very deeply about what motivates me to buy a cookbook, so I’m sharing this with you now. There are lots of reasons people buy cookbooks, and I just read interviews with several chefs in which they agreed that they buy a cookbook for the pictures. This couldn’t be further from my reasons.

I would never buy a cookbook solely for the pictures. I know people who insist on a cookbook with a picture of every recipe, and people who like the pictures because they give an idea of what the finished product is supposed to look like (I admit to falling into this latter category). But pictures are not the only thing that drives my purchasing decision.

First and foremost I buy cookbooks based on my current interest. With the recent admission of my Japanese food addiction, I’m now picking up Japanese cookbooks. I like to understand what it is I’m eating, what ingredients are common, and the fundamentals of preparation of foods I like, even if I’m never going to actually make them, although if I buy the cookbook, I usually do wind up making something from it. I don’t find I have to have a picture of every recipe. I like that, of course, but it doesn’t drive me to make the purchase.

I also buy cookbooks based on a specific need. As I’ve discussed before (and no doubt you have committed my earlier postings to memory, so you know this too), I sometimes get into a rut when it comes to what to have for dinners. One thing that will jolt me out of a rut is buying a new cookbook with lots of good things to make for weeknight dinners, or even weekend dinners.

There are authors whose cookbooks I just like to have, to collect, if you will. Many of these are Australian cooks—Donna Hay, Bill Grainger, Jill Dupleix. I don’t follow celebrity chefs much (you’ll find only one Rachael Ray cookbook on my bookshelf, and that was a huge mistake, since her recipes are both bad and annoying at the same time). The books by people like Donna and Bill I do cook from. I’ve recently found a few books I want that may or may not be anything I ever cook from, but that I want anyway. The two that spring most readily to mind are the two that were written by the chef of a local restaurant called The Herb Farm. They just seem like the kind of thing I’d like to have in my collection. As well, I have a bunch of books by people like Julia Child, which I don’t think I’ve ever cooked from, but they’re the kind of thing no cookbook collection is complete without.

Which brings me to the next reason I buy a cookbook—because it’s a classic. I’m still sorting out in my mind what exactly makes a cookbook a classic, so that’s a topic for another time, but suffice to say there are books I feel are “must haves.” New books are always being added to this category (or at least, the version of this category that’s a running list in my mind). Most recently I bought The Silver Spoon cookbook. It came out in this country last Christmas, and is, according to the publisher, the definitive work on Italian cooking. At over 1000 pages, I would hope so. In any event, there are lots of obvious classics—Fannie Farmer, Joy of Cooking (ugh), Betty Crocker. And then there are the more recent classics—the Silver Palate cookbooks, the Dean & Deluca cookbook, How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.

And then there’s the fantasy element of a cookbook. Some cookbooks have recipes that I like to visualize myself making, even if I never will. I like the idea that one day I will make Warm Terrine of Sausage, Peppers, Polenta and Mozzarella and serve it as an appetizer at a dinner party. Will I ever do that? Maybe, maybe not, but I like to buy cookbooks that fuel that kind of fantasy. In fact, the first cookbook I read was one of the Silver Palate ones, and I read it because it had that dream element to it. I was in college and it provided fuel for my imagination and what it would be like when I “grew up” (something I’m still waiting on, by the way). Sometimes that fantasy element takes the form of pictures—beautiful table settings and floral arrangements—but other times it’s the recipes themselves that pull me in.

So pictures may be a driving factor, but there are so many more important reasons to buy a cookbook. If it serves a purpose, even if that purpose is only to encourage a certain amount of daydreaming, then it’s a book worth having. Of course, one could then argue that any cookbook is worth having, and I wouldn’t dispute that, although there are cookbooks I’ll never bother buying, simply because they don’t interest me. I will probably never, for instance, bother to buy the Pillsbury cookbook. I already have Fannie Farmer and Better Homes & Gardens. Chances are I probably won’t ever buy any of Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks either. Never say never, of course, but Jamie doesn’t appeal to me much. The only case in which I really can safely say never is with regard to Rachael Ray and her books. I really can say I’ll never buy another of those. One is actually one too many.