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.


Anonymous said...

so your rating is only based on the taste of the food? For me, perhaps because I am cooking for 1 most of the time, ease and speed pf preparation are big factors. I'd imagint they would be for you as well with the whole brood to feed. Maybe it wouldn't go into the rating, but would definitely figure in how often certain dishes see my table. For example, french bread pizza (made by me with light ingredients) gets a nod at least once a week. Partially to feed my pizza fix and partly because it's so easy. 5 min prep, 15 min bake. Something like 3 bean enchiladas see the light of day maybe 2X per year.


Emma Shannon said...

it's really based on taste, but often my notes will include comments like "took about 90 mins to make, not 45 like the recipe said!" so that when i revisit that recipe, i can know that yeah, it was good, but it took forEVER to make...if prep time played a role, we'd have far more 2s and 3s than 4s...we get around that by rating purely on taste, and noting cooking times in/on the recipe.