Fixing the recipe as you go

If you do a lot of cooking, you start to notice that some cookbooks are better than others. Not just because the food you make from the recipes tastes better. Some cookbooks are also better than others at giving instructions that you can (and should) follow as written for the results. Other cookbooks … not so good.

My target once again is one of Rachael Ray’s recipes, from her Just in Time! cookbook. (It occurs to me that I have been, probably incorrectly, referring to this title in earlier posts without the cutesy exclamation point. My bad!) Rachael Ray’s recipes are actually better than average, with respect to being able to follow the recipe written in the book. Not nearly as good as America’s Test Kitchen … but then, who is? They’re hardcore. They test every possible permutation of the recipe, and then have all the variations submitted to tasters in a blind tasting. Not everyone can be America’s Test Kitchen.

The Rachael Ray meal in question is referred to as “Dinner at the Ivy.” This vague and unhelpful name refers to some restaurant in LA that she likes to eat at, and the “Dinner” in the cookbook is her interpretation of their Tomato Salad Stuffed Artichokes and Mushroom Tagliatelle.

First off, the cookbook said it would take 60 minutes to prepare, and it took me 2 hours. But that’s fine; by now, I double the time estimate given in any Rachael Ray cookbook. The mushroom pasta was a bit too much food for 4 servings, but not as far off as many of her recipes, so that’s fine. The issues were with the preparation.

I didn’t really like the artichoke cooking instructions she gave: put them in boiling water and put a clean dish towel on top to keep them submerged. Rachael Ray likes to dirty a lot of dish towels in her recipes (she also recommends using them to wring the water out of thawed frozen spinach, which you can do perfectly well with bare hands); but as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m not looking to have to wash any more dish towels than I absolutely have to. Also, if you submerge artichokes in water to cook them, they’re going to get pretty water-logged. I followed the ATK method, steaming the artichokes by setting them on thick onion slices so they’re just above the surface of the boiling water. Only I didn’t have any big onions (or a steamer rack, the other recommended option), so I used my dessert custard cups instead (empty, of course). This works pretty well, only you have to make sure to have the open part facing up instead of down, or they’ll jump around once the water starts boiling, and the artichokes will fall off into the water (I learned this the last time I made artichokes and didn’t have big onions lying around).

The tomato salad used to fill the artichokes involved cherry tomatoes. The recipe didn’t say anything about cutting the cherry tomatoes in half, but I thought that was ridiculous. Of course you have to cut the cherry tomatoes in half, if you’re putting them in a salad. Otherwise the flavors won’t meld properly. Also, you won’t be fitting many tomatoes into the hollowed-out artichoke if you don’t cut them in half first. Spheres aren’t going to pack together as tightly as half-spheres.

The mushroom tagliatelle recipe went more or less according to recipe. Except that when you cook the mushrooms, it says to use “medium to medium-high” heat. Well, even if you don’t have the entire skillet filled with mushrooms (and I did), they’re not going to brown on medium heat. At least not in 7-8 minutes. They’ll slowly release liquid, and you’ll have palid, unbrowned mushrooms swimming in mushroom broth for quite some time. Which is fine if that’s what you want, but it probably isn’t. With few exceptions, anything that can be browned before making a sauce or a soup should be (onions and garlic are usually exceptions, depending on the recipe). Browning food causes a chemical reaction to occur between the fat or oil in the pan, and the sugars in the food, and the product of that reaction provide depth and richness of flavor.

In any case, if you have a full pan of mushrooms and want to brown them, you pretty much have to turn the heat up all the way, or almost all the way (depends on your stove, of course). It still takes longer than the 7-8 minutes Rachael Ray thinks it takes at medium heat (unless she has some super hot stove); more like 15 minutes. And of course you have to keep an eye on them. Burning food causes a different chemical reaction to occur: the organic molecules in the food being oxidized to elemental carbon. This, of course, contributes a flavor not usually thought of as deep and rich.

Only three changes to the recipe isn’t so bad, I guess. And it’s not as if the meal wouldn’t have tasted good, had I followed the recipe to the letter. But I don’t think it would have been as good, and it would have been far more frustrating to prepare; even more frustrating than being very hungry after an hour and a half in the kitchen, and still not ready to eat.

I did make a fourth change, but I’m not 100% sure I should have. The recipe said to transfer the cooked pasta to the sauce with tongs. It was unclear whether you were supposed to drain it first. I assumed not. That seemed unwise, because it was fresh pasta, and that overcooks really easily if you leave it in the water just a hair too long. Also, it seemed that lifting it right out of the water and into the sauce would carry a lot of water along with the pasta (both into the sauce and onto the stove between the pot of pasta and the pan of sauce. And, I’m sorry, but what humongous skillet is Rachael Ray talking about here, that can accomodate sauce and 18 oz. of cooked pasta! I drained the pasta, then put it back in the empty pot and added the sauce to that. But, you know, it’s really hard to mix the mushrooms in that way, which makes me wonder if I really should have added the pasta to the sauce, not the other way around. Hmm. Maybe if I left the pasta in the colander, then transferred the sauce to the big pasta cooking pot, then added the pasta to the sauce…. Next time.

The recipe called for 1 cup of dry white wine, and I followed my friend Bob’s advice: never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink. In fact, if you use a particular wine in a recipe, a glass of that wine will often taste particularly nice with the finished meal. I used a Toscana from Antinori (an Italian wine). And it was very nice! (It’s not a super-expensive wine, either; I found it for $13 at a local liquor store.) So was the food itself.

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