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Most important recipe ingredient? Good judgment

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Carla Lalli Music edits food features for Bon Appetit magazine, but even though she reads recipes all day and peruses them in books and magazines the rest of the time, she is not one to exactly follow recipes in her own kitchen.

"I can't tell you the last time I measured out 1 tablespoon of olive oil," she says in her first post for the magazine's new "Cooking Without Recipes" online feature at bonappetit.com.

"I learned how to make food from my mom, and later by working as a line cook in some pretty fancy restaurants," she says, "so when I plan a meal, I start with something I know, use the techniques I've learned, and take some chances."

It doesn't matter whether you learned to cook from your mother or grandmother, your uncle or yourself. Nor does it matter where you got your experience. You can use what you know and take some chances, just as Music does, and likely with good results.

You have to be brave and a little creative, but if you are reading this column, you are probably both. Some of you have told me that you read cookbooks as you would novels. I suspect you do so as much to get ideas as to get specific recipes.
I don't know many folks who meticulously collect and measure exactly all of the specific ingredients called for in a recipe. Even when you choose a recipe that sounds particularly good, you may end up substituting something you have on hand for an expensive or hard-to-find ingredient. And then there are personal and family preferences to consider.

When trying a recipe for the first time, I usually follow it closely, although sometimes I substitute similar ingredients and adjust amounts. And still other times, I look at the ingredients I have on hand and call on my memory for combinations and techniques I have read about or used in the past that will make them come together.

Pasta and rice are my favorite made-up meal starters. They can be combined with almost anything in nearly any proportion for a comforting and satisfying dish.

Bone Appetit's Music makes pasta with greens when there is nothing in the house to eat, when she is eating alone or when a friend stays for dinner. It can be made with any green vegetable from kale to green beans to broccoli and with any pasta shape.

And here's an idea. It isn't crucial to the dish, but if you happen to have some cheese broth on hand it will elevate any pasta dish to delicious heights.

Here's Music's method for making it: Save the rinds of Parmesan and/or Romano cheese in a zip-top bag in the freezer until you have about 2 cups. Add them to a pot with about 4 quarts of water and simmer for a few hours, stirring occasionally to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Strain, cool and freeze in 1- or 2-cup containers until needed. Use to flavor beans, tomato sauces, vegetable soups and pasta.

Here is her non-recipe for pasta with greens.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add plenty of salt, about 1/4 cup for 6 quarts of water. The water should taste like the ocean, says Music.

Sauté some chopped garlic in a pan with enough olive oil to barely brown the garlic. If you like, add red chile flakes for a kick and some protein in the form of diced pancetta or bacon, crumbled sausage, anchovies, or leftover beans or maybe some pitted olives. Remove from heat and set aside.

Add any shape pasta you have on hand to the boiling salted water. When it is about halfway through its cooking time, add the chopped greens. The salted water will season the greens and the greens will season the pasta.

While the greens and pasta cook, grate the hard cheese of your choice.

Just before the pasta is done, dip out a cup of the cooking water and then drain the pasta and the greens.

Put pasta and greens back in the pasta pot over the lowest heat setting. Add the garlic and oil and meat if you are using it.

"Mix to death," says Music, then add some pasta water and cheese broth if you have it. It should look soupy in the bottom of the pan.

Stir in a big handful of grated cheese and "mix like you mean it." The cheese, oil and water will thicken and loosely coat the pasta. Add more water if it looks dry.

Serve in pasta dishes and pass extra cheese.

And one more tip from Music, "When there's no recipe, you have to trust yourself, and you have to taste and adjust as it comes together."

ON THE OTHER HAND
And then there is this tip from blogger Jade Barker, who, unlike Music, does use recipes, but like Music, says you have to trust yourself: "Next time a recipe seems weird to you, it probably is, so trust yourself and move on!"

Barker, a stay-at-home mom who has been "seriously cooking for 12 years," relies on her experience as a former chemist when considering recipes.

In a post at cookingsmartathome.com titled "How to Pick a Good Recipe," she suggests looking for these features to find a recipe that won't let you down:

A modest list of ingredients. A long list of ingredients can be a deal breaker. Unless you plan to spend a good deal of time assembling the ingredients and are sure of the recipe's outcome, opt for what Barker calls a "close enough" version. For example, an authentic Mexican mole sauce might call for 10 different spices to create layers of flavor, but you can likely find a recipe that uses only a couple of spices or spice blends and yields good results.

Easy to find ingredients. Driving across town for an ingredient increases the time, labor and cost of a recipe.
nMeasurements that are round numbers. Recipes for the home cook are usually measured in 1/4 or 1/3 cup increments. When a recipe calls for, say, 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon of an ingredient, it may have been scaled down from a much larger recipe. That isn't necessarily bad, but Barker cautions the newly scaled-down version may not have been tested.
Sometimes recipes are written that way because the first amount will be used in one part of the recipe and the other amount will be added later.

Familiar units of measurement. Metric measurements indicate that a recipe was written in another country. Of course, you can find the equivalents with the help of conversion charts, but you run the risk of error and the possibility of some very odd fractions. Try to find a similar recipe with familiar units of measurement.

Countable items counted, not measured. Ingredients that are measured by volume instead of per item (1/2 cup of chopped onion vs. 1 medium onion chopped)indicates that the recipe was developed by someone who has a large amount of ingredients (chopped onions in this instance) prepped and ready to go. However, unless you are baking, where measurements have to be exact, it is fine and simpler to use an item instead of a volume amount.

No more than three dirty dishes at the end. Because most home cooks are also the servers and dishwashers, the fewer dirty dishes you end up with after preparing a recipe, the better.

And says Barker, you can't always depend on a photo when choosing a recipe. Depending on the source, the photo may have been heavily styled or simply chosen from a service whose goal it is to make available the most attractively appetizing photos possible, not necessarily the most realistic.

Having said all that, though, I would like to add that if you always play it safe and go for the fewest and most accessible ingredients, don't try recipes from other countries and aren't willing to wash a few more dishes once in a while, you could miss out on some fabulous cooking experiences.

Once again, the key is to trust yourself when considering a recipe. Because we are busy and want to put good meals on the table in timely fashion, quick and easy recipes serve most of us very well most of the time.

If you are considering a recipe that sounds wonderful, but requires special ingredients, a little more time and perhaps a technique that is new to you, give yourself plenty of time for the preparation and go into it with a positive attitude.

Other suggestions: Read the recipe all the way through as many times as it takes for you to envision all the steps.

Measure all ingredients and line them up in the order they will be used. Have accessible all of the utensils and appliances you will need. And don't plan to serve it to company the first time you make it.

LOOKING ONLINE
A blogger, who signs herself sbaral@xanga on ireallylikefood.com, gives five criteria for choosing a recipe that is likely to work for you. These are especially helpful when looking for recipes on the Internet.

Use legitimate Web sites only. If you are spending money and time on a recipe, you can tip the scales in favor of success by using recipes from a Web site you already trust, or one suggested by someone you trust. Sbaral suggests Allrecipes.com and FoodNetwork.com. I can add About.com, Epicurious.com and Cooks.com. There are many more, of course, and you should also check product Web sites because it is in their interest to provide you with recipes you will make over and over using their products.

Ratings, ratings, ratings! Sbaral follows readers' ratings on Web sites. While an unrated recipe may turn out to be great, it is nice to know that a lot of readers, especially those who have tried the recipes, have given it three, four or five stars. Look for recipes with the highest number of ratings and the most stars.

Read the comments. Bloggers and contributors provide valuable feedback about a recipe as well as useful suggestions for improving it. Take note of often repeated positive and negative comments.

Use the photos. Unlike Barker, Sbaral says pictures can be a good guide for determining what your finished product should look like. Many bloggers are meticulous about photographing a recipe at every step of the way as well as showing photos of the finished product. I think you can trust these.

Research the recipe. Most Internet recipes have been posted by more than one blogger. If you want to see if it will be worth your time, try "Googling" it to see what other folks have to say. If more of them are underwhelmed than are excited about the recipes, chances are it won't blow you away either.

Last modified: September 13, 2013
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