A recipe for disaster

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Indy Lifestyle Online

IT FEELS like the start of a beautiful relationship. You know it is going to be risky, but it doesn't matter. Somehow, it just seems right. So you give yourself over to it, and live for the moment. But then things start to fall apart. Literally. Suddenly, everything you do is wrong. Your confidence sinks, and frustration and anger begin to set in. You blame yourself. You are the one who got it wrong. You are the one who turned something beautiful into ashes. It's not them. It's you.

IT FEELS like the start of a beautiful relationship. You know it is going to be risky, but it doesn't matter. Somehow, it just seems right. So you give yourself over to it, and live for the moment. But then things start to fall apart. Literally. Suddenly, everything you do is wrong. Your confidence sinks, and frustration and anger begin to set in. You blame yourself. You are the one who got it wrong. You are the one who turned something beautiful into ashes. It's not them. It's you.

But wait. Maybe it's not you. In that precious unspoken contract between you and your recipe, maybe - this time - it's the recipe that is at fault. In which case, it is your fault anyway, for investing it with such awesome powers. If something is printed on paper, has a nice neat list of ingredients, and says it serves four to six people, suddenly it's infallible. Let me tell you, nothing is infallible. When they say something is foolproof, I say hello. I am proof that fools are alive and well.

Sometimes it's an honest or careless mistake, like the top-selling American cookbook author who published a chicken recipe that unfortunately failed to include chicken in the ingredients. Computers were blamed. Books were reprinted. Countless chickens were saved. I have seen with my own eyes a recipe for black olive frittata in a monthly food magazine that contained no reference in the ingredients to either eggs or olives.

Sometimes it's because nobody has actually bothered to test the recipe in the first place, but this is now rare. Authors have to sign a thingy in their contract to say that their recipes won't kill anyone, or words to that effect. Ah, but proof-readers don't.

Then there is deliberate sabotage. Yes, in the seamy underbelly of international cuisine, people steal each other's recipes, and protect their own from the possibility of reproduction - even when it is published in a cookbook. I'm not naming names, but the Troisgros Brothers' terrine of vegetables "d'Olympe" was a real bugger. Maybe it was supposed to fall apart when you cut it. Or perhaps it was me, not them. In the end I just called it Terrine de Limp instead.

Some recipes look short, but are in fact long, sending you rushing to page 56 for the sauce recipe, page 125 for the demiglace and page 173 for how to butterfly the fish. Some give you too much information, and some not enough. I once had a particularly bad time with a recipe for kao soi noodles, a northern Thai dish of chicken curry with crisp deep- fried egg noodles. Deep fry the egg noodles until crisp, said the recipe. So I threw dried egg noodles into hot oil and fried until they were ... ugly, scratchy, burnt toothpicks. Eventually, I contacted the author, a renowned Thai authority, and asked him what was doing wrong. "I can't understand it," he said. "As long as the noodles are fresh, it should work perfectly". Fresh? Thanks for telling me.

My wife still has one of her grandmother's handwritten recipe books, a knocked-about old exercise book, each recipe attributed to friends far and wide. Just about every recipe has marks and notations to one side. Where one recipe called for a cup of flour, she has written "two cups", followed by three exclamation marks. Every recipe comes with its own verdict. Those that didn't work received a rather cross cross. Those that pleased got a big tick. Only very few recipes received the big three tick award.

Could I suggest that all cookbook publishers hire an elite team of grandmothers to tick and cross every new crop of cookbooks. We may know that when the recipe tells us to reduce the liquid by half we don't tip half of it down the sink, and that when it suggests we blanch we don't go pale at the thought, but sometimes cooking is a foreign language.

Luckily, there are writers you can trust, who can do no wrong; a hardcore of professionals who test and taste and help and hold your hand if you need it, leave it alone if you don't. Theirs are the recipes that don't just fail to fail, but succeed in succeeding beyond your wildest. But I know, I know. It's not them. It's you.

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