Thursday, 26 February 2009

Do cooks need recipes?

I got involved in a debate on the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog earlier this week with my former editor Matthew Fort (now the unlikely star of TV programmes like Great British Menu and Market Kitchen. I say unlikely not because I don't rate him but because I'd never have imagined him abandoning the written word for the box.)

He was arguing that people shouldn’t bother with recipes. I was saying - from personal experience - that they needed them when they were starting out. No-one cooked - as in cooked well - in my family so I had to teach myself from books, a habit I only broke when I became a more confident cook and learnt what ingredient went with what.

Last night’s meal was a case in point. I had bought a pack of frozen lamb mince (for £2.99 a kilo) a few weeks ago and thought I should start to use it up. I fancied making a shepherds pie but suspected (wrongly, actually) the lamb wouldn’t have much flavour so thought I’d give it the treatment I usually reserve for moussaka (red wine and cinnamon). I also thought I’d play around with the topping to make it lighter and dairy free (my husband is dairy intolerant) so beat in some soy yoghurt and olive oil. (Nice)

There were many ingredients I used which I would have left out or substituted if they hadn’t been available. I had a fresh carrot, for example to use up so that went in. And some fresh parsley which gave it a bit of a hachis parmentier (the French version of shepherds’ pie) touch. I could obviously have substituted beef mince for lamb and passata for tinned tomatoes. But the red wine and cinnamon gave it its distinctive character. Here’s the recipe which I rather like. And so did my other half.

Greek(ish) shepherds’ pie
Serves 4

3 tbsp olive or other oil
450g-500g minced lamb
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and very finely chopped (optional)
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp oregano or marjoram (optional)
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp tomato puree or sundried tomato puree
1/2 a 400g tin of tomatoes (save the rest for a pasta sauce) or 200ml passata
A small glass (about 125ml) red wine
About 3 tbsp chicken or vegetable stock (if you have some handy)
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the topping
700-750g boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into even sized pieces
A heaped tbsp of soy or Greek yoghurt
2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Heat a frying pan, add 1 tbsp of the oil and fry half the lamb until lightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain off the excess fat/liquid. Without adding more oil repeat with the remaining meat. Put some fresh oil in the pan and fry the chopped onion and carrot over a low heat until soft. Add the crushed garlic, cook for a minute then stir in the oregano and cinnamon, then the tomato puree, tomatoes or passata and red wine. Season lightly with salt and pepper, bring up to boiling point then reduce the heat to low and leave to simmer while you boil the potatoes.

Once the potatoes are cooked, drain them, cut them up roughly and mash them with a potato masher or fork. Add the yoghurt and olive oil, beat well then season to taste. Add a little extra stock, water or wine to the lamb filling if it has got a bit dry, stir in the parsley and check the seasoning.

Preheat the grill* Transfer the meat to a shallow dish and top with the mash, spreading it evenly over the meat. Place under the grill until the top is nicely browned.

* If you’re making this ahead you’ll need to reheat the pie in a moderately hot oven (190°C/375°F/Gas 5) for about 30-40 minutes depending whether or not you’ve taken it out of the fridge

Do you cook from recipes or do you tend to improvise? Or a bit of both? Do tell me how you learned to cook!


Unknown said...

Hi, ooh to be the first to comment! To be honest I am not that confident in the kitchen so I tend to stick to recipes, usually omitting anything that I don't like from it. Once I've made it once before, I would feel more confident about 'tweaking' it.

Also, even with recipes that I use frequently, I still have the recipe to hand, for some reason 'just in case', even though I know it off by heart. Wierd, huh?

Anonymous said...

Many things I don't use a recipe for simply because I've made them so many times that I have them tweaked exactly to our liking.

Recipes that I've never tried before I usually (but not always) stick to closely. Sometimes though, I'll look at a new recipe and think it would be tastier with something deleted or added and I'll do that.

Then, once in a great while, I'll just start from scratch and make my own 'recipe'. Sometimes this turns out horrible and no amount of tweaking would improve it, and sometimes it's ok with just a small tweak on the next try.

There are times too, when I want to try something new, but don't have all of the ingredients to hand and end up trying a substitution or two. So, do I use recipes? Yes and no. lol I guess the majority of the time I use a recipe as a "base" and go from there!

Oliver Thring said...

I read MF's post too, and had the same reaction as you. I think it's important to follow recipes pretty closely when you're learning to cook. Otherwise, you get no feel for quantities - hugely important in baking, for example - or for how to pair ingredients. Breaking this habit, though, can be hard, and recipes can come to exact a kind of tyranny over people. A tricky balance. Your shepherd's pie loooks terrific, by the way!

Anonymous said...

Anything I've made a number of times I won't use a recipe for and will feel confident trying out different things (fish pie, your basic mince dishes, risotto etc.). Some things I always use a recipe for: baking is a good example.

I've been interesting in cooking from raw ingredients for about five years and I think I'm just at the point where I can russle a decent meal up out of cupboard ingredients. It took a while, though.

Fiona Beckett said...

Well, your experiences seem to mirror mine so far.

Agree, good to be first off the mark smilernpb then everyone reads your post ;-)

Suspect you're an experienced cook already kadeeae. Good not to be stumped when you don't have the 'right' ingredient tho' (And it saves money . . . )

Hi Oliver and thanks for the compliment! Absolutely agree about baking. I only really started to cook freely when I met my husband who had learnt to cook by watching his stepfather. When you see how other people improvise it gives you confidence to do it yourself.

ang-grr - it's fun though isn't it, creating a scratch meal out of nothing much. Makes you feel really virtuous!

Anyone got any favourite dishes they reckon they've invented or adapted?

Jean said...

I need to follow recipes, which I tend to follow to the letter, because without them I end up making someone inedible and wasting money because nobody will eat it. If I stick to the recipe I can usually turn out something good. I even still read recipes for meals I've been making for years...just can't seem to retain the information even though some things I've made dozens of times!

James said...

My own blog has been bombarded since I posted a shepherds pie recipe the other week - never realised the need for a recipe, because it's something I was taught to make by my mum and gran before I could even say the word. I followed recipes to the letter till I was about 16 - then cooking by instinct took over - when you've done it so much you don't feel scared any more. Still follow recipes for anything dessert, pastry or cake wise though - that's a science. A frugal way with the lamb mince is to keep trimmings whenever you're cutting up lamb - freeze them and then defrost & mince them all in one go. You could also do this with left-over cooked ends of roast beef/ lamb - which is what is was originally.

Emski said...

I think my attitude is similar to Kadeeae and James's.

I started cooking very young, and though I followed recipes to begin with, I think by my teens I was already improvising a lot - probably helped by briefly turning veggie, and my parents declaring that I'd have to fend for myself. Now I look at recipes as a kind of base, but rarely manage to follow one through without tweaking it, even if it's the first time.

As someone who has always interpreted recipes in an elastic fashion, it's only lately that I started considering the accuracy of recipes I come across. Case in point - I decided the other week to follow a Gordon Ramsay baked cheesecake recipe to the letter - because I've never been very good at them and I trusted the source - and was pretty disappointed by the result! I think it'll work out better next time, with the half-dozen or so tweaks I have in mind!

Jen said...

Hi Fiona-

I definitley started out cooking by following recipes exactly and I agree that for most people who don't learn from family that it's the best way to go. It's so disheartening for a beginning to to go through all the trouble of making something from scratch only to have it turn out terribly and that's where I think using a good recipe can help.

That said I agree with Emski- it's so frustrating to follow a recipe to the T and have it not turn out at all so sometimes it is better to go with your instincts if you feel something is going wrong.

Fiona Beckett said...

Actually, here's a confession, notsupermum, sometimes I have to look back at my own recipes to remind myself what I did!

Good idea about lamb trimmings, James though I have a problem with leftover roast in cooked dishes. Think it works best if you mix it with fresh mince

Interesting point about accuracy of chefs' recipes Emski and Jen. Think you have to trust to your instinct. If you think 'that can't be right' it usually isn't! And however many times you read a book typos sometimes get through.

Anonymous said...

That reminds me, I got Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food book for my birthday, towards the end of last year...he has a fantastic recipe for cookies in there....yet I followed the recipe, to the letter, not once, twice but THREE times and I still ended up with a splodgy mess, and not wonderfully cooked biccies like he did - I was not happy as it cost me a lot in wasted ingredients, as it was literally, a 'splodgy mess' that was inedible. To this day, I don't know what I did wrong.

Anonymous said...

My cooking followed exactly the same pattern. When you are starting out, recipes are needed because you have absolutely no idea of method or quantity or order of adding ingredients etc etc. Now I hardly use them at all, except for inspiration and if I need to know anything about quantity or method. When I became more confident then I started experimenting and now, writing my own!

Fiona Beckett said...

haven't got Jamie's Ministry of Food smilernpb (thought I had but gave it away as a student prize and forgot to order another copy) but mistakes do slip through. Read through the quantities of ingredients again and see if any of them strikes you as odd. If you can be bothered. After 3 tries you may well not want to ;-)

And Helen, so agree. If I'm making something I haven't made before I consult a few books and the net to check out how other people have approached it and proceed from there. Except with baking.

Career Misfit said...

Funnily enough we've been having this discussion in our house lately. She's very much of the 'follow the recipe to the letter' mindset; no variations, no extras or substitutes or she's convinced it'll wreck the whole meal. I'm more impulsive with my ingredients. Case in point was tea last Thursday evening when I threw together a quick bolognese and decided on the spur to add some peppers and celery out of the fridge, along with an assortment of herbs I've been wanting to get into a meal for a while now. I reckon that both of us have learned our cookery behaviour from our parents - my dad's not much of a cook so as a kid I spent time watching my mum's approach, which is more handfuls-and-glugs than carefully measured out quantities. I've obviously adopted her tendencies.

Fiona Beckett said...

Certainly your approach is much more fun, careermisfit, and probably more frugal as it's a great way to use up ingredients you have left over. You can tell your OH that you can convert yourself to a by-the-rules cook to a let-it-happen one though, as I and others on this thread have proved!