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Matthew Jacob

Matthew Jacob

Posted: June 24, 2010 08:01 AM

In Search of Recipe-Zen

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The people who prepared meals for the British crown during the 14th century were not following precise instructions. The Forme of Cury, a collection of recipes for dishes served to King Richard II and his barons, offered crude directions. One of its recipes gave cooks these instructions: "Take rabbits and smite them to pieces; seethe them in grease."

Thankfully, today's recipes are more detailed and less gruesome. As the recession lingers, many Americans are cooking and eating more of their meals at home -- a fact that has made recipes more relevant than ever. And this habit may not be as cyclical as the economy. In a 2009 poll by Wakefield Research, 90 percent of Americans agreed with this statement: "After the recession, I will continue to cook at home as often as I do now."

Pop culture is cashing in on this trend. The vampire-themed Twilight series of books and movies has inspired a cookbook. It's appropriately named Love at First Bite. Last month, Scripps Networks launched the Cooking Channel, which will provide even more recipe ideas for amateur, at-home chefs like me.

When I find the time to cook at home, I'm a decent cook, but not a dazzling one. My approach to choosing recipes is summed up by the four-word disclaimer that appears in many TV commercials for sports cars: "Professional driver. Closed course." In other words, when I read a recipe or watch a cooking show, I take stock in the degree of difficulty involved.

Almost every recipe requires a degree of precision in the timing and technique. Even when you think you have everything under control, stuff happens. Eggs curdle. A roux becomes lumpy. Maybe that's why I sometimes feel sorry for the aspiring chefs on TV's "Hell's Kitchen" who have endured Gordon Ramsay's tirades.

When I cook, I seek recipes that aren't too tricky or time-consuming. Here's my system for deciding which recipes make the cut.

First, I look for key words in a recipe that tip me off that a particular dish might be out of my league. A term like "cheesecloth" or "bouquet garni" is an automatic disqualifier. If I really want a dish that requires fussy accoutrement or ingredients that aren't in my kitchen, I'll allow a restaurant chef to cook it for me.

Second, I consider how long it will take to prepare a recipe. Typically, the longer the recipe text, the longer the preparation time, and I've developed a formula to calculate this time. For every 60 words of text in the recipe's directions, I assume at least 10 minutes of prep time will be required -- whether it's spent cracking eggs, blanching peaches or scoring a pork roast.

Add the number that is produced by this formula to the actual cooking time, and -- presto -- you have an educated guess of the total time you'll invest to prepare a certain dish.

My fellow Huffington Post blogger, Craig "Meathead" Goldwyn, recently posted this article about making barbecue ribs, and the recipe looked enticing. Yet the instructions alone were 1,193 words long. In other words, making barbecue ribs à la Goldwyn will cost you an entire afternoon.

I have to really adore a dish to invest that much time preparing it. Yet I do admire the lengths some people have gone to in order to make a favorite dish or meal.

Claude Monet's cook, Marguerite, had to heat three cups of spinach leaves just to produce the natural green dye that colored the frosting on the birthday cake served each year to the French artist.

Spinach leaves may seem like a strange ingredient for a cake recipe, but anyone who has scoured bookstores and the web for recipes will stumble on some truly bizarre concoctions. Like "eggplant quick bread." Are you kidding me?

Few things are more frustrating than misplacing or never acquiring a treasured family recipe. T. Susan Chang, a Boston Globe food writer and NPR contributor, struggled for many years to recreate her mother's apple cake recipe.

As with most types of human trauma, the first stage was denial.

"It was many years before I realized the apple cake recipe was missing, and when I did I refused to believe it," Chang recalled. Although she has never found the recipe for the apple cake, she apparently found the recipe for a dose of zen.

"Maybe the perfection of my mother's apple cake was a moving target," Chang wrote, "never to be satisfied until I made peace with life itself."