Sunday, 13 July 2014

End this madness now

By: Mr Robot

Among my many failings neurotic pedantry has always been a favourite, and recipes provide almost infinite opportunities for a crisis of common sense.

I've been playing with Jason Atherton's Social Suppers - a fine book which I won in Page to Plate's giveaway (thanks!) and am enjoying greatly - but today ran into a particular bugbear: the ludicrously unnecessary precision that comes up in these things.

Not that I'm singling Chef Atherton out by any means - it's just the book that happened to be in front of me - but here he gives a fine example of this pernicious habit.

Very slightly less than half a bottle of wine

The recipe calls for, and I quote:
2 onions
2 carrots
2 sticks of celery
1 head of garlic
1 leek
125ml soy sauce
375ml white wine
etc etc

Go through that that again, slowly. Three hundred and seventy-five ml of wine? Really?

If you have a certain mindset, that already looks suspiciously precise for what is basically half a bottle, but read on and it gets better.

Once the veg are softened the (also dubiously specific) soy sauce goes in and gets reduced "by half". Then the wine goes in, again to be reduced "by half".

Never mind that my veg are beardy organic types in deviant sizes, how in the name of sanity am I supposed to establish that, of this pan of vegetable, cooking oil, soy sauce and wine, precisely 187.50ml of it is el vino?

I reckon that's 203.48ml wine - another 2 minutes then 

It's absurd, clearly, and drives me mildly potty. So why bother with it in the first place? I have two theories. Either:

  • The obsession with detail required to become a Michelin-starred chef is so all-consuming they simply can't help measuring absolutely everything no matter how inappropriate - which begs interesting questions of, say, the wedding night, or
  • This is something dreamed up by editors and publishers who believe that we, the humble book-buying public, need it for the sake of credibility or overcoming our own ineptness. 

I lean toward the latter, and imagine the editorial meeting thus:

Editor:  This "half a bottle" of wine you've got - can we change that? It's a bit woolly.
Chef:    That's how much goes in
Ed:       But it's not very cheffy is it? They'll think you're just winging it.
Chef:    Ok then, put 350ml
Ed:       Nah, no good - they'll see right through that
Chef:    [sighs] Fine, make it 375ml but don't blame me if some nutter starts ranting on the internet

Not that I want everything to be like our venerable Quaglino, where the assumption is that the cook knows practically everything anyway and the book is largely redundant. Opening a page at random we find
FAISAN CASSEROLE: cook pheasant in butter and finish with pieces of bacon as a garnish, a little gravy and serve 
which is followed by
FAISAN DEMIDOFF: Same procedure as for Quail Demidoff 

(I suspect M. Quaglino was a fan of Spinoza)

Quaglino's Complete Hostess

But there must be some middle ground where we can get useful detail without being treated like children with recipes that, if you think too hard about them, start to look like fairy tales.

Perhaps it's just my peculiar mental frailty that I even notice these things, never mind get wound up by them. But if the interweb is good for anything, it's surely the opportunity to inflict our personal neuroses on the world.

Incidentally, the recipe in question was Braised Pork Belly with Chorizo & Pepper Puree and Spiced Onions. Once I'd stopped ranting and actually cooked the thing, it was absolutely magnificent.


  1. Mr. Robot, I so much enjoy Mrs. Robot's blog, and just started reading this one. What joy, two kindred spirits to read now! I'm a Yank (and an OAP, by the way) and what I most hate about recipes here are the ones that give unsolicited advice; for example, "use quality peanut butter." Actually, any recipe in which peanut butter is but one ingredient will probably not be significantly harmed by "lesser quality peanut butter," whatever that is. For me, it's pb with added sugar, but of course, that is not said. My other favorite is "using a clean tea-towel, pat the XX dry." It could be that using a slightly less than pristine towel might be good for your immune system, you disinfectant freaks! Anyway, I'm enjoying your point of view. If I ever escape my current level of poverty, I will come to England and treat you and the Missus to a dinner out. Cheers, Kate in Oregon

    1. Hi Kate, lovely to hear from you - thanks for dropping by. Can't help thinking I overreacted a bit, so I'm glad someone enjoyed it.

      It is absurd though isn't it - I'll use a clean tea-towel when I find one, thanks very much. Mind you, I might just sue if I catch some horrible disease from filthy tea-towel nobody told me to avoid...

      My recent obsession with Guy Fieri and all things Triple-D has pushed Oregon waaay up the holiday list so maybe dinner will be on us one day. :-)

      All the best,


    2. Pete, how did you know that watching Guy Fieri is a guilty pleasure of mine? The amazing range of people he finds out there cooking their hearts out. Now in my sleepless moments I can plan where we'll go to dinner... ( And, I rather prefer overreaction to the general mindless acceptance of whatever the "experts" say.) Thanks for the conversation, Kate