Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips, where Jon discusses random facets of food history, culture, and other ephemera in order to elucidate the nuances of the culinary world for you. Jon just ate a thesaurus, hence why “ephemera” and “elucidate” showed up to cover for “Stuff” and “explain”. Today’s topic is a rather straight-forward one, focused on a recent culinary case study. Today, we’re going to talk about how you make a recipe. Not a dish, not a book, but an actual recipe. The formula for your food. Let’s dig in.
The Legitimate, The Legible, And The Legerdemain
Long time readers of the site may remember that one of our earliest Quick Tips, posted a couple years ago, was a discussion on ‘culinary legitimacy”, for lack of a better summary. (Also, weird fact: it started off with a joke about me eating a thesaurus, a bit I honestly thought I had just come up with last paragraph, so that’s amazing. I’ve started unconsciously ripping myself off, in an arrogant ouroboros of authorship.)
Soon I will be so great I hold the very world together! And get hit so hard in the future that I end up in the past!
In it, I concluded that the only thing that makes a dish ‘legitimate’ is the trust you have in the chef and the process. So it should come as little surprise that I pooh-pooh the notion that you have to be some accredited or award-winning chef before you can ‘invent’ a recipe. Perhaps that’s due to my upbringing. As I’ve noted before, the culinary authorities in my life are notoriously lax with adherence to their recipes. Between my father’s 10 part series of amendments to his favorite chili recipe (His “Bill of Spice”? Eh?) and my grandmother’s complicated cookbook ciphers, it’s clear that my family thinks recipes are more…guidelines, as it were.
And I’m certain if you asked around you’d find that the same thing was true in your family. Maybe not by much, but I bet if your grandparents HAVE written down popular family recipes, they have little tweaks or changes they like to make. A little more of this, a little bit of that, swap this fruit for another, sort of tweaking.
No, i said “TWEAKING”, TWEAKING.
The point is that I’m relatively certain that people all over the country are technically ‘inventing’ recipes any given day. And that’s more than fine. It’s great! I just wanted to talk about the process, using Monday’s post as an example.
Now, I’ve discussed this before, but I want to say it again: covering recipes on a blog like this is kind of weird. See, you can’t legally copyright a recipe. Recipes are not technically protected intellectual property. Which, if you had a relative who liked to bake back in the 90’s, you might have realized. Back in the mid-90’s, there was a brief email craze about “the $250 Neiman Marcus Cookies”, wherein a woman supposedly accidentally agreed to pay Neiman Marcus $250 for the recipe for their cookies. The email was a hoax, and actually quite an old one. The basic story of it goes back as far as 1948, connected to different businesses and dishes. The point is that the idea is that since the woman paid for the recipe, she was now disseminating it freely in revenge, a process that would not work if recipes were protected.
At least, not without a visit from the kind of guys who buy all the ‘cool’ vanity plates.
However, you CAN copyright your artistic additions to recipes. Pictures, comments or tips, and so on. And just because a thing is legal does not make it right, which was half the point of like, any given 80’s movie about saving a local community center/park/old persons home from mall developers. (By the way, this was an 80’s thing because of a tax loophole from the 50’s creating huge sprees of malls being built from the late 50’s through the 70’s. Basically, by the early and mid 80’s, America decided it had too many malls. Check Adam Ruins Everything.) As such, I make an effort to note my sources for recipes in every post, though I do mess up or forget. And today, we’re tackling technically 5 different recipes, so there’s going to be a lot of links.
A Peek into the Piqued Process
I’ve said before, in our FAQ section (that I know few people have read, because I’ve only had to give out 18 of the free chocolate bars it provides a link to) that my process for picking or creating a recipe for the site. (Back from the FAQ page? Yeah, I lied about the chocolate. But wasn’t that a fun journey? I had to go back and edit some stuff and had a few chuckles. ) Anyway, I mention in there that, when I have a recipe in mind, I look up sites for their versions of the recipe in question, and tinker with them before making my own. Which is where this document comes in.
And you all thought the reference to legibility in the first section was just for the alliteration!
That set of chicken scratches are the notesI took of the 4 recipes I could find for Cajun Potstickers, a dish I covered on Monday. Now, were I a legitimate food investigator/recreator, since I was inspired by the recipe from the Highway 61 Roadhouse, I would have just hunted down the episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives that it was featured on, and attempted to replicate it. Alas, my efforts to do so were in vain, as Food Network didn’t have the episodes. I could have bought the episode off Amazon for $3, but I honestly didn’t think of it at the time.
Anyway, let’s look at what these recipes had, and what I was thinking. So, you know, keep scrolling back up to that pile of sharp vertical lines and half-assed curves that I created as we discuss.
Right off the bat, we’re looking at New Orleans flavors. To me, that says Andouille sausage, the Trinity (onion, celery, bell pepper), and spice mixes. And we can see that most of the authors agree.
The first recipe (top left) comes from Raley’s, a grocery chain in Northern California and Nevada. And we see Andouille, the Trinity, parsley, Tabasco, and garlic. That all makes sense.
Top Right comes from the blog Creole Contessa, and we can see there’s a little more leaning into the “potsticker” angle. Ground chicken, green onion, ginger, cabbage, these are all standard pot-sticker ingredients. So they’re relying on the Andouille and their seasonings to make things more “Cajun”. A perfectly valid option, and one that is not to be overlooked. If I had used a binding agent like chicken breast, the internal texture of my potstickers would have been a lot more satisfying.
Bottom left was a re-write of a recipe by Table for Two. They made their potstickers out of a mixture of Chorizo and Andouille, which sounds fine, but wasn’t what I was aiming for. Further, as you can note, their recipe was for a double batch, as the 50 wrappers suggests. This will be important in a minute.
The last recipe came from PopSugar, and as you can see, it was very simple, and very different than the rest. But not as much as you might think. Boudin, as I think we’ve covered once before, is simply another kind of Cajun sausage. Specifically, one a little more in line with an English Banger, in that it incorporates non-meat product into the sausage itself. Boudin is a mixture of seasoned meat (typically pork) and rice. And the cup of mustard greens is little different, texturally and flavor-wise, from the cabbage present in the second recipe and most potsticker recipes.
Interestingly, as you can see from the boxes at the bottom of each, the actual cooking directions were pretty much uniform: fry internal ingredients for 5 minutes, put into wrappers, cook for another 5-10 minutes. Which makes sense, as it’s really just “how you make a pot sticker”, but with the insides being cooked (presumably to bleed off some sausage oil and soften some of the veggies.)
Wrapping it all Up
So, these were my sources. At which point, I gained complete control. It was up to me to decide how to make my potstickers. I could use whatever I liked from the various recipes, and discard what I didn’t. Let’s walk through the 3 main components: the meat, the veg, and the spice.
Boudin is an interesting option, but it’s hard to find in Washington, so I was fine leaving it out. The idea of using chicken as a binder was interesting, but I decided against it for 3 reasons: firstly, I didn’t have any raw chicken breast and didn’t want to go out and buy one. Secondly, I liked the current function of this being a 1 dish dinner. By storing my wrappers on a tin foil baking sheet, I could use the same skillet for frying the ingredients, and fry-steaming the potstickers. If I needed to blend chicken, that meant I’d need to dirty (and therefore clean) the blender too.
I mean, this is the mess I made out of peppers, nuts, and BREAD. Meat would just be a monstrosity.
Lastly, I was worried about the texture. I’ve never been called on to blend chicken before, and I worried it might come out mealy or stringy. In retrospect, I wish I had something to stick it all together.
I said before I wanted the Trinity, so I stuck with that. I liked the idea of adding green onion, because it ties the two cuisines together. (And also because I had like, 3 bunches of green onion in the fridge) I actually fully intended to put garlic in as well, I just forgot in the actual preparation of the dish. The cabbage/mustard green idea REALLY appealed to me, both as another tie to original potstickers (or a fun twist on them with the mustard greens), and as an additional vegetable. But I ended up deciding against it. Partly, as I noted with the chicken, because I didn’t want to dirty another dish. And partly because I had collard greens, not mustard, and wasn’t sure they’d be quite right texturally. I didn’t want to plop some too-fibrous leaves into the dish and leave us gnawing through pot stickers.
This is where I goofed up in multiple ways, partly because of something I haven’t told you yet. As I noted in the veg section, I wanted to add garlic, and just forgot. Similarly, I actually set out Tabasco sauce to use, since it jived with the flavor profile. But, again, in the moment, I spaced. That’s why I ended up using it in the dipping sauce: to make up for leaving it out. Otherwise, hitting the veggies with some Creole spice seemed like a good idea.
However, I forgot a component of the original Hwy 61 Roadhouse dish: the postickers are filled with Andouille, veggies, AND SAMBAL.
Dun dun DUNNN!
Sambal, in case you’ve forgotten from our Chicken Salad post in July, is a thick chili paste. Which just reinforces the core error I made in this recipe: time and again I had the opportunity to add moisture and unity to the inside of the dish, and time and again I turned aside. Of course, I had solid reasons most of the time, but this is where, as a chef/cook/creator, you get to look at your logic, and where it let you down.
Which is not the same as saying that “you’re an idiot for doing it wrong.” We don’t know that ANY of the fixes I’ve suggested would have actually FIXED it. Maybe the collard greens wouldn’t have improved it. Maybe the Sambal would have over-powered the Andouille. Maybe I would have over- or under-blended the chicken. These are variables that are not solved. The next time I make the dish, I’ll try something else, and maybe it’ll work better. Or maybe it won’t. Maybe I’ll just find different kind of “not as good as I hoped” Cajun potsticker. But you don’t improve by doing nothing. That’s why we go out, we fail, and we try. It’s the core of our catastrophes: THIS dish may not have worked, but hopefully I learned something, so next time I can do better. And hopefully YOU can do better, when you take what I’ve shown you, and go further with it, and tweak it your way.
MONDAY: JON MAKES A DISH OF BEEF AND NOODLES THAT’S PRETTY COOL. BECAUSE IT’S SERVED COLD. SOBA STEAK SALAD.
NEXT THURSDAY: I HAVE A COUPLE OPTIONS, BUT I WANT TO TALK TO MY PATRONS ABOUT IT FIRST, SO I’LL GET BACK TO YOU ON MONDAY.