My long-suffering fiancé works in an office of seven people, including three vegetarians. The other night I was recreating a Crockpot vegetarian, green bean dish that I had made for last year’s office Thanksgiving. It was a big hit, even with the meat eaters. I had to work really hard to make it rich in flavor and mouthfeel for everyone to enjoy, and I remembered just what I had put in it before. Naturally, I hadn’t written anything down. I just used instinct and memory to make it again. Then, I went and bragged about it on Facebook. Naturally I got the inevitable request: “Can I have the recipe?” A friend who has a vegan daughter-in-law wants to make green beans for the holiday meal.
Unless I’m baking, I don’t often use recipes at home. I might check a recipe for methodology, but I’m not in the kitchen with a phalanx of measuring spoons and cups if I’m braising short ribs or making chili or marinara. Or vegetarian green beans. I won first place in the restaurant division of the Phoenix Hill Chili Cook-Off three times and, although I wrote a list of ingredients (37!) that I stuck to from year to year, I never wrote an actual recipe with weights and measurements. Rather, I’m tasting as I go. Geez, this needs more acidity. Definitely more salt. And so I go along, adding bits and bobs, until it tastes right and smells right and feels right.
Years of experience as a restaurant cook gave me the confidence to cook this way. Of course in a restaurant, consistency is important, so at some point you’ll need to write down your recipe in case you get hit by a bus, or decide to become a nun or something. And if you brag on Facebook about your cooking at home, somebody will eventually ask you for the dreaded Recipe.
“John did the bean-shopping,” I began. “He thinks it was five pounds of beans, but I think it was more like four.” Oh great, my friend Amanda was probably thinking. “All I know is that, after I snapped and cleaned them, they filled up the whole Crockpot.” It went on from there. “Maybe half a cup of white wine, three glugs of apple cider vinegar…” Amanda’s thinking, Glugs? “Shake, shake, shake of kosher salt, more salt later ‘cause I like them salty. Four shakes of celery seed.” And so on. At the end of this mess, I typed, “Sorry for the vagueness, but you’ll nail it,” with my fingers crossed and high hopes. Amanda is an accomplished cook, so I have an idea that, with my list of ingredients and directions such as “glug” and “shakes of,” she will nail it.
But you can’t write a recipe like that for the restaurant binder. What I often did then was make the dish again, using my instincts, but measuring everything this time. “Half a yellow onion, diced”? Weigh it. “Three glugs”? Measure that. But I always found it difficult to measure those little touches like “shakes of” this or that, because it’s like my arm knows how much to put in, but my brain doesn’t know how to measure it before I add it, because the arm wants what the arm wants and it can’t seem to figure it out unless it’s actually over the pot at the time. Try measuring celery seed you’ve just added now that it’s all wet and in chicken stock. I’ll wait.
So I used to set a piece of parchment paper over the pot, let the arm decide how much celery seed to shake in, then pick the parchment up, crease it and pour the ingredient out into a measuring spoon or cup, write down how much it was, then dump it back into the pot. That way you get an approximation at least that you can write down in case of the aforementioned getting thyself to a nunnery.
But really, the moral of this story is: Don’t brag on Facebook unless you’re ready to write that recipe, and don’t pat yourself on the back out loud in the restaurant kitchen about that fantastic soup you just made, because they might put that shit on the menu, and there you’ll be at 8 in the morning, shake-shake-shaking celery seed onto a creased piece of parchment, cursing under your breath.
P.S., celery seed is the bomb, and I put it in just about everything, except brownies. •
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.