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android image for appLike anyone who regularly uses cookbooks,  I’ve often found a vast disconnect between how long I think a recipe will take and how long it will actually take.  Add in ingredients you were sure were right there in the fridge but aren’t, the typical household chaos on a weeknight at 5pm, the time it takes to get used to a new recipe, a naturally over-optimistic temperament – and you have a scheduling disaster in the making.

Over the years I’ve learned that if I’m serious about avoiding hunger-induced family meltdown, I have to give scheduling just as much thought as I give  the shopping list – that is, I have to at least try and guess what I’m going to need rather than winging it all the time.  And if the cookbook gives an estimated prep time, I usually just ignore it because it’s bound to come up short (in my experience, maybe 10% of time estimates are accurate.  The rest are too short.  Or maybe I’m just slow).  Anyway, here’s my time estimation method – maybe some of my tips will help you with yours.

1.  Read the ingredients list.  It’s the rare ingredients list that doesn’t have some prep embedded in it – anything from “garlic, finely chopped” to the dreaded “tomatoes, blanched, peeled and seeded” or “chilies (toasted, soaked, seeded, and chopped)”.  For a list of a dozen or less ingredients where half call for a knife and half for measuring, I’ll give myself some 15 minutes – that’s maybe a  little short, but you can usually get a little more chopping done once the onions are in the pan.

2.  Skim the instructions, looking for time indications.  Obviously, look for the words “about [X] minutes “. Keep a sharp lookout for “hours” – somehow “hours” and the stealthy “overnight” tend to hide  until you run into them with 15 minutes left till dinner.  Also look for the word “until“.  Sometimes an author will give you an “until”  cue (“until half the liquid has evaporated” or “until no longer pink”) without any other time indication.  Also look for stealth time-words like “chill” and “rest“.  Add this to your estimate from the ingredients list.

3.  If it’s a new recipe (something you’ve made fewer than 5 times), always always add an additional 15 minutes or more. You’ll need it for finding your place in the recipe, flipping back and forth between recipes, finding the can opener etc etc.   Sometimes I just go for broke and round the whole thing up to the nearest half hour.

4. Write down your estimate on the recipe or a sticky note, including idle time like rising times, chilling, marinating, resting etc.  “2 hrs (incl. 1 hr chilling)”; “Overnight + 45 min.”; “2 hrs. (incl. 15 min. rest)

5. Finally, one more thing: How many new recipes are you cooking?  If you’re cooking 2 or more new recipes simultaneously, add at least 1/2 hour for each additional recipe.  If you have idle time built in to one of the recipes (see above), you can cut that down a bit – but not by too much.

Using these general guidelines, I usually can hit dinner on the mark at 6pm without driving myself too crazy in the process.  I can sometimes carry on a conversation with my husband – though sometimes he has to endure a bit of lag time in the dialogue when my circuits are really oversubscribed – and maybe even enjoy a sip of wine or two.

A few more tips for streamlining

  • Mise en place.  Yeah, you know you’re supposed to do it, but you don’t.  It really makes a huge difference.  Do, do, do  get out all your ingredients first.  This really pays off with herbs and spices – can’t tell you how many years of my life I’ve spent hunting for the dried sage.  For baking recipes, I get out all the measuring cups and spoons whether or not I think I’ll need them.  But you don’t have to pull out every last prep bowl.  The goal is once you get in front of your chopping board, not to leave till everything’s prepped. (For this reason I often prep backwards, doing the meat last so I can do everything on one board without worrying about contamination.  I’m sure that would horrify many chefs.  But it’s what I do.)
  • Sharp knives.  Makes all the difference in the world.  My aim in life is to properly sharpen them once a week, but actually it turns out to be more like once every 3 or 4.  If your knives are not in great condition, at least run them over a sharpening steel each day before you start.   It takes 15 seconds and saves you an agony with the onion.
  • Use a timer.  As a true “out of sight, out of mind” cook, I’ve burned any number of things simply because they were in the oven and I forgot about them till they sent up a smoke signal.  I still do, unless I use a timer.  In general, I can only wing it if I’m prepping just one dish, with one time I have to keep track of and it’s less than 15 minutes.  Otherwise, forget it.  It’s not without its flaws, but I find this 3-line Maverick kitchen timer to be a big help.
  • Clean up as you go. Start with your ingredients on one side of your board.  As you prep, move the remainders to the other side, sorted by whether they go back in the fridge or pantry.  Once you’ve got your ingredients prepped, spend half a minute just getting stuff off your counter.  The one exception is flour.  I always leave out the flour, because you always end up needing it for something later.
  • Don’t clean up as you go. This is maybe controversial, but I never wash dishes as I cook unless I happen to find myself with idle time in the middle (marinating, chilling, rising etc.) or extra time at the end.  Assuming you don’t have a designated dish washer person, just put everything in the sink and leave your hands free for that knife, silicone spatula, or wooden spoon.
  • Don’t answer the phone.  You may think you can carry on a phone conversation and read a recipe at the same time.  You can’t.  For some reason it’s easier to talk to someone who’s in the room while you’re testing a recipe than it is to talk to someone over the phone.

Of course, accidents will happen.  I spilled my already-mixed flour, baking powder, salt and sugar for okonomiyaki all over the floor yesterday.  The week before I spilled a solid 5 pounds of rice everywhere, and I still don’t keep the vacuum in the kitchen.  Recipes are fallible, and so are people.  But in the end, I always tell people, we can always order pizza.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

So are we good to go?  Tie on an apron, put on some music, and – ready, set, cook!

rhubarb-cherry tartlets

Leftover rhubarb + leftover cherries + leftover tapioca + leftover pie dough + random idea + rainy day = exactly 4 rhubarb-cherry tartlets

To be baked off some time before dinner today, but shh – don’t tell the kids.  It’s a surprise.

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I’ve been reviewing cookbooks for some 12 years now.  Every once in a while, I write a critical review.  It doesn’t happen terribly often – maybe 2 or 3 times a year, a small fraction of the total.   There’s a reason bad reviews are infrequent: if a book looks really unpromising, my editor and I generally just don’t consider it for review.   It’s of no service to anyone for me to waste the paper’s column space trashing a lousy book, when there are so many good ones waiting for coverage.

I test most books for a good week.  I might test up to 15 or 16 recipes if I’ve had a chance to dip into the book for non-work-related purposes, but I never test fewer than about 8.

I often give a recipe the benefit of the doubt:  say I sloshed a bit when I was pouring soy sauce into my measuring spoon, or my oven thermometer battery died and I didn’t notice.  Suppose I eyeballed 1/3 cup of chopped nuts instead of measuring them.  My eye is pretty good at this point, but I’m human.  If I have any doubt that I didn’t follow the recipe to the letter, I disclose it in the review, or I give the recipe some leeway – for example, if it’s too salty from the sloshed soy, I know not to blame the author.  If I “fix” a recipe that’s going wrong, as we all do sometimes, I say so.

When the testing’s going downhill on a book, my heart sinks with it.  I know that when the review is published, someone – probably someone really nice – is going to have a bad day.  On the other hand, I think of the readers who rush out to buy the book, swept up in the 4-week wave of publicity that carries cookbooks out to the world.  I have a responsibility, I tell myself, to share what I know.  And cookbooks in particular are hard to judge when you’re standing in a bookstore, trying to guess which recipes will work.

That’s why, when I write a critical review, I pretty much stick to the facts.  As Pete Wells so entertainingly demonstrated in his famous takedown of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant, a hatchet job can be a kind of prose holiday – you can take stylistic liberties that normally wouldn’t be on the menu.   But I don’t think I’ve penned a rant since my very earliest days reporting (and when I did, my editor had the wisdom to tone it down), because I can’t help thinking about how the author will feel.  I know how I’d feel.

In fact, every time I write a story, whether it’s a review or some other kind of feature, there’s comments and feedback.  Most of it’s helpful, and some of it is downright pleasant.  But every once in a while, someone goes ballistic, and I’m reminded that a tough skin doesn’t usually come with the package for those of us born writers.

On those occasions, I sometimes find it helpful to imagine my own critics as tiny figures on the floor, shouting through miniature megaphones, yet still inaudible.  “What’s that you say?” I reply. “I’m sorry, can you speak a little louder?  I just can’t hear you!”

So, cookbook authors, you might consider doing the same.  If I’ve reviewed your book unfavorably, imagine me as a very, very small T. Susan Chang, in a grimy apron, brandishing a tiny wooden spoon.  After all, in the scope of things, a cookbook reviewer is just a small cog in a great wheel.  You won’t be far off from the truth, and it might make you feel a whole lot better.

The views expressed in this blog post are entirely my own and not those of the Boston Globe.

A couple of years ago, I started keeping track of everything we cooked and ate–dinners anyway.  It was mostly a practical matter:  as I tested more and more and more cookbooks for the Globe and NPR, I never got to enjoy even my favorite recipes more than once or twice because I couldn’t remember what they were or where to find them.

So I started keeping records.  And I realized that every month or so, it turned out that there was at least one kind-of-mindblowing recipe worth returning to and telling people about.

As of tomorrow, I will start sharing my favorite 14 or 15 lick-the-pan, sauce-on-your-nose, hoard-the-leftovers recipes from 2012.  I’ll post one every few days, with the story of how we discovered it, what book it came from, and how you can get it, too.

The publishers have kindly consented to let me reprint the recipes here on the blog, with original photos where available.  So tie on your aprons and fire up your Pinterest!  We’ll get underway first thing in the morning.

 You know how you’re standing in front of the cookbook shelves at the store, leafing through cookbooks and trying to figure out which one to take home, and you feel paralyzed and uncertain, and you question yourself, and then when you finally make up your mind you’re sure you made the wrong choice?  That’s my life as a cookbook reviewer.  The subjective nature of choosing the best cookbooks can be overwhelming.  Sometimes I question myself into oblivion.  (It doesn’t help knowing that my picks will move the market. They always do. No pressure or anything!)

But this time, I paid very close attention to my questions, and I realized that they basically boiled down to a manageable number.  In fact, just seven.  I was so happy to realize that these could be named that I printed up little cards to score the books and stuck them to all my shortlisted candidates.  Here’s my questions–who knows, maybe they’ll help you the next time you’re having brain freeze in the Cookbooks section.

Question 1:  Is it useful?  This means, would an enthusiastic home cook (anyone ranging from a fast weeknight cook to a thoughtful gourmand) be able to find recipes in this book that would satisfy them for a week straight of cooking?

Question 2:  Is it thoughtful? This means, has the author thought of the reader’s needs? Are there hard-to-find ingredients and if so, is there guidance as to where to find them? Are there multiple sub-recipes you have to hunt around for?  Are there clarifying tips in the instructions?  Are there side essays, helpful sidebars and charts?  Do the headnotes help you cook the recipe?

Question 3:  Is it new?  Are at least a majority of the recipes really new?–i.e. not just another recipe for roast chicken or meatballs or insalata caprese with the exact ingredients you’ve always made them with in more or less the same proportions.

If I can’t say at least a partial yes to all three of those first questions, I don’t get to choose it for the shortlist.  After that we get into the refinements.

Question 4: Does it tell a story?  Not everyone likes a story in their cookbooks, but I do.  I like colorful headnotes, reminiscences, and anecdotes–they show me that the author has really put their heart and soul into the book.

Question 5: Is it well-designed?  Design is so important that a lack of it can ruin a cookbook that is otherwise useful, thoughtful and new.  Cookbooks are working books, and they should look like they’re meant to help you, not like a postmodern art installation.

Question 6: Is it focused?  A lot of cookbooks are simply collections of everything the author has ever cooked, or cooked in the last year.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and this concern can be overridden by awesome design or thoughtfulness or usefulness.  But in such an overcrowded market, focus is important.

Question 7: Is it the best of its kind?  Or at least, the best that I’ve seen.  What a hard question this is to answer!  The answer is almost never Yes.  But asking it helps me sort out my thinking.  If the answer is, “It just might be…” that’s a huge endorsement right there.

I also have known biases, which I have to be on rigorous watch for: 1) I’m a total sucker for great design, even in a bad cookbook.  2) I get annoyed when there are 2 systems of measurement in a book.  3) I am happiest when I see a wide variety of publishers, including underdogs.  These I consider unreasonable biases, and much of my time goes into re-weighting my judgements to counter those biases.

I have this grandiose sort of suspicion that the publishers are paying attention to my preferences, because the cookbooks just keep getting better and better with each year.  They may be paying attention, or they may not be,  but it’s still a win for everyone.

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