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Can I just say? The word “golden” takes the prize for Laziest Word in Recipe Writing. And I say that as someone who has written “golden” into her own recipes, any number of iniquitous times.
I know, I know, what else are you going to call it? Without “golden” and its even more indispensable cousin, “golden-brown,” how can we describe the seared skin of the chicken, the crust of the biscuit, the luminous hue of the caramelized onion? Without Mr. Maillard and his golden footprint, where would we be? We might as well pack it in and convert to an all-raw diet.
No question, we need our golden food. But we need a new word – or better, lots of new words. There is almost nothing I like less in a recipe than seeing these three words: “fry until golden”. Sweet Jesus, what is that supposed to mean?! Never mind that “fry” means all sorts of different things in all sorts of different contexts. But “golden”! It could mean anything from a straw-colored roux to a daisy-yellow legal pad to a burnt-amber cork. To sum up, “golden” means “Cook it till it looks appetizing and you want to eat it. You know what I mean, don’t you? Good! now I don’t have to explain.”
Almost as bad is, “Fry until golden, about X minutes”. Firepower is different on every combination of range, burner, and cooking vessel. Without knowing what kind of golden you’re aiming for, a time estimate is pretty meaningless too. You might as well just go ahead and scale the Everest of vagueness: “Cook till done.”
OK, realistically, we’re not going to do away with “golden”. But let’s face it, the word is inadequate. How about we just use it as a starting point? Tell me what kind of gold – burnished gold? dull gold? brand-new-Sacagawea-dollar-gold? bronze? mottled? pale? Better yet, give me other sensory cues – should I wait till the protein releases from the pan? till the tofu squeaks? till the onions begin to stick? till the edges of the loaf pull away from the mold? Give me something to work with – I’m dyin’ here!
Of course, a good cook is a good cook, and even the worst-written recipe is not going to make a good cook produce a bad meal. Still, why not aim high? Why not use our gloriously rich language, so diverse in origin, so blessed in synonyms, so accommodating of nuance and simile? Remember, every time you coin a metaphor, an English teacher earns his wings!
Next time: my thoughts on coarse meal. As in “pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. ” Duck and cover!
I haven’t had a chance to post it till now, but this story ran last Wednesday on NPR’s Kitchen Window.
It’s mostly about the strength hidden in the deceptive clarity of a beef stock, and only partly about my mania for pho.