September 17, 2009

Rules of Perfection

1.  The recipe will be followed.  Shortcuts will not be taken, techniques will be followed.  Measurements will be precise.  There shall be no second-guessing; Heston put a lot of work into his search for perfection, and I must not mess it up with haphazard slap-dashery.


2.  Whenever possible, the same ingredients will be used.  I will do my best to use the same flours as Heston, the same oils, meats, and vegetable varietials.  Realistically though, I live in Dubai, and I’m not able to pop down to the local farmer’s market for fresh, local meats and produce (though there are non-supermarket sources for food, like the fish market and fruit and vegetable market, lots of the items there are still imported from more agriculture-friendly climes).  Additionally, Dubai’s carbon footprint is enormous.  When I can’t find the exact ingredient, I will do my absolute best to source the best possible equivalent, local where possible.  I’m not going to break the bank and add to environmental woes by specially importing any items unless they’re absolutely essential and I cannot find a reasonable substitute here.

3.  There will be a reckoning.  Each time I cook one of Heston’s “perfect” recipes, I’ll also prepare an “imperfect” version of the same dish, using the most convenient or oft-used technique and ingredients.  I’m doing this because it should help to highlight what makes Heston’s recipes “perfect” compared to the bog-standard versions.  When possible, the recipes will be tested by unbiased guests and rated.  Otherwise, my long-suffering husband and I will rate the two recipes on our own.  I’ll then decide whether the “perfect” recipe is going to replace the standard method, and whether it gets added to my repetoire or not.  In some cases, I may decide to synthesize the perfect and imperfect recipes into something that (in my kitchen) will be “good enough”, and will share this synthesis online.

September 15, 2009

Duelling philosophies

Read part one here.

To be honest, I have quite a bit of time on my hands here in Dubai.  After working my butt off as an ERP project manager for the past 11 years, I’ve now become a housewife.  (This is due to a combination of my Canadian project ending – successfully – at the same time the global recession hit.  I’m now in the Dubai job market, but employers are not exactly lining up at my door.)  Truth be told, I make a pretty bad housewife – both of our kids are four-legged, so the schoolrun doesn’t exist, and I’d rather stick my nose in a book or putter in the kitchen than become the perfect housewife in an immaculately clean home.  I’m also not much for the fabled Dubai expat-wife lifestyle of coffee mornings, sessions at the gym or with my tennis instructor/personal trainer/yoga guru, lunch with the girls, followed by beauty treatments and fabulous shopping, sundowners, and a night out.  But I digress…

Anyhoo, I have time on my hands and a great love of food and cooking.  And I heart Heston Blumenthal.  So, why shouldn’t I be the one to test out the recipes and achieve perfection at home?  Why not, indeed?

I have a huge number of cookbooks, food magasines, and love to read about food on the intarweb.  (I’m one of those people who reads cookbooks in bed.  Sexy, no?)  I’ve also been addicted to cooking shows since I can remember – there’s something about how the ingredients are pre-measured and prepared that fascinates me (as well as the “here’s one I made earlier” – it’s magic!!) Despite this, I cannot follow a recipe to save my life.  I always want to doctor it up in some way, usually because I think it will be improved by the addition (garlic is usually added when the recipe doesn’t call for it, or more garlic than called for), sometimes because I don’t have the ingredients on-hand (even when I go out with a shopping list, I invariably forget something, or assume that I have the item at home, when I actually don’t).  My husband is used to being sent off for last minute purchases, but sometimes he can’t find the ingredient, or just buys the wrong things.  So, the recipe gets “fixed”.

I learned my basic cooking skills beside my parents and my grandmother, all of whom cooked “by feel”, and who encouraged experimentation.  Therefore, I’m very comfortable in the kitchen, and have a repetoire of “standards” that I can make without consulting a recipe.  When I do use recipes, I use them as guidelines, suggestions, and for inspiration.  I unabashedly substitute ingredients, incorporate others, skip steps, add steps, and take shortcuts.  Measurements are imprecise; normally eyeballed, or otherwise estimated.  I whack up the heat when things aren’t cooking fast enough, and knock down the heat when they are cooking too fast.  (Incidentally, my natural desire to spice things up a bit, and to fiddle has done atrocious things to anything I decide to bake.  Clearly, baking is chemistry, cooking much less so.  Result:  I rarely bake.)  My food is usually good, sometimes excellent, and rarely inedible (either that, or I’m just really hungry after I’ve finished).  Results are generally unrepeatable.  Failures are spectacularily bad (ramen noodles cooked in beer – I shall say no more).  But I learn.

Heston’s recipes are the antithesis of my cooking style.  Measurements, timings. and temperatures are exact.  Ingredients are specific.  (Not just “a potato” is required, rather “a potato of variety X which has been stored at temperature Y and which weighs Z grams, sourced from a field which contains the following specific trace minerals in the soil, and which has been fertilized with an organic product made from the waste of happy, free range animals by a farmer in Somerset name Doug.)  Techniques are minutely detailed; slapdashery inconceivable. 

It was obvious that if I was going to test out Heston’s recipes, there would have to be a sea-change in my philosophy of cooking, from following recipes to sourcing ingredients.  In short, there would have to be rules.