How to know when a recipe isn’t going to come out right

My mother was a great one for buying cookbooks because they had beautiful photography or came from a famous restaurant, then throwing up her hands because the dishes were too difficult to make. I think she was a big influence on my own simpler cooking style and my desire to make recipes as straightforward as possible.

But sometimes you happen on a recipe and it seems so fascinating and exotic, you feel like just have to try it. What are your chance of success, defined as achieving the same result as the source of the recipe?

To answer that question, I’ll take a recipe that is apparently not online but was published in the Wall Street Journal on October 31, 2015 as part of an article titled “How to Get to Acadia? Hint: Come Hungry” by Matthew Kronsberg. It’s from a place called Loyal Nine in Cambridge MA, where Matt Sheehan cooks what he calls “East Coast Revival Cuisine”.

This is Chef Sheehan’s take on a traditional French Canadian dish called Ployes, a very special kind of crepe. I’m sure it’s delicious when served up in the restaurant, but consider:

  1. You have very likely never tasted this food or anything close to it, so you will not know whether you have nailed when you’re done. -20 points.
  2. It depends on a specialized ingredient you are likely to never need again: silver-hull buckwheat flour. There is a mail order source for this, but still. -10 points. (They could very easily have avoided the deduction by figuring out a workaround with regular buckwheat flour.)
  3. It contains a meta-ingredient, presented without elaboration: pickled mackerel. What exactly is this stuff? Can I use saba from my sushi supplier? Can I substitute pickled herring which my supermarket carries? -10 points.
  4. It describes on a number of precise presentation details that are subjective and probably based on what was on offer at the restaurant the night the recipe was written down, eg: 8 thin, warm slices cured pork jowl or pancetta. How thin? How warm? Any chance I could substitute bacon or maybe prosciutto? -10 points.

You get the idea. By now we have deducted 50 points out of a possible 100, meaning you are as likely as not going to fail at a prep that will satisfy your palate and impress your guests after a great deal of effort and time in the kitchen.

What else might the chef or the food writer done? First of all, tell us the key characteristics (taste and presentation) that make this recipe what it is, and then tell us how to achieve those successfully even if we don’t duplicate every single step. And, give us substitutions as long as they will work. (I’m aware that some things have no substitutes, like durian, but I don’t think silver-hull buckwheat is in this category. Let me use my Bob’s Red Mill buckwheat flour for chrissake, and tell me what the tiny shading of taste or texture is that I’m missing.)

I’m not against regional cuisine or specialized ingredients, given reasonable boundaries. In fact, I’m working on a nice Breton crepe (made with garden variety buckwheat flour) I’ll publish soon. But in the meantime, if anybody digs up this ployes recipe and tries it out, let me know how you did.

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3 Responses to How to know when a recipe isn’t going to come out right

  1. JB says:

    Oh, don’t be so lazy! If something sounds good to me, there’s no challenge I won’t tackle. If the end product is your only goal, fair enough. I like the process.

  2. JB says:

    Just kidding on the lazy thing btw.

  3. I AM lazy, so no offense taken. And I like to experiment as much as anyone, my popcorn chicken being a recent example. But my complaint is with recipes that promise a specific result, then don’t give you enough information to achieve that result.

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