How to know when a recipe is going to suck

Bang Bang Turkey

Bang Bang Turkey, after tossing

The New York Times failed me. I looked at their collection of leftover Thanksgiving turkey recipes and plucked out Bang Bang Turkey by Nigella Lawson. I followed it to the letter except for making a couple of strategic substitutions in the aromatic herbs. The result was beyond mediocre—a waste of 1 ½ cups of shredded turkey breast (luckily, I had divided the recipe in half). But when you take a closer look at the recipe, there are several red flags.

  1. The recipe isn’t dated. Only when I clicked this link did I discover it was originally published in 2002. That’s significant because tastes change with the times, and availability of ingredients also changes. I have some vintage cookbooks I love to work from, but I always know what I’m getting into.

  2. The recipe contains suspect ingredients: shredded lettuce, “Chinese chili-bean sauce” and superfine sugar. It was shredded iceberg lettuce back in 2002. The NYT doubtless eliminated the specificity because no self-respecting foodie eats iceberg lettuce any more, but the result is just confusing. How do I shred micro greens? As to “Chinese chili-bean sauce” there are any number of sauces at my Asian market that contain both chilis and beans, so one suspects Nigella Lawson was simply referring to whatever was in her pantry which isn’t helpful. And superfine sugar? How about regular sugar, which most folks have on hand, dissolved in the vinegar as you start to bring the recipe together?

  3. The recipe has appeared in other versions over the years, which suggests Nigella was simply winging it. Googling uncovers recipes (usually for Bang-Bang Chicken, not turkey) without the sesame oil, heated on the stove, and subbing watercress for the lettuce. All may have merit, but don’t present the current recipe as canon.

  4. The recipe is needlessly fussy. Back in 2002 Mu Shu Pork was a thing, and the table assembly aspect of that dish may have informed Bang Bang Turkey/Chicken. You are supposed to spread out the shredded lettuce on a large plate, drizzle some sauce on, mix the turkey separately with more sauce, then finally garnish with scallion and cucumber. And, pass more sauce for diners to add to their liking. But the sauce is viscous so you’re going to immediately mix up the ingredients to distribute it before serving. Now you have a tossed salad, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But let’s skip the needless foreplay.

Of these #2 is probably the most egregious and also the easiest to spot. I should have known better. Any time the ingredient list is either vague or esoteric, ask yourself if the author had a hidden agenda or was simply lazy.

P.S. If you feel like making the recipe in spite of my outrage I would advise more peanut butter, more heat and the substitution of Napa cabbage for lettuce.

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