Following the Recipe

By Ivy

Recently the NY Times printed a column about following recipes exactly as a way to experience new tastes and even cultures. I know that as I’ve gotten more experienced in the kitchen, I am less likely to follow recipes to the letter. But the thought intrigued me, especially as I would like to get more variety into our menus. This is especially true for meals and foods from cultures where I have little to no first-hand experience.

What is your cooking style? And – how did you learn how to cook foods from origins very different from your own? Am I the only one who has stood in H Mart or other “ethnic” stores frantically googling ingredients on my phone? Any cookbook, blog or other recipe sources to recommend?

(I can pull a PDF article of this article if needed!)

120 thoughts on “Following the Recipe

  1. I typically follow the recipe exactly as printed, with a few expectations. If it requires a spice mix that I don’t have or don’t want to buy for one recipe, I’ll use google to try to recreate the mix. I’ll also ALWAYS decrease the butter, oil, and sour cream that are in my MIL’s recipes.

  2. Fun topic! I definitely prefer cooking with recipes and generally follow them (other than doing things like add more chocolate chips or don’t add green pepper). I’m impressed by people who cook through improvisation/making stuff up.

    My method of learning to cook new types of food (seafood (not something we ate growing up), curries, etc.) or techniques (instant pot) is to find a good cookbook. I like getting cookbooks from the library so I can try out a couple recipes and get a sense of how frequently I would use the cookbook. If there are 4-5 recipes I like, then I buy the cookbook.

    Cook’s Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen are reliable. Some other cookbook recommendations include Hero Dinners by Marge Perry (focus is on one-pan meals); Indian Instant Pot by Urvashi Pitre. And Keepers by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion.

  3. I usually follow recipes for the first time I make something. Then the next time, if something wasn’t right I can change it up. BUT sometimes I look at a recipe and can tell it won’t be spicy enough, or it won’t make enough sauce, etc., and then I will modify it given those parameters. I have also found that some people’s recipes tend in one direction: Smitten Kitchen’s main dishes are not punchy enough for me, for example (her ‘pizza beans’ that people rave about I found meh), and Joanne Chang’s recipes in the Myers and Chang book often call for too high a sauce:food ratio for my taste.

    When I’m making something new, I will also often look at a few different sources and ‘average’ the recipe between those.

  4. The question “How did you learn how to cook foods from origins very different from your own?” amuses me because (almost?) no one in either my or DH’s extended family, to my knowledge, has ever had any interest in cooking food from origins very different from their own. I think the desire to cook/eat different types of food has interesting correlations with other sociological factors.

  5. I do exactly what L said, particularly with unfamiliar cuisines. My biggest issues are recipes that are sort of toned down for the anticipated audience and recipes that rely on so much fat and/or sugar for flavor (the classic was CookSmarts, where every sauce was diluted with water, and so I just stopped adding the water). So after I try something the first time or two, I will often tinker to spike up the flavor and/or try to make it a little more healthful.

  6. I don’t cook and I usually just skip the conversation when it’s about that. But I have a question that is related. Do any of you have a Thermomix? My neighbor went on about how the latest version (6) is the best thing since sliced bread, it’s like having a robot in your kitchen, and especially good for people who aren’t cooks. I’m intrigued.

  7. no one in either my or DH’s extended family, to my knowledge, has ever had any interest in cooking food from origins very different from their own.

    Origins as in c. 19th century? As in no pizza, tacos or spaghetti*? Or is that considered mainstream and things like pho or stir fry are outside their comfort zone.

    * My Irish great grandmother felt that spaghetti was dirty ethnic food and would have no part of it. If it didn’t involve a potato, it wasn’t a meal.

  8. Rhett, without going down a rathole of exact definitions for 100 different people, I would say, no recipes that use ingredients you can’t find at the Fareway in Clear Lake, Iowa.

  9. I stick to a recipe the first time. If I like it, the second time I make it, I may tweak it. I usually read through a recipe and decide if I want to make it. If it’s overly long and very involved, I don’t try it. I like to try out different cuisines but if I look at the recipe that has a zillion steps it’s out.

  10. no recipes that use ingredients you can’t find at the Fareway in Clear Lake, Iowa.

    Browsing the Fareway in Clear Lake they have Sun-Bird Hot & Spicy Szechwan Mix, Pataks Korma Curry Sauce, Thai Kitchen Curry Paste (both red and green). It may be a small town but it’s still civilization*.

    * Although the closest starbucks is in Mason City.

  11. House Of Tsang Stir-Fry Sauce Szechuan Spicy sauce is on sale for $2.99! Sale ends 2/2/21.

    I read a very interesting article a while back about how dramatically American cuisine has changed since the 70s. Some of these ingredient you’d be hard pressed to find in Manhattan in 1971. All of these ingredients being available in Clear Lake, IA is a prime example of how much has changed.

  12. WCE, does anyone in your family ever cook out of the old Mennonite “More with Less” cookbook? That has recipes from other cultures, but they’re so watered down as to be laughable. A curry recipe that uses 1/4 tsp of curry powder, for example. I don’t care for most of the recipes in that book, but I wonder if your extended family would use it.

  13. I follow recipes because I don’t like to cook and I don’t like to experiment when I am finally making something for dinner.I had to learn how to cook or improvise more in 2020 due to the virus and I might might use a little less butter, but I would never start swapping other ingredients for the butter etc.

    I continue to use recipes from Dinner a Love Story, Ina Garten, Today Show, Food network etc. I’ve also saved a bunch of recipes from other Totebaggers and Lark. She used to post recipes that were easy for me to follow.

  14. Mafalda, I had never heard of a Thermomix, so now I’m watching youtube videos about it.

    What I really want is a sous chef and a clean-up crew. Wash, chop, and prep all my stuff for me. I can cook it myself just fine. Then I’ll retire to the library with my glass of port while the cleaning crew scrubs the kitchen spotless.

  15. RMS – YES to sous-chef and scullery maid(s)! I’ll make myself a cocktail while they’re chopping the vegetables. :)

    Rhett – my WASP ancestors wouldn’t look at a vegetable that wasn’t boiled within an inch of its life!

  16. RMS, I don’t know what cookbooks people use but probably not that one anymore. Stir fry and stir fry sauce (probably not hot and spicy) and salsa are all OK for my generation and those younger. Rhett is correct that palates, especially for my generation, have expanded but my Dad and stepmom would prefer not to have food as spicy as mild salsa.

    When I make chili, I use 2 tablespoons of chili powder in a family-size batch (1 lb ground beef, 2 cans beans, 2 cans tomatoes, 2 cans tomato sauce) and 2 T of curry in a similar size batch of lentil soup. Curry and chili powder spiciness vary by where you buy them, it seems.

    When I was in SE Asia, I was careful what I ate because food that is much spicier than I’m used to, especially with time change and on an empty stomach, makes me ill. Some days I could eat what was in their cafeteria and some days I tried it and ended up eating rice and watermelon for lunch.

  17. I know exactly the type of cooking that WCE is referring to. When I lived in Iowa I received a cookbook titled something like “How Iowa Cooks” and then when I moved to Minnesota I got something like “Minnesota Hotdish”. Both have very similar ingredients. Lots of Campbell’s Cream of ….”, and a hint of salt and pepper.

    The CSA (community sourced agriculture) I below to includes a lot of recipes with each box. The CSA is from Amish farms. Those recipes barely include salt, but at least will include herbs. The non-Amish coordinator also includes her recipes that are pure Minnesotan – no seasoning.

  18. WCE – do you think not wanting to cook things from other countries will hold true for your kids’ generation and their cousins? I think of my experience living in a small town in Vermont in the late 70s/early 80s – very few restaurants and no diversity in the restaurants. No cable tv. So exposure to other types of foods was quite limited. In contrast today where even if you live in a small town, you still have access to tons of cooking shows/travel shows, etc. And the town I lived in Vermont now has a Thai restaurant! And a taco place! And a Chinese/Thai/Malaysian fusion place! These were all unheard of back when I was a kid living there.

  19. I saw that article when it was first published. There was tremendous blowback on it. My personal opinion is that a recipe is only worth following exactly if you know the recipe writer is someone able to be truly authentic. So many recipes are just bad.

    I am on NYTimes Cooking, and really like it because the recipes are interesting and the long and detailed comments even more useful. There is often a lot of discussion as to whether the posted recipe is really correct, and also lots of discussion of regional and family variants. And also a lot of people making substitutions, some because of availability, and some because the posted recipe actually doesn’t work well. And there are some substitutions that quite frankly just change the dish in fundamental ways.

    Here is an example. One of my favorite dishes out there is mapo tofu. I have had it many times in various towns and cities in Sichuan. I have a pretty good understanding of what goes into it and what it should taste like. I use Fuschia Dunlop’s recipe, but there are many more online that are pretty similar, because it is a rather standardized dish. You need silken tofu, a little minced pork or maybe beef (although I only ever saw pork in China), garlic and ginger and scallions, a little broth and soy sauce, and critically, doubanjiang sauce and Sichuan peppercorns. Some places put peas in it. So I see comment chains where people say they substituted ground chicken for the pork or left it out, and honestly, that isn’t going to really change the essence of the dish. If you sub firm tofu for silken, it gets a little farther away from the real thing because the texture is wrong. But it can still be called mapo tofu. But I am sorry, if you leave out the peppercorns and sub sriracha sauce or Thai chili sauce for the doubanjiang, it is NOT mapo tofu. It is probably tasty, but it is a different dish now.

    Mapo tofu is also made really badly in most Chinese American and Asian fusion restaurants. It is suprisingly hard to find place that know how to do it, although there are more in recent years as people travel more to China. The reason is simple – most cooks in Chinese takeout restaurants are not from Sichuan – most are from Fujian which is a big source of immigrants. They have no more idea what Sichuanese food tastes like than an American. So they make something that is kind of sweet, brown, and gloppy, with firm tofu. Wrong ingredients, wrong dish.

    The question of how far you can bend a recipe is an interesting one, and can quickly become amorphous. People travel and bring their recipes, and invariably those recipes change. When is it no longer the original? My Neapolitan BF was appalled by Italian food in the US, which at the time was either high end Northern Italian food or red sauce Italian-American style. He recognized neither of those. “You never serve meatballs in the sauce over pasta in Naples!” he would say. He couldn’t see how anyone could consider NY slices or Dominos pie to be actual pizza. But you know, Italy (like China) is intensely regional and what a Neapolitan sees as authentic is not going to be the same as what a Milanese sees as authentic, nor what a Queens Italian-American sees as authentic. Another example is Taiwanese beef noodle soup, which today is considered one of the “real” Taiwanese specialties. The first time I had it, I thought it seemed a lot like things I had eaten in Sichuan. At some point, I started reading about the history of Taiwanese food, and learned that the noodle soup arrived with all the military flooding in with Chiang Kai-shek. Many of those soldiers came from Sichuan or knew the area from when they were holed up in Chongqing. They brought the noodle soup with them and merged it with some Taiwanese touches like pickles. Now, Taiwan is famous for it. So, authentic or not?

    This is the noodle soup recipe I follow (more or less :-))

  20. The ingredients from other cuisines that are available at the normal grocery stores have expanded considerably since I got here 25 or so years ago. Also, now Amazon has a lot of products that previously only ethnic grocers carried. Many ethnic grocers sell online. The issue I see is having to procure ingredients for other cuisines that you won’t use frequently and the cost of unused ingredients unless you make it a point to use them.

  21. SSM, what my kids cook will probably depend on who they marry, if they marry. My brother eats a lot more pasta than he used to because his wife is from an Italian family and they eat pasta ~5 nights/week. My family is more evenly split between potatoes, rice,k bread and pasta but our meals typically have a starch. (We would not do well on a low carb diet.)

    Only one of the three households in DH’s family cooks. MIL no longer cooks and BIL never cooked. They eat prepared food or fast food, typically.

    People like L and Mooshi seem to enjoy/have interest in cooking. To me, cooking is a chore with slightly more room for creativity than folding the laundry or cleaning the bathroom.

  22. Some of my fondest childhood memories are going to restaurants with my Dad and trying new foods. Chicken claw soup immediately comes to mind. I can’t imagine not eating a wide variety of cuisines. Luckily I don’t have to learn how to cook them given my locale.

  23. “I know exactly the type of cooking that WCE is referring to.”

    I do too. I grew up in the Midwest/Upper South. My sister still lives there, and no, you cannot get Pataks sauces there, or that brand of “Szechuan sauce” (which, sorry, is not very good, it is just sugary brown paste) in her supermarket. You can, however, get 10 different brands of pork sausage, all with cute pig logos on the tube, and packs of country ham bits for your biscuits. People in her town still bring jello salad and crockpot weenies to potlucks, and green beans are from a can, with bacon please. No hotdish though. I always laugh at the prices people pay up here for “authentic artisanal country ham”. I just have sis mail me up some packs every so often. And the pork sausage down there is SO MUCH BETTER than the bland stuff we get here. Restaurant wise, they have one Chinese takeout, every chain restaurant on the planet (they are on an interstate exit) and a gourmet coffee place that my sister used to go to until the owners started passing out anti-gay flyers.
    The food there can be very good (not the Jello salad, though)) but my sister yearns to just be able to buy gingerroot and fancy olives with pits. I wish we could get good pork sausage up here. And I really wish that we had fewer pizzarias in my area, and that the only Chinese restaurant in Westchester that knew how to make mapo tofu hadn’t converted to “health Asian fusion”. We all have our regional blinders on.

  24. My Whole Foods has become Half Foods. Apart from the meat section and the bakery, it’s lost its appeal. I used to enjoy looking at their spices and other sections but with the intense competition from other grocery store competitors it is not holding up well. In the pandemic the hot food buffet has very limited choices so that’s a factor as well.

  25. I made Greek salad (tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, kalamata olives, feta cheese) when my Dad was here a few years ago and he liked it but said he couldn’t buy feta cheese in my hometown. With online grocery shopping, I can help him find obscure ingredients like Athenos feta now if he wants.

  26. Amazon ruined Whole Foods. While it was never the best fancy grocery store out there, it was clearly oriented to people who cook, with an extensive veggie section with loving descriptions on the labels and good quality meat and cheeses. I always preferred it to TJs which is more about frozen semi-ethnic entrees, aimed at millenials who only knew how to nuke food. But now, WHole Foods is trying to compete in the TJ space, and are aiming at younger millenials and Gen Z’ers who don’t even own a microwave and just want carryout prepared food. The Whole Foods in Manhattan is mostly prepared entrees now.

  27. My sister still lives there, and no, you cannot get Pataks sauces there, or that brand of “Szechuan sauce” (which, sorry, is not very good, it is just sugary brown paste) in her supermarket.

    I checked the Food Lion in Glasgow KY pop 14k the country seat of Barren County. They have all the Thai Kitchen and Patek’s products. They even have tom yum broth. So maybe not at her supermarket but civilization has come to rural KY.

  28. WCE, my sister cannot buy Kalamata olives or feta in her local supermarket. She treks 90 minutes to our old hometown every month or two to stock up on stuff like that and to go out to eat.

  29. “seem to enjoy/have interest in cooking”

    YES – life is too short to eat bland foods! :)

    Mooshi, I have access to NYT cooking newsletters, but I have to say I cannot.stand the tone they use in their newsletters (especially Sam Sifton! Blerggggggggggg). It is totally off-putting to me and I can’t really put my finger on why.

  30. My recipe complaint is that the creators don’t seem to use timers when they say a process will take 6 min. I think they are recalling from memory as they write and it could be 6 or it could be 12.

    Or…now that I think about it. It’s likely that “medium high” varies considerably between cooktops. A quick googling has Whirlpool with 10,500 BTU per burner vs. Viking with 23,000 BTU.

  31. Just last night I was flipping through a cooking magazine and came across a curry recipe. I laughed to myself at the riot that would break out if I ever put something like that on the table. I have too many little kids with unsophisticated palates. Taco seasoning is about as spicy as I can get, and even that has its dissenters.

    For the most part, I follow recipes as written, especially the first time and definitely if I’m venturing into unfamiliar territory.

  32. TLC, I have a chicken curry recipe that I got somewhere years ago which is vaguely rogan jhosh-like. It has been the top of the list of most requested food items since my kids were very small.

  33. I think most recipes underestimate time by 25%. My theory is that they assume an assistant has already measured out all the ingredients.

    I use cooksmarts all the time. I’ve learned a lot about cooking, and now I often make changes to recipes on the fly…I discovered I don’t like curry, so I might use garam masala or allspice/cumin instead. I also don’t like quinoa (love the Progressive commercial about it), so I use farro. My one complaint is that the recipes just say “oil”, and not olive oil, vegetable/canola oil, coconut oil, so you have to be aware of what oil is best for varies levels of heat. I’ll admit it took a while before I figured it out.

  34. ” The reason is simple – most cooks in Chinese takeout restaurants are not from Sichuan – most are from Fujian which is a big source of immigrants.”

    I think that varies regionally. My guess is that in some areas there may be more cooks from places like Guangdong and HK.

    When I moved to SV, I noticed that the Chinese restaurants were different than those here. I think part of it was that those here more often had non-immigrant owners and cooks.

  35. TLC, when I make Chinese chicken salad (chicken, shredded carrots, green onions, angel hair pasta, romaine), we are gradually increasing the fraction of the overall salad that has dressing (soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar) vs. no dressing.

  36. “It’s like a cult. People who have them really really like them. But at $1500 they aren’t for everyone.”

    But according to their website, they are “A staple in European homes.”

    And I think Mafalda isn’t everyone. She can afford a $1500 appliance.

  37. TLC – I feel it’s actually easier with little kids to expose them to different cuisines. You can definitely start bland and increase the heat. My own kids started with little spice and moved up as they got older. Every household has a different level of spice ness so even among those that eat spicy food the level of heat is different.

  38. I take a bit of pride in no longer needing to follow recipes precisely. When I first moved out on my own I had to google “how to boil water.” I feel a sense of accomplishment that I have a sense now for how to adjust recipes to my family’s tastes, sub ingredients if I’m out of something, etc.

    If I were wanting to learn a new cuisine for primarily cultural purposes I could see it making sense to follow the recipe exactly, but I view international cooking as more of an exploration of different flavors and styles of cooking and don’t feel the need to be “authentic” in what we cook day to day. I’ve really enjoyed the experiences I’ve had where friends from other parts of the world have taught me to make something from their home country. In those cases the recipes have been so good I stick to them as closely as possible.

  39. Depending, I follow recipes exactly or not. Some things, e.g. a rub I like for smoking pork, is just a list of ingredients on my phone’s notes app. No quantities. Relatively lots of kosher salt and dark brown sugar, much less of cayenne, black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder. Apple cider & maple syrup depending on my mood.

    A lot of my cooking is meat-centric, so I know a slew of rubs, marinades, brines for which I certainly saw some kind of recipe, instruction, or description in a book or magazine or even the Saturday WSJ. DW has the TimeLife cookbook series from 40yrs ago which has a lot of great recipes, some complicated, some easy. I also like Joy of Cooking, the 1975 version. We have the newer one (2010?) but I don’t like how they modernized a lot of the recipes.

  40. There are a lot of You Tube videos now, so that’s another way to watch home cooks. I watch home country cooks cook recipes, I am not sure of. I find the videos very useful.

  41. I think it’s actually incredible how much the availability of various foods, especially international foods, has increased in my lifetime. I grew up in a small city in what I think is similar to the region Mooshi is describing, and now that city has several international grocery stores. On my last visit to my hometown I picked up Kimchi for my elderly grandfather who is losing his sense of taste (not covid, aging) and adds spice and heat to everything. He absolutely loved it. I also cooked a paneer curry and had no trouble finding the ingredients within a couple miles of their house. Such a big change from when I grew up.

  42. Our main meal is at lunch time and we tried a new one today – chicken stroganoff. Recall – SO has a hard time eating beef and pork, so working on more variety in the chicken and seafood departments. My notes:

    1. Cooking time was within 5 min and I have never made this before.
    2. I used 1/2 as much mushroom and 1/2 as much onion as I needed more sauce with less stuff for SO. I also minced the onion rather than sliced onion. No one but me can tolerate an onion that they can see.
    3. I mis-read part of the recipe and put in closer to 3/4 rather than 1/2 cup of wine – no harm done.
    4. Without a sous-chef, I will never attempt to cut boneless, skinless chicken thighs into 2″ cubes again. Next time it will be started with breasts or tenders.
    5. It called for 1 tbsp of dijon mustard, I will cut it back to 1/2 next time if still using Grey Poupon. As strength across brands varies!
    6. Procedure wise, it uses too many bowls if you follow it step-by-step. It can be done easily cutting one bowl out of the process.

    In general, I follow the recipe the first time, unless I can see something that will make it unpalatable to my crew. Then I write down right afterwards what I need to do to it. One recipe (filling for stuffed peppers) has morphed over the years so that it no longer really matches the original. I only realized it when DD#2 went to make it and kept asking why don’t we have this or that, when you said we have what we needed for this recipe. I broke down to re-write it and the only 2 things that still are constant is 1 cup of cooked rice and 1 pound of hamburger.

    I am ok with cooking, but do not love it. I have made enchiladas before, but the time commitment and good Tex-Mex is readily available, so I don’t try. Same with other culture’s foods. Some make it into our repertoire, but many do not.

  43. I often employ the “Dinner a Love Story” strategy of keeping components separate, when possible, so that the little people aren’t traumatized by flavor. And sometimes I throw caution to the wind and tell the little turkeys they can make a PB&J if they don’t like what I’ve made. But mostly, I cook meat + starch + vegetables and call it good.

  44. “I like getting cookbooks from the library so I can try out a couple recipes and get a sense of how frequently I would use the cookbook.”

    @SSM – I do this too! Sometimes I photocopy pages – and if I really like them, I buy the book.

    @MM – I completely agree about Whole Foods. Amazon ruined it. They also seem to be out of stock of items much, much more frequently lately. And not pandemic related – it is random items. My guess is that Amazon is pushing for inventory optimization & it’s causing issues.

    @L – I agree about Sam Sifton.

    I also don’t find the NY Times Cooking recipes to be very reliable. Too many variance between writers, and some of them are just BAD. I don’t want to have to read pages of comments (some of them frankly pretty crazy) to know if a recipe works at all or not.

    @Mafalda – The only thing I know about the Thermomix is that Katie Couric has one and has gushed about it (unsponsored) on her Instagram quite a bit. I think it is her husband’s “toy” and that he is the major cook in the house.

    I also agree that it is amazing what is available compared to when I was growing up.

    To defend WCE – my dad often still stocks up on certain items when he comes to visit or goes to a more cosmopolitan area of Iowa (like Iowa City – don’t laugh LT) and others he gets via mail order (he’s a big Penzey’s guy). I have never heard of him not being able to get ginger, but there are random things – like real Italian parmesano reggiano that are hard to find or very expensive. On the flip side, he has access to a lot of great local meat.

    OTOH, my SIL is like WCE is describing. We will be having spaghetti & meatballs – not overly spiced or anything. She always dumps about 1/4c of plain white sugar all over it and mixes it in because otherwise it is “too spicy”. I about died the first time I saw that. And I’m a Certified Midwesterner (TM)! I have eaten plenty of casseroles, hot dishes and “salads” with cool whip or heavily sweetened mayonaise!

  45. “I think it’s actually incredible how much the availability of various foods, especially international foods, has increased in my lifetime.”

    I agree, and it’s also remarkable to me how many items that used to be exotic/ethnic have become totally mainstream. For example, I remember that when I was a kid, to get a bagel, you had to go to a Jewish bakery. Now bagels are as common as ordinary sliced bread. Or, nachos used to be something that you only got at Mexican restaurants, but now they’re served at any concert, ball game, movie theater, etc.

  46. Ivy, my first experience with Chinese food was in high school on a debate trip to Iowa City!

  47. “If I were wanting to learn a new cuisine for primarily cultural purposes I could see it making sense to follow the recipe exactly, but I view international cooking as more of an exploration of different flavors and styles of cooking and don’t feel the need to be “authentic” in what we cook day to day. ”

    @Rio – I think I am the same way, although I never thought about it quite the same way. Something about the “authenticity” arguments around food really bother me – and this is part of it. When I’m unfamiliar with a flavor though, I do like to cook something more basic from that area to get to know the flavors.

  48. ” My guess is that in some areas there may be more cooks from places like Guangdong and HK.”

    Finn, you are probably right. In this area, people from HK tend to be wealthy or UMC and don’t work in restaurants. There have always been a lot from Guangdong but the big surge of the last 20 years into the NYC area has been from Fujian and Zhejiang – people with little money or education, and often illegal. Those are the people in the restaurants. People from Guangdong speak Cantonese, but not people from Fujian – they have their own dialects which I don’t know much about. Overall, Cantonese has been slowly dying out in the NYC area. I think Cantonese is more common in places like California, and maybe in your neck of the woods? I honestly don’t know much about current immigration in your area. We keep talking about visiting your state to learn more, but COVID is throwing a wrench in travel plans.

    In any case, the food traditions of Guangdong and Fujian are wildly different from Sichuan. I’ve had a number of colleagues from those regions, and when we talk about food, they say they cannot eat food from western China because it is just too spicy for them. Cantonese food is famous for being very delicate, with lots of fresh seafood.

  49. This summer my brother and his family came to visit. I made a pasta dish using Italian sausage, diced tomatoes, spinach – a recipe from a friend’s mom, and she is from Italy. My brother wouldn’t eat it. The only pasta dish he eats is penne with Presto plain red sauce. On the plus side they did hook me up with the best middle eastern spices and marinades, and stopped to pick up Mackinac Island fudge.

    We do have good local meat here. I notice when I visit my parents. My parents have very bland midwestern tastes, but without good midwestern meat. Oh, I have some really good jello dishes. I love jello, and mixing cream cheese with cool whip is the best.

  50. A lot of what you can get matters where you live and sometimes even to the neighborhood. Our regional chain is very sensitive to neighborhood differences. Within 5 miles – different directions – we have 5 stores. One store is in the middle of a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, so the kosher section is 3 times that of any other store and you can find kosher marshmallows there. Another is predominantly immigrant (Hispanic and Asian) neighborhood and has the BEST tortillas and freshest produce section, while the one we shop at has minimal potato choices (white, red, russet – no fingerling, no yukon gold, etc.) and more pork variety. The one I like least has almost no section, but has a large international canned/boxed goods section.

  51. NOB, I have very fond memories of getting bagels with my mom on special trips to the one bagel shop in the area. What a treat! And I’m sure any New Yorker would have thought they were imposters, but I didn’t know any different. DH grew up in a suburb near mine, and he also has memories of going to the same bagel shop.

    Also, there was one “authentic” Mexican restaurant near us (authentic = not ChiChi’s) and those nachos were amazing.

  52. I actually never ate a bagel until college. They just did not exist in the places I lived before college. When I came back home for the summer after my freshman year, a friend who had also gone to college in an area with bagels and I actually tried making our own from scratch.

    Those frozen Lenders bagels appeared later on, of course, but I barely count them as bagels :-)

  53. Austin – I find it much easier to cut up chicken thighs if I freeze them for 40 minutes first. I also now freeze bacon before I cut it up into pieces – so much easier! I take the bacon out of the package, put the strips down on the cutting board, and stick it in the freezer.

  54. NYC used to be terrible for Mexican food, as late as the 90’s even, but the big influxes of Mexicans in recent years have helped that situation quite a bit

  55. My mom lived in NW Arkansas for a couple years. She said she once brought an apple pie to a potluck and people were amazed at the spices she used – so unusual! She used cinnamon and nutmeg (which to us at least is standard and not at all unusual). I’d always thought that every part of the country would have some regional cooking that would be really good (even if it wasn’t your particular cup of tea) – but my mom said she couldn’t find any in that part of Arkansas.

  56. I learned how to cook and substitute from watching my college roommate cook. For example, she would decide that she was going to make quesadillas and realize we didn’t have cheese or tortillas and would start substituting and make something incredible. Recipes were more like guidelines for her.

    We belong to a CSA and that has forced me to experiment with different recipes – what do I do with celeriac? I’ll wing a lot of meals by starting with a recipe and then subbing stuff. I definitely feel like spices in recipes are guidelines. I’m not a southerner, but this quote I saw is my cooking philosophy: “Southerners don’t measure seasonings. We just sprinkle and shake till the spirits of our ancestors whisper, ‘Stop, my child.”

    I don’t understand when people say “good Mexican” or “good Chinese”. What makes it good? Lemon, what is the good Mexican place you mentioned?

  57. Regional cuisine complaint: B&M has changed the formula on their “original” baked beans and now they are too sweet! ARGH – I will have to call them and complain and ask if any of the other varieties (Boston, etc.) are less sweet.

  58. “Cantonese has been slowly dying out in the NYC area. I think Cantonese is more common in places like California,”

    Growing up in the Bay Area, Chinese = Cantonese. Then starting in maybe the mid 70s Szechuan & Hunan became popular. Was it actually Szechuan or Hunanese? No idea. I liked it better because it was spicier than the Cantonese food we got when we ordered from the neighborhood place.

  59. TCM,

    In the case of Americanized chinese food, restaurants often just use the giant bottles of Sysco (or whatever vendor they use) sauce*. Higher quality places make their sauces from scratch. Make their dumplings from scratch, etc. And in general just use higher quality ingredients.

    MM’s definition presumably includes the addition of actual Chinese food that people in China would be familiar with.

  60. Ah, “staple of European households” is why. My neighbor is a fellow Cuban-American, but her husband is French and they spend half the year in their house in France. It must have been one of her European friends who introduced her to it. The description of it as a robot was what intrigued me. Well, we ordered one so I will report back as to whether it converts even a non-cook like me to their Thermomix Cult.

  61. “Ivy, my first experience with Chinese food was in high school on a debate trip to Iowa City!”

    Ha! You know, they always had good college-town restaurants.

    We had a Chinese restaurant in my town of 10,000 when I was growing up, but it was owned by a Vietnamese family & was very much “American Chinese Food”. I didn’t care – I still loved the cashew chicken in the brown sauce & they did have items with a high spice level which my dad loved. There are now decent Mexica restaurants in the area due to immigration – that was not the case in the mid- 80’s to mid-90’s when I lived there.

    “NYC used to be terrible for Mexican food, as late as the 90’s even, but the big influxes of Mexicans in recent years have helped that situation quite a bit”

    It was a sad scene when I lived in the NE for sure. CT had some great Puerto Rican restaurants though, and we used to go to them a lot for lunch. I had a lot of Puerto Rican coworkers who came to CT for job rotations – my company had a lot of manufacturing plants there at that time.

    “I don’t understand when people say “good Mexican” or “good Chinese”. What makes it good?”

    I don’t think it’s any different from what makes any restaurant good, really, I suppose. But access to the right ingredients is a big part of it. e.g., there are multiple tortillarias within a few miles of my house. A small taqueria having access to really great, fresh tortillas is important. Not every place is going to have the people/skills/desire to make them in-house, and fresh ones are way better than what is going to come on the Sysco truck.

  62. TCM – Present day good Mexican (according to my family) include Los Padres, Andale Taqueria, and La Loma (in Mercado Central on Lake). We’ve been getting take out from those places.

  63. Fred, I was actually referring to the language, not the food. Although those tie with each other. In Hunan and Sichuan, people speak Mandarin.

  64. Ivy, you reminded me of my first experience with Chinese food in Iowa City. Don’t get me wrong, Detroit is not a Chinese culinary hotbed, but I was at work in IC and my coworker suggested we get Chinese for lunch. She raved about this one spot in particular. I nearly died when she showed up with sweet and sour chicken that was covered in pink goo. I couldn’t even eat it, but that was all she knew and she loved it. The egg roll was good.

  65. On a minimal level, “good Chinese” = “does not taste like PF Chang’s”. Not sickly sweet and glazed. Knowing that there is no such thing as “stirfry sauce” and that dumping brown glop on vegetable medleys has little to do with food in China.

    On a much more demanding level, it means having some awareness that there is no such thing as “Chinese food”, that it is like Italian food or French food with huge regional variations and all kinds of different cooking techniques.

    I don’t know as much about Mexican food, but I think a similar standard holds. I don’t know the Mexican chain restaurants so I can’t compare but there is a place in this area called Casa Maya that I would rank as being kind of like PF Changs. Not good. Everything slathered in cheese and brown sauce. Recently I have found some places that are really different, with lots of intense spice, cilantro, and tasty. I also think there is a lot of regional variation in Mexican food and that very few places are respectful of that.

    For both Mexican and Chinese, I avoid every place that prominently features the words “healthy” and/or “fusion”in their name or description

  66. “I don’t understand when people say “good Mexican” or “good Chinese”. What makes it good?”

    Whatever version of comfort food that tickles your fancy:

    1. Carnitas at a harvest party cooked in a cauldron over a wooden fire
    2. homemade tamales in return for a favor done for a neighbor
    3. pozole cooked for a special party
    4. cerviche from the neighborhood market that only locals go to.

    Restaurant Mexican food is generally ok, serviceable, no risk food.

    I do remember being in Indiana a couple decades ago for a two week long training. I just wanted some normal food so I ordered a turkey and avocado sandwich on sourdough at the hotel cafe. They literally didn’t know what the words meant.

  67. In typical Chinese cooking, sauces are not usually built from the ground up, because they rely a lot on fermented products. Those were always produced outside the home, and today are made in big factories. I noticed, though, that people tended to favor products made in the right places. The best doubanjiang supposedly comes from Pixian

  68. Mooshi, Yamasa soy sauce is fermented in Salem because the climate (which affects fermentation in the outdoor vats) is closest to the climate where the fermentation process was developed ~300 years ago in Japan. They’ve maintained the bacteria strain for fermentation for hundreds of years.

  69. I am firmly in the no recipe camp. If i had a cooking show it would be illustrating how to make tasty meals out of what you find in the back of the fridge and cupboard. My porkchops in mustard sauce arose like that. I rarely bake, but that is more like chemistry and technique, so I rely on exact recipes videos and a scale and even source the weird ingredients, right grade and temp of butter. For unfamiliar ethnic food I start with a so called authentic recipe and go to you tube. For example, I did not like jarred Thai green curry sauce. So I made my own green curry paste with explicit local video instructions. The ensuing dish tasted like real Thai food. And before Rhett tells me just order in, i have to mind someone elses diet carefully. However, once I learned What it took I just stopped making green curry ish dishes at home. It was too much work.

    Since for the foreseeable future I will be prepping food with a single induction hotplate and convection micro tabletop oven, I expect to be right in my lets see how to maximize the situation happy zone.

  70. Ditto on food choices. Growing up, the only “Mexican” available was ChiChis. Ugh. Now even little ol’ Baltimore has some fantastic restaurants of any number of varieties — and even more ethnic grocers.

    I have to say I’m excited to see DS’ palate change. He still doesn’t like fruits and barely tolerates veggies (only raw). But he is starting to like spicy food and has become more willing to be adventurous and try things. Much to my surprise, he voluntarily ate a green chile cheeseburger instead of the plain one I made him, and he loved it and he now asks when I will make them again. He also happily eats my lamb vindaloo, which was a *real* shock because it’s a completely different flavor profile in addition to the spice. It’s sort of a relief to know that NOT choosing to force foods when he was little worked out ok.

  71. First time around I generally follow the recipe. If I like it enough to make it again, I tweak it. And they almost all need tweaking. I like the NYT recipes. Not all of them, of course, but I tend to gravitate toward the ones that have a lot of 5 star ratings. I also do what L does: if I want to make something new, I read several recipes and take pieces from each of them. This worked recently when I made beef bourguinon. It was so good.

    Mooshi, I’m surprised you can’t get good pork sausage. We have a couple of Italian butchers/specialty shops in my town that have really good sausage. My favorite is cheese and parsley.

    Jacques Pepin has a daily video FB where he cooks a simple but appealing meals and snacks. I love watching his videos.

  72. Ginger, I am talking southern style sausage, not Italian. We can get great Italian sausage. But the sausage sausage around here, the kind in the tube, is Jimmy Dean, and that stuff is not acceptable. One local supermarket was carrying Parks for a while which is better, but it disappeared
    You can’t get decent Italian sausage where my sister lives though.

  73. There used to be a Chinese restaurant near us with half their menu was traditional American Chinese food, and the other half was real Chinese food (I couldn’t tell you which region it was). Unfortunately they closed a couple of years ago.

  74. That article about the Thermomix emphasized its ability to stir and heat simultaneously. When I made more carbohydrate-heavy food, like risotto, I got a lot of use out of a thing like this:

    Just put it on the pot, put the pot on low, and glance at it periodically. Protein-based recipes don’t need it so much.

  75. So I made my own green curry paste with explicit local video instructions.

    Yeah, I made my own green Thai curry base exactly once. I had to go to two different Asian stores to get the right ingredients, and then it was boring to pulverize all the stuff together. That kind of thing I just order from one of our good local Thai restaurants, although as Mémé notes, you can’t serve it to diabetics because the restaurants put too much palm sugar in everything.

  76. Tonight’s dinner was actually those pork chops with spiced mashed sweet potato bake and crudite salad. The misfit Vegetable box had some rugged looking sweet potatoes along with cukes and radish, so I halved and roasted them in the tabletop oven, and threw a new wrinkle in my usual recipe by blending the flesh in the Blendtec with garam Masala, minced ginger, butter, and navel orange sections from a tired orange in the fridge, back in the oven with butter and honey drizzled on top. Pork chops were rubbed with southwestern rather than middle eastern spices (I got a bargain delivery of penzeys blends), pan fried on the hot plate, sauce made with ordinary deli mustard (vinegary rather than my usual sharp – awaiting a delivery from Ireland) I did get creme fraiche when I got the chops, so didn’t have to substitute sour cream. No measurements. Just spoonfuls and finger pinches and shakes from a spice jar.

  77. After reading this post, I had a few ideas for dinner and mentioned to DD and DH. They had their own plan and they wanted to pick up burgers from Shake Shack. Prior to the pandemic, we never ate fast food at home. I still consider Shake Shack to be fast food, but it was a nice change to our usual take out places.

  78. Usually I will follow a recipe the first time to see if it is worth making or editing. Of course, a ridiculous number of recipes insist on featuring tomatoes, so I’ll decide if the dish can be made without them. If it can’t i just pass it by.

    I’m much more inclined to use what i have in the refrigerator than go shopping for specific ingredients.

    I’ve never considered whether or not a dish is authentic to the home cuisine. It’s just not been a concern. For dishes outside my usual comfort zone, i prefer to eat at a restaurant. I might be able to replicate Indian food at home, but i know it will taste good at the usual restaurants, so there’s not enough benefit for the risk.

  79. RMS – your “pot stirrer” comment made me spit out my drink with laughter. Rhett – from reading your article and others , besides the stirring over heat aspect, the part that appeals to me about the Thermomix, is that it tells you each step, one at a time, and you don’t have to measure stuff. We’ll see.

  80. “I remember that when I was a kid, to get a bagel, you had to go to a Jewish bakery. Now bagels are as common as ordinary sliced bread.”

    OTOH, I didn’t have challah or matzo ball soup until a trip to meet DS at his college. I’m not aware of any restaurant here that serves either, nor any store that sells challah.

  81. “I find it much easier to cut up chicken thighs if I freeze them for 40 minutes first.”

    Or if you’re going to freeze them anyway, buy frozen thighs, put them in the fridge, then cube them when they’re still frozen enough to be firm not thawed enough to cut easily.

    IME, frozen thighs are less expensive than fresh.

  82. “People from Guangdong speak Cantonese”

    Still? I thought the Chinese government was trying to kill dialects and have everybody speak Mandarin.

    “I think Cantonese is more common in places like California, and maybe in your neck of the woods?”

    I don’t know if it’s more common than where you are, but when I was living in SV Cantonese was the dominant dialect in the Bay Area as well as here. But that started changing when I was in SV and immigration from mainland China began to increase. Back then, a much larger %ate of the Chinese were pre-exclusion act immigrants and their descendents; my understanding is most of them had most recent roots in/near Guangdong/HK.

    There was increased HK immigration just before the handover.

    TMK in places like SF Chinatown Cantonese is still widely used, but not so much elsewhere in the Bay Area.

  83. “A lot of what you can get matters where you live and sometimes even to the neighborhood.”

    We see that here too.

    There’s a chain with three locations here. One is in a heavily Filipino area, and it thus the best for buying Filipino foods/ingredients. The one in town is best for Japanese food/ingredients; most recent immigrants from there live in town.

  84. “B&M has changed the formula on their “original” baked beans and now they are too sweet!”

    Doesn’t the change mean they’re no longer original?

  85. Meme – I am in awe of people like you who can put together a dinner like the one you described based on what you have on hand. Not a skill I have. I’m a good cook – but I like having a recipe to follow.

  86. “Still? I thought the Chinese government was trying to kill dialects and have everybody speak Mandarin.”
    When I was in Guangzhou, yes. Things were mostly in Cantonese. I think everyone learns Mandarin in school too. But so many people speak Cantonese, and it such a part of Chinese culture, that it isn’t going to get killed anytime soon. It isn’t like the non-Han minority languages – Cantonese has status in China. It is spoken by over 60 million people.
    It is dying out here in the US, though, mainly because immigration patterns changed.

  87. off topic… MIL, age 97. has decided she wants a Roomba. She saw them on QVC. She wants one because it has gotten harder for her to push the vacuum cleaner around but she doesn’t want a cleaning service. She never asks for much of anything so the family wants to get her one. We all suspect there is a better place to buy one than QVC. Also, no one knows much about models. I know some of you are into these devices so I thought I would ask for advice here. How do we get a good deal, and which model is best for a 97 year old?

  88. DS2 and I have twice made lobster bisque from scratch; live lobster to start and everything. Both very good; the second time was better than the first. I learned as some might say “the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.” Now I leave it to the professionals. One local (3-4 stores) pizza chain had great lobster bisque — you wouldn’t think, right? — but they closed a few years back.

  89. How do we get a good deal, and which model is best for a 97 year old?

    Does she have a smart phone? With the i7 you can tell it which room to clean. With the i3 you can’t. But if she doesn’t have a smartphone or Alexa then she won’t be able to tell it what room to clean anyway. In that case she’d just press the clean button on the i3.

    If she has trouble bending over then I’d say the i3 with the automatic dirt disposal tower is probably your best bet.

    A quick looks says all vendors are offering them for the same price.

  90. “all vendors are offering them for the same price”

    but BBB has the ubiquitous 20% off coupon!

  91. but BBB has the ubiquitous 20% off coupon!

    Nope. Click on the little i by the price. “Discount already applied – coupons cannot be applied”

  92. I checked the link but it says the i3 is “Wifi”. She doesn’t have wifi, a smart phone or any Internet

  93. Do youhave to have one to make a Roomba work?

    No. She’d just push the clean button and it would do its thing. Does she have wifi? (It’s not required)

  94. MM,

    Per the irobot website:

    Roomba robot vacuums do not need Wi-Fi to clean your Home. You can simply Push CLEAN on the robot and the robot will get to work.

  95. second thought on “all vendors are offering them for the same price”.

    Back in the olden days, like when I was growing up, there were Fair Trade Laws. Wiki: A fair trade law was a statute in any of various states permitting manufacturers the right to specify the minimum retail price of a commodity, a practice known as “price maintenance”. Such laws first appeared in 1931 during the Depression in California. They were ostensibly intended to protect small businesses to some degree from competition from very large chain stores during a time when small businesses were suffering. Many people objected to this on the grounds that if the manufacturers could set the price, consumers would have to pay more even at large discount stores. The complexity of the market made the enforcement of these laws almost impractical. As chain stores became more popular, and bargain prices more common, there was a widespread repeal of the laws in many jurisdictions. By 1975, the laws had been repealed completely.

    Despite this, it is amazing to me that many manufacturers are still able to enforce “price maintenance” across their sales channels. , e.g. roombas, certain clothing, fragrance, electronics, always more high-end stuff. Not saying it’s good or bad inherently, just pointing it out.

    Maybe price maintenance can continue because the manufacturer agrees to take excess product back from the retailer? Unlike cars, for which title passes from GM to the local Chevy dealer.

  96. I also have made curry paste exactly once. Meh – the jarred stuff is fine. Same with tamarind paste. There are some things worth making from scratch and some not.

  97. Curry paste is one of those things that anyone who has not eaten made from scratch paste with freshly ground ingredients wouldn’t know the difference because they most likely haven’t tasted the real thing. I don’t think any of the restaurants except probably the very specialized high end ones would even grind their own paste. A lot of people do home country cooking with ground spices vs. grinding their own paste. How much of each ingredient to grind together without looking at a recipe is such a learned skill.

  98. I know lots of people who make fresh pasta, but when I spent the summer in Naples (Italy) no one there ever made fresh pasta and they thought the idea was pretty weird. I think fresh pasta may be more common in northern Italy.

  99. I do think fresh pasta is worth the effort in some situations and applications, but I only make it a few times a year if that. It is a big project, and there is plenty of good quality dried pasta.

  100. I make egg noodles and occasionally other pasta in a machine. It is nice to be able to do it out of ingredients on hand, but I would not buy one again. I also make sausage sometimes, but that was just a grinder attachment on the stand mixer. I can buy a variety of fresh pasta in any local store, but low sodium sausage for DH not at all. I am giving the ice cream maker to the kids. I got that to make sugar free ice cream for him, but now he is off artificial sweeteners and lactose as well.

  101. MM — yes, fresh pasta is definitely a N. Italy thing. Which makes total sense, since fresh pasta requires eggs and so will spoil more quickly in hot weather.

    I do make fresh pasta periodically, because it really is better IMO than the dried stuff. However, I cannot make things like garganelli and orecchietti and those funkier shapes (much less filled pastas like agnolotti — I can make tordelli, but it’s a huge hassle so I almost never do). And we all love those much more than the plain flat pastas, so I do have to admit that I am not making pasta as much as before.

    Plus with the pizza oven, most of my “handmade” efforts of late have been devoted to pizza crust.

  102. I am obsessed with meringues. I started with the basic recipe but I didn’t keep them to dry out in the oven overnight which is crucial. Then I made espresso meringues. I liked them, but you have to wait a day for the coffee flavor to settle. Next is lemon meringues. I think of meringues as a small sweet treat. I limit myself to one a day. I also made coconut macaroons which taste better with chocolate drizzled on them. The right type of coconut flakes were not available in my store, so I had to order them.

  103. I make meringues as part of my holiday baking and they are a big hit. I add mini chocolate chips to mine. Makes me think I should make some plain vanilla ones as a low cal treat now that I’m back on weight watchers. I don’t leave them overnight in the oven though. I think mine bake about an hour, dry in the oven for maybe an hour, and then I leave them out for a few hours at room temperature before storing them.

  104. Louise, you remind me of DD — she is obsessed with macarons, and she keeps trying to make different recipes over and over to get exactly the right texture/appearance on the cookie and the right degree of solidity on the filling and the right combination of flavors. ;-) She did a really good white chocolate-peppermint one over the holidays that I could not stop eating (I don’t like white chocolate, but it was fabulous in the filling), but I think my favorte of all has been honey-lavender, because it’s just so delicate and balanced.

  105. LfB – I think of macrons as a technical bake. It takes tries to get them right and once you get the basics down, you start to experiment with flavors. Your DD is on the right path !

  106. A few years back I thought about getting a pasta maker so I could make whole grain pasta, but then it became easier for me to buy whole grain spaghetti.

    However, my recent experience making lasagna was quite positive. I have one more box of whole grain lasagna, and if I’m able to repeat a similarly positive experience, I’ll be looking for whole grain lasagna, which doesn’t seem as easy to find, so I may be looking to make my own, especially once I retire.

    Has anyone here tried making pasta dough with a bread maker? I was thinking I could try that, and maybe use a rolling pin to make sheets, and if that works, look for a pasta roller.

    Thoughts? We do have a KitchenAid stand mixer, so an attachment to that would be one option.

  107. @Finn – I make my pasta dough in a food processor, although I think the stand mixer would work just fine. I did it by hand on the counter once and only once.

  108. Ivy, thanks for the ideas. We do have a food processor, and we also have a dough hook for the stand mixer, so we have three options for making pasta dough.

    Any thoughts/recommendation of which is easiest, or gives the best results? I thought of the break maker because I think I can just plop the ingredients in, start, and come back to dough ready to be rolled. Also, cleanup is easy.

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