Saturday, February 26, 2011

Recipes: The Other Dismal Science

My other half says cooking is hard. I say cooking is easy. He cites the lack of proper standard operating procedures, and, even where they are available, the preponderance of phrases like "beat until well mixed", "cook until done" and "heat until hot".

I bought a joint of meat today and the helpful instructions on the peel-off tag read, in full:
Cooking Instructions:
Place roast, fat side up, on rack in shallow roasting pan. Do not add water or cover. Remove roast when thermometer registers 135-140°F for medium rare, 150-155°F for medium. Let roast stand 15-20 minutes. Roast will finish cooking and be easier to carve.
If I followed those instructions, I'd have a piece of beef sitting on a kitchen counter forever, because of course the kitchen never (I hope) reaches 135°F. It's usually around 70°F, in my estimation. If the kitchen was one day to set on fire, I would afterwards come in and take the roast out of the shallow roasting pan and let it stand.

The tag does not mention anything about using an oven or a grill, or what temperature it should be set at. A novice might guess from the instructions, if you realized you needed a heat source, that it should be from 135°F to 155°F, depending on which one you want to obtain, but I think most of us know that's not the case. The options range from 350°F to 550°F, so a hint might be a good idea. There isn't even the slightest estimate of time, so if we want to roast potatoes or vegetables, we can't begin to estimate when to add them to the pan.

And this is a professionally-written label for the meat. On the internet the situation is far worse, as everything seems to be written by amateurs, or possibly pranksters, with the exceptions of recipes ripped off of Madhur Jaffrey without regard to her copyright. Something that tasted right to some beery lunatic in Mississippi or Essex and, after being misremembered, incorrectly typed on to the internet three days later, gets copied and re-copied on to every recipe site. This means that a Google search will bring up seventy recipes for say, butternut squash ravioli in BBQ sauce, and 69 of them will be identical, but surrounded by slightly different ads for a local housewife who has discovered One Trick Of A Tiny Belly, and, amazingly, ads by another local housewife who has discovered One Trick Dermatologists Don't Want Me To Know!

Some of these recipes have missing ingredients. You assemble everything in the ingredients list and then gamely try to follow the drunk instructions until you hit "grate the onion finely" or "add the chopped artichoke hearts". No onions were specified in the ingredients, never mind artichoke hearts. Others are missing steps, so that you are to add the ingredients you blended in step number four, except step number four is to simmer for four hours. Is it safe, then, to just blend those ingredients? Who the hell knows?

The 70th one will inevitably be copied from a 1953 Good Housekeeping and include food ingredients that are no longer legal, such as kerosene, whale oil and maraschino cherries.

For a moment there I went into a dream where the Food and Drug Administration controlled food labeling in the same way they control drug labeling. The package insert would be 40 pages of 6 point type and include every possible interaction, contraindication and side effect. Dosages of the meat for persons under 18 would have not been established, and parents would have to prescribe the food for their kids off-label, risking severe penalties, malpractice suits and civil money penalties if Medicare or Medi-Cal was involved.

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