When you read a recipe, how do you know if you’ll like the resulting food? Is critiquing a recipe an art or technique? – require intuition or experience? My mom was an avid recipe-reader. When I was a child, she’d hand me a recipe and say, “Doesn’t that sound good?!” I’d read, “flour, rosemary, chuck roast, burgundy, sour cream, etc.” I’d have no clue how this recipe would end up tasting. Individually, none of those ingredients sounded tasty. None-the-less, when dinner was served I usually liked it. So how does a person even decide which recipes to prepare? Or does this question really ask, “how does a beginner cook become a seasoned chef?”

I put a similar question to my good friends in the medical field, – one a cardiologist, the other an oncology nurse-practitioner. I’d been listening to them describe how they guided 6-inch steel instruments into people and wrenched out bone marrow. Imagining myself as one of those unlucky people, I asked, “So how do you go from never having done this before to not killing people?”

“Oh you learn to do it in lots of very small steps with an experienced mentor right there at your side,” they replied, “That’s why medical training takes so long.”

And often this is true in cooking. A mentor teaches a novice how to cook in a years’-long series of small steps. As my mom did with me, I do with my kids. When they’re little they get to stir something (while I hold on to the bowl). Later they get to add in measured ingredients. Still later they get to measure the ingredients themselves. Then finally, one day they get to make an entire recipe on their own with a mentor just nearby in the kitchen.

On the other hand, sometimes people are thrown into cooking all at once. After Mom died, Dad could eat salad, baked potato, and grilled meat for the rest of his life, or he could learn to cook. I remember Dad standing over me in the kitchen last summer, amazed that I was mixing up tuna salad. “How do you make that?” he eagerly asked. Dad likes tuna salad. Slightly stunned by a question regarding the obvious, I quickly recovered and named the ingredients: tuna – drained; mayonnaise; celery; salt; pepper; lemon juice, and pickle relish. Then his question came, – the question I remember so many times asking my mom, and so often being frustrated with the answer: “How much do you put in?”

“Just some,” she’d vaguely reply, “until it looks right.” And did I give this same answer? – You betcha’, I couldn’t help it, – because in truth I had no idea how much of anything I put in. As Mom would say, “It all depends on what you start out with.” And that’s right. Is it a big can of tuna or a little one? Do I even have celery? Are some grapes lingering in the crisper that need to be eaten?- If so, in they go. Is my husband going to be eating it? – Then he’d like a little curry powder added. I imagine that folks in the medical profession say, “It depends.” a lot to their medical students.

Over time, as meals get made and eaten, gradually the beginner cook learns what each mixture is supposed to look like. Gradually, sets of flavors become memorized, e.g. garlic gets added to meats and salads, not desserts. Reliance on measuring spoons wains. And of course, the hungry novice continues to ask for recipes and advice. Last Christmas, my dad’s sister who used to own a restaurant and catering business as well as teach cooking, gave Dad and my male cousins a free, introductory cooking lesson. I asked Dad what he had learned that afternoon. “We learned to chop things,” he knowingly replied, well-satisfied with the experience. Ah yes, the art of the prep-cook.

But still, the question remains, how do you know from reading a recipe if the food will taste good? I venture that even people like me who have been cooking for decades still have some trouble with this skill. I’m experienced enough that I’m pretty certain about what I like and don’t. I shun recipes with excessive amounts of corn syrup, Cool Whip, tarragon, vinegar, and Velveeta. True, I don’t make any recipe calling for Spam, but I haven’t ruled it out. My neighbor used to be the Wisconsin State Fair judge for the Spam cooking contest, and she also taught Home Ec. So maybe Spam’s okay. But I’m also not adventurous.

Anyway, yesterday I came across a recipe on the recipe page of Wisconsinmade.com for Maple Baked Onions. And I couldn’t figure out if maple baked onions would taste good or not. Maple syrup and tomato juice? A side dish of only onions? Highly questionable, but perhaps not poisonous. 

Continue reading