## Can you use a recipe? Part 2 – Baker’s Percentages

While I was researching a post I am working on, I was reminded of something that is helpful for all of us when we bake.  Professional bakers use a different format for recipes.  It is known as a baker’s percentage, and it gives them a lot of flexibility, and also allows them to be very accurate.

Bakers use percentages to express quantities, and this gives them the ability to scale a recipe pretty much at will to whatever size batch they need.  It also allows them to make changes based on a recipe. Each ingredient’s quantity is expressed as a percentage.  The flour is stated as 100%.  From there everything else is a percentage of the flour. For example, if your recipe calls for flour and water, and the water is 25% when you have one pound of flour you need 4 oz of water.  If you have 100 pounds of flour you need 25 pounds of water.  Like I said it is easy.

They are not something I use often at work, but it is always good to have an understanding of different recipe formats.  I have some baking books that use percentages, or in the case of Alton Brown‘s I’m Just Here for More Food, a somewhat modified version of it.  His recipes are set quantities, but he works with weights, and lays things out in a similar way.  If you wanted to modify one of his recipes you could figure out the percentages and scale to your heart’s content.

When you bake, accuracy is important in your measurements.  The most accurate way to measure most ingredients is by weight.  Flour, in particular, can compress quite a bit and a cup of flour can weigh 6 oz or it could weigh nearly a pound.  A scale eliminates this variability.  Speaking of accuracy, when you weigh things, grams are a lot more accurate than ounces.  There are 28 grams in an ounce. That means there are 454 grams in a pound.  Even going by .1 ounce or single grams you will be better off in grams.

Depending on the scale you have, you may be able to get nutritional information as well.  The scale I have allows you to input a code for an ingredient, and it will give you calorie/fat/carbohydrate information.  It is a nice feature, but not strictly needed.  Pretty much any scale will allow you to eliminate the weight of the container and weigh each ingredient using the tare feature. When you put the bowl on the scale, it will weigh it and when you press tare, the bowl is eliminated. Now you can weigh the ingredients.  If you press tare between each ingredient, you don’t even need to take the weight of everything else into account.

## Chili con carne… possibly the best you’ll ever have!

Clearly this is not for the vegetarians among you.  If you are one, perhaps now is the time to go look at something else

Are you still with me?  Good, now, lets talk about meaty chili goodness!

I know most of you probably make chili using ground beef or turkey, but we won’t be doing that. What I used might make this the most expensive pot of chili you have ever made.   What I used is a piece of beef called the chain.  The chain is a strip of meat that is located next to the tenderloin.  It is pretty similar as far as tenderness and flavor, but because it is wrapped in fat and connective tissue it is rarely eaten except as ground beef. You can’t buy chains* in the store so I would suggest a chuck roast, and cut it into cubes.  Since you will be simmering this for a while you will end up with nice tender meat by the time the chili is ready.

This wasn’t originally going to be chili.  I’m not sure what I was making, exactly, but I had a few ideas in mind.  As I gathered ingredients it sort of became obvious that it was, in fact, chili.

2# beef chuck cut into cubes

1 TBSP achiote paste

1 TBSP canola oil

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

1 large onion diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 large poblano, diced

5 cloves of garlic, minced

25 oz can diced tomatoes

1 1/2 quarts chicken stock

2 cups cooked black beans

salt and pepper to taste

ground cumin, corriander, dry oregano to taste

3 bay leaves

ancho chili powder to taste

The first step is to get the meat marinating.  Combine the achiote, oil, salt and pepper, and mix them into a smooth paste.   Add your cubed meat.  I used the cryovac machine at work to seal this up, and left it in the fridge overnight.  Obviously a ziplock bag would do almost as well. At this point you should also cook your beans. Drain them and cool them in the fridge.

When you are ready to cook, gather all of your ingredients.  We are going to start with the meat.  Heat some vegetable oil in a large pot, and add the meat.  Lightly brown the meat, and add the onions, peppers and garlic, and a little salt.  Cook until the vegetables have softened, and then add the tomatoes and stock. Bring up to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and season to taste with salt, pepper, ancho powder, bay leaves, coriander, cumin,  and oregano.  Allow your chili to simmer, and add the beans after an hour or so.  Taste it after a while and adjust the seasonings if you need to.  If it is to acidic you can add a little bit of honey.  That will help balance things out. Give it a couple of hours to simmer, and enjoy. This is not going to be a spicy chili, but it is tasty!  If you like it spicy there are lots of possibilities, for instance chipotle peppers would be nice in place of the ancho chilies while still giving you a nice smoky flavor.

This chili was a huge hit at work, and I think it will be for you as well. There are plenty of things you can tweak, but this should get you started.  Enjoy it!  I know I did!

*In the course of day to day prep at work we do some butchering, and end up with scraps that are perfectly edible. The chain falls into that category. The only way to get chains is to buy beef tenderloin PSMO (peeled, silver skin, side meet on or pismo).  To make this chili you would probably need three chains.  Of course if you like filet mignon or chateaubriand this will save you quite a bit of money.  The less processed the meat the less expensive it tends to be.  The last time I went to the store pismos were \$19.99/pound, and filet mignon were \$23.99. Breaking down PSMO’s takes a bit of practice, and time.  It is certainly something you can do, but you do need a sharp knife, and the time to do it.

## Can you use a recipe?

A lot of people say that they can’t cook because they have to use a recipe to make anything. They seem to be under the impression that a real cook can just throw things in a pot, and have it taste good. In truth you should be able to do both. Very often you will see people who for whatever reason are unable to follow a recipe, but can cook very well. Learning to use a recipe can help you learn to just throw things in a pot and end up with something that tastes good.  Pay attention to what flavors work together and use that knowledge to help you with your own dishes.

Throwing things in a pot and making it taste great takes practice, and being willing to fail often. Eventually you will learn that some things just don’t work together. Using a recipe on the other hand is pretty easy, because everything you need to know is right there in front of you. All you have to do is follow directions. Of course, as we learned in grade school sometimes following the directions is the hard part.

With a recipe you can make anything. It really doesn’t make a lot of difference if you have ever eaten it before. The first thing to do is to read through the entire recipe. There may be ingredients or techniques that you are not familiar with. Now is the time to find out what you need to know, and not while you have things burning in a pot . While you read through the recipe you can determine that you have everything you need, or decide what to substitute for something that you are missing. Once you have made the recipe a few times you will probably feel pretty comfortable with it, and be able add or subtract things, or use it as a base for making up your own dishes.

Recipes can come in a lot of formats.  The format will depend on the source.  The recipes that you see most often on the internet, and in cook books generally list ingredients and quantities.  This is followed by a description of the methods used to prepare each component, and the how to assemble them.

In some older cookbooks you may find a very different format:

Omelette a la Celestine

Prepare two small omelettes. Place one on a round plate, garnish with slices of poached chicken breast and cover with a thick cream sauce containing chopped parsley. Place the second omelette on top and sprinkle with melted butter. Larousse Gastronomique 2004 edition

If you pick up a copy of Escoffier you will find the same format.  These books assume a certain level of knowledge and understanding. (I won’t tell you that I am always up to the challenge of these recipes.  Some of them are very complex, and may require things that are not used frequently any more.) Although Escoffier and Larousse are old  they are very interesting reference books.  Some of the recipes you will be able to use, for instance coq au vin.  Of course you can find recipes that are in the format we all know for coq au vin in lots of cook books.

Interestingly,you can also see recipes in a similar format to those in Escoffier and Larousse on Twitter. Both Eric Ripert, and Rick Bayless have posted recipes on Twitter.  Rick Bayless even ran a contest using recipes in a single tweet. There is very little information given, but in many ways that is freeing.  When you have a recipe that is that stripped down, you are free to make it whatever you envision the dish as being.

In a restaurant kitchen you may see recipes that are in a similar format to what you are accustomed to seeing, but often they leave out the directions.  So you might get something that looks like my recipe for Shrimp and Basil soup.

Shrimp and Basil Soup

olive oil

4 large onions large dice

½ cup garlic minced

1 Tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes

3 Tablespoons dry thyme

3 cups fresh basil chiffonade

1 #10 can diced tomatoes

½ bottle white wine

1.5 Gallon vegetable stock

2# frozen peas

2.5# 21-25 shrimp

salt and pepper to taste

That is the extent of the recipe.  Since this is used in a restaurant a certain level of knowledge is assumed, just like Escoffier and Larousse.  Obviously, this is not really a complicated recipe, but makes a lot of soup! If you have the rest of the information you will have no problem making this soup.

In a large pot sweat the onions, garlic, and red pepper flakes in olive oil until the onions are clear. Add the thyme and basil. Sweat until fragrant, about one minute. Add the tomatoes, and wine, mix well, and bring to a boil. Add the vegetable stock, and return to a boil. Add the frozen peas, and shrimp. Bring back to a boil, and turn the heat down to a simmer. Allow to simmer for 10 to fifteen minutes until the shrimp are cooked through. Taste, and season with salt and pepper.

Assuming you had a pot large enough to make this recipe, lets look at it since we now have it in a format you are familiar with.  First, look at the ingredients, is there anything that you don’t have? Anything you don’t understand? Now is the time to find out this kind of thing. It is a lot easier to solve problems before you have food in a pot. Do you know what chiffonade means? Do you have white wine? Do you know what 21-25 shrimp are? Do you know what sweating is? Whatever issues you may need to resolve should be done now.

Only after you know exactly what you need and what you need to do should you even start to do anything that remotely resembles cooking. This hopefully will only add a few minutes to the time it takes you to prepare your dish. Although, if you need to run to the store for something it may have added a little time, but nowhere near as long as if you had started, and realized too late that you needed a crucial ingredient, and then need to start over.

Once you know what you need to do start gathering ingredients, and then prepping them.  If you have containers large enough to hold a single step’s ingredients put them together, and once you have everything ready to go into the pot, turn on the heat, and cook!

Some people have trouble with terms used in recipes such as “cook until tender,” “al dente,” “season to taste.” With phrases like this pretty much what you will have to do is fish something out, put it in your mouth, and see if it is tender, al dente, or if it is seasoned properly. These are things that may be hard to specify in a recipe, but are very important. They are pretty easy to check once you realize that all you need to do is taste your food.  You should be doing that anyway!

Cooking is very easy once you realize that tasting and adjusting things is part of the fun. If you follow a few very easy principals you’ll have no problem. When you are eating you can take your time, and evaluate things that didn’t turn out quite as well as you would have liked, and remember them for later. The next time you make the dish you can make the changes you noticed. It can be helpful to take notes, and leave them with the recipe to refer to next time you make it.

## Lentil Soup:Eric Ripert vs. Lemmy Kilmister

Image by xcaballe via Flickr

I guess my past with lentils is a little strange.  I first heard of them watching The Young Ones on MTV when I was a kid.  Of course I had no idea what they were.  It was still funny to see Neil try to serve them in the episodes with all of the crazy things that went on in the show.  Tea kettles exploding, atom bombs, and then add in bands like Madness, Motörhead, and the Damned, and you’ve got a show that any 13 year old in 1986 would enjoy.

I first actually ate them at work, when I made lentil soup for the first time.  I had a recipe, and everything in it sounded pretty tasty together, and so I figured the lentils wouldn’t hurt anything.  One of the people I follow on Twitter is Eric Ripert, and from time to time he tweets recipes.    One day I saw this:

ericripert Lentil soup: lentils+onion+ carrot+bacon +water+
seasoning.when tender remove meat.Blend +butter to soup consistency.Chix stock even better.
9:04 PM Oct 19th via Twitter for iPhone

That sounded like as good a recipe as any, and maybe better than a lot of them.  Tonight for dinner, I’m making it.  Obviously, this recipe leaves plenty of room for improvisation, so I’ll do just that.

I could just leave you with Chef Ripert’s tweet, but I won’t.

1 onion, diced

2 carrots, diced

1 stick celery, diced

8 oz lentils (weight, half of a one pound bag)

1 quart chicken broth (I use Progresso, low sodium) I didn’t use the whole thing

salt, pepper, bay leaves, herbes de provence

3 TBSP butter (divided 1 and 2)

Sort and rinse your lentils.  Always sort and rinse your lentils and beans.  This is important because they are small, and about the same size as a piece of gravel or rock.  Chomping down on a rock in the middle of your lentil soup would be “heavy, man.”

Melt one tablespoon of butter in a medium sized pot. Turns out I didn’t have any bacon, but I would have put it in once the butter had melted.  Add the veggies and a pinch of salt, and sweat until the onions are clear. Add the lentils, broth, and seasonings.  Bring to a boil, and turn it down to a simmer.  You may need to add a little more broth or water as the lentils cook.  Once they are tender, remove from the heat, and puree the solids.  I strained the soup, pulled out the bay leaves, and used my little Cuisinart to do the job, but an immersion blender would do just as well. (Just a quick note, my sister knitted what I am using as a trivet in the above picture. )

Then I put the soup back together in the pot, and turned the heat back on, and added the final two tablespoons of butter.  This just added a nice bit of richness.    I always like to bring my soups back up to a boil before I serve them.  This soup could easily be made vegan by leaving out the bacon, subbing olive oil for the butter, and veggie broth for the chicken broth.  You’d still have a great tasting soup.  “Lentils are really good, you know? No matter how many times you have them, they never get boring.” — Niel

## The creative process… for me

Cooking is an interesting activity to me.  It sits at an interesting crossroads, it is neither science nor art, but in many ways is both.  This is a dynamic I find very interesting.  At it’s core, cooking is the manipulation of material using various methods to prepare it for consumption.  Of course that is a bit simplistic.  On the other hand, you have people like Ferran Adria at El Bulli who creates dishes that are so imaginative it takes half a year being of being closed to develop a menu for the next years season.  The truth is that most of us are closer to the manipulation of materials than Ferran Adria.  His dishes are also more scientific, and more creative at the same time.  Unfortunately for us, the techniques used at El Bulli are so far outside of the normal realm of cooking that they are almost irrelevant on a day to day basis.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t also be creative in the kitchen.  We just have to set our sites a little lower!

So, how would I approach this?  There are a couple of ways.  First, if you are one of the people who says they need a recipe in order to cook something.  Use a recipe.  The first time you make it, follow it, exactly, 100%, to the letter.  I don’t care what it is.  Hopefully, it is a dish that you are at least somewhat familiar with.  If you’re reading this, and you cook there is a pretty good chance you have been eating food for at least almost your entire life.  That means that even if you have never made that particular recipe before you have at least eaten something with some of the same ingredients.  What does that mean for you?  It means that even though you think you NEED a recipe to cook, you have the tools you need to start to stray from the printed recipe, and make something that is unique to you.  Each person has their own tastes, and preferences.  So, start with something simple.  Maybe you’re making a cream of spinach soup.  Try a small amount of nutmeg.  You will be surprised what it will do.  It’s probably not in your recipe, but you have nutmeg. Add a little.  Next time you make it, what about a little bit of dill?  Or perhaps a splash of Pernod?  There are a huge variety of things that can go into a dish.  You don’t have to stick strictly to a recipe.  They can be a handy guide, but think of making your soup like a road trip.  You have the recipe like a map, but you can adjust things as you come across something interesting.  Do you really want to miss the 27 foot tall garden gnome, just because you are trying to get to the Grand Canyon?  This is one way I approach creativity in cooking.

The other way I deal with creativity is a bit more daring.  Sometimes, I simply allow my mind to wander.  I could be inspired by a trip to the grocery store, the walk-in at work, a menu at a sandwich shop, whatever.  I simply allow myself to explore the taste of an ingredient, in my mind.  The process is simple, but you have to trust yourself, and be willing to taste things, and make a mistake from time to time.  You might use massaman curry paste in a pumpkin soup, because the cardamom, galangal, cinnamon, and mace would work well with the pumpkin, and the spicy elements of the curry paste would counterbalance the sweetness of the pumpkin.

When you can trust your palate to guide you there are a lot of options open to you.  Sometimes I will buy something interesting at the store when it seems like something I could do something with, even though I don’t have a real idea what it is for.  Other times, I have an idea, but am not sure how it will play out.  I made a chevre spread with dates and cardamom.  I opened the bag of dates, and the cardamom next to each other, it smelled good so I put them together.  It was a hit!  The key is just to try things, because you just never know what will work together, and make your next signature dish!

## Cassoulet Day One

I had my first experience cassoulet at work.  Cannellini beans, pork sausages, duck confit.  It was one of the more life changing experiences I have had as far as food goes.  However, duck legs are out of my budget.  I bought the Les Halles cookbook specifically for the cassoulet recipe.  Obviously, I am a fan of Anthony Bourdain, and have made several recipes from the book, but the NOT cassoulet!  The poulet basquaise I made for Amy’s birthday is from the book.  I adapt the recipe for vichyssoise at work, and it is fantastic.

Cassoulet is a bean stew.  There’s really not a lot to it.  A little mirepoix, beans, duck, pork, stock, and some herbs.  Where I get into trouble is the duck, and the pork.  Although I enjoy duck and pork Amy does not, at all.  I found a recipe that I think I can make work, and I’m going to substitute what I can afford and what she’ll eat and go from there.

Since we are cooking with beans I am starting this early.  Cassoulet will be tomorrow’s dinner.

When you have a project like this the best way to handle it is to break it into small steps.  For example, if I was going to have duck confit as part of the dish I would have rubbed it with salt, and let it cure overnight in the fridge, yesterday.  Today I would have cooked the confit.  Confit is essentially cooking the legs by poaching them in a fat.  In this case you would use duck fat, although you could use canola oil in addition to the duck fat that would come out of the legs.  This is kind of cheating, but it will save you money buying duck fat or eating enough duck that you can render and save enough fat to cover the legs that you have.  Confit is a long, slow cooking process, and is not frying. I am going to use chicken legs, and essentially braise them in the cassoulet, not quite traditional, but I’m on a budget, and cooking for someone who found the dish interesting, and doesn’t like duck or pork. (I’ve made peace with this, most of the time.)  I do feel a bit conflicted about this, but like I said budget is an issue.  I may pick up some turkey sausage tomorrow to at least move things in a little more traditional direction.

Today’s task is to rinse and soak the cannellini beans.  Cannellinis are one of the more traditional beans used in the cassoulet recipes I have seen. (The Les Halles cookbook calls for Tarbais beans, but they are outrageously expensive! [\$16-21/pound!])  Realistically, I could break down the chicken, and chop all of the veggies tonight as well.  I’m not quite feeling that motivated though.  That will be taken care of tomorrow some time.

Anyway, stick with me, and I think you will enjoy this quite a bit.  The recipe I am using is a bit lighter, and includes more vegetables.  This is probably more in line with how the dish would have been made originally.  In a restaurant more meat means that you can charge more, and also creates the impression of better value.  This is a dish that would have been made by people who needed a hearty, cheap meal.  Meat, would have been in it, but not tons of it.  So, in some ways we’re going to go back to that.

If you’d like to see how this dish came out, Day Two awaits!