Let’s get this out of the way right up front.
Recipe Consistency and Personal Variations
The recipes I’ve given here are the way I make them, as closely as I can write down. But I don’t – no cookbook author can – guarantee that you’ll get exactly the identical results I do with these recipes. Reading comments to online recipes frustrates me, because so many people seem to believe that any published recipe is, or should be, an exact formula which will turn out perfectly every time, in every kitchen, for everybody. And they get really testy when somebody says “I did this recipe with these changes, and it turned out great!”, since they feel (and will tell you so, at length) that you shouldn’t comment on the recipe unless you have already made it, and exactly by the original chef’s instructions. (If you want a laugh, wander over to http://www.food.com/recipe/ice-cubes-420398 and read the ‘comments’.)
I’m not one of those people, and my feelings won’t be hurt if you do things differently than I do. In fact, you can’t do things exactly as I do, because you don’t have the same stove I have, you don’t buy your ingredients from the same people and places I do, I haven’t told you the exact pots I use (‘a Dutch oven’ doesn’t necessarily mean a French-made Le Creuset 5-quart enameled cast iron pot to you, but it does – usually – to me … unless it’s my multi-layer stainless steel one), and your tastes aren’t the same as mine – and that last I can guarantee!
A recent experience of my own was a recipe from the Internet for a vegan dish. It sounded good, and ultimately it was. But it called for 3 Tablespoons of brown sugar and vegetable broth. I’m not vegan, I was out of vegetable broth, and I didn’t really care that the dish stay vegan, either. So I used chicken broth instead. And when I tasted the mixture, it was much too sweet for my taste, so I first added more salt, and then some herbes de Provence, and ultimately some more chili powder. What I ended up with was seriously yummy, and will be repeated (with no sugar), but it wasn’t exactly by the original recipe. And the originator – who probably is vegan – would neither try it nor like it if she did.
And you will also probably notice that I give suggestions and alternatives throughout the recipes. The fact is that, while these are family recipes and they always taste about the same, I seldom make anything exactly the same way twice. If I don’t have, or can’t get, a particular ingredient because of the weather or the season, there’s probably an adequate substitute that is available, or maybe I want something meatless or with more vegetables today instead of a normally-meat-heavy dish, or possibly I just don’t feel like running to the store. Playing with your food may actually be a really good process, and a major learning experience, so go for it.
Don’t – please don’t – regard these recipes as inviolable and set in concrete, or as scientific formulas that will always yield identical results. If I were a professional chef at a restaurant, I would have to try to get the same results every time. But even professional chefs at restaurants taste: it’s common practice, at least in the professional kitchens where I’ve worked and trained, to have a utensil crock full of spoons (often plastic) that are there for anybody to grab and use for tasting, throwing them in the sink (or trash) after one use to avoid contaminating something with your own germs. Professional chefs smell their cooking food a lot, too – that’s why you sometimes see them waving their hands over their pans, to waft the smell up to their noses – since taste is about 50% smell. And then, if an adjustment is needed, they’ll add some salt, a bit of additional herbs, a little vinegar, lemon juice, butter, cream or whatever. They’re going for consistency, yes, but there’s enough variation in even commercially-supplied ingredients that adjustments almost always have to be made.
Go thou and do likewise.
Taste as you go, adjust where you need to, make the recipe yours. If I’ve called for cilantro, and you’re one of those people for whom cilantro tastes like soap (no, you’re not imagining it – it’s a genetic trait), for heaven’s sake leave it out, or replace it with something you do like. If you can’t find a specific ingredient, use something similar – or something different that you think of. If you like pecans, but not walnuts, use pecans. Taste everything and ‘adjust the seasoning’ before you serve it. If nothing else, you’ll learn what does and doesn’t work for you and your family, and (at least eventually) you’ll have many fewer outright failures.
One of the great joys of growing up in southern California, which I did, is that it’s the most ethnically-diverse place in the world. And, for every single one of those myriad ethnicities, somebody, somewhere, has decided to open a restaurant. We have every kind of ethnic food you can imagine, from Chinese, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Nigerian, Jamaican, Thai, Mexican (and Tex-Mex and Mexican-American, plus ‘fine dining’ with a Latino backbeat), Salvadorian, French (both ‘a la maison’ and ‘haute cuisine’), Swiss, Native American, burgers-and-fries, chicken-and-waffles, Italian, Jewish delis – you name it, right down to my favorite example of a fusion restaurant: a halal (Islamic dietary law) Chinese-style seafood place I used to live near.
But another thing that I find uncomfortable with people’s online commenting is the question of authenticity. It’s not uncommon for a comment to read something like “This isn’t Whatever-the-recipe-name-is. The Only Way to make Whatever is …” followed by however the commenter believes the dish should always be made. For example, many people believe that Shepherd’s Pie can only be made with lamb (or mutton, I suppose; ‘shepherd’, after all), and that the same basic principle (‘meat and veg under a layer of mash’) made with any other meat is Cottage Pie. Again, they get really testy about it. (And heaven help you if you, say, call for sweet potatoes instead of white, or put in tofu or bulgur or lentils instead of meat.)
Well, granted, Shepherd’s Pie is generally understood to be a British dish, and some folks in Britain do make that distinction. But I was taught to make Shepherd’s Pie by a British friend of my mother’s, and she didn’t care what meat you used; in fact, she liked to include a bit of breakfast sausage in hers, which I regard as inspired.
Most dishes from most places are like that. Everybody’s grandmother had her own variation on the dish, and – for her grandchildren – that’s the way the dish should always be made. But the grandmother in the next house over probably does it slightly differently, and her grandchildren regard that as the absolute Platonic Ideal of the dish.
‘Paella’ in the US usually includes seafood, but, in Spain, there are inland places that make what they call paella without any fish or mussels, but with chicken, rabbit, sausage and snails. Does that make their dishes any less ‘paella’ than the versions coastal fishermen’s wives make? I think not. You may not agree. But please don’t bother to tell me about it.
There is also the question of ingredients. These days it’s much easier to find what used to be exotic ingredients. But what you can get in the States may not be exactly the same as what is grown or made in Thailand, or North Africa, or wherever. Unless you’re using exclusively imported ingredients, what you’re making may be a really close approximation, but it probably won’t be exact. Or you may not be able to get even a close approximation because US food law is different from, say, Italy’s. (Between 1967 and 1990, the FDA forbade importation of Italian-grown prosciutto over a pig virus. And California has prohibited selling foie gras at all, no matter where it’s from, or shark fins for shark fin soup.) Australian ‘bush tucker’ was a trend when I was there in 2001, and the dinner we had at such a restaurant was outstanding, but I’ll never be able to reproduce it here – you simply cannot get the ingredients. Is mine any less ‘paella’ if I use Arborio rice because I’d have to order bomba or Calasparra off the Internet and I want to eat it tonight?
None of which is to say that adapted versions of exotic foods made in the US (or of New England or Southern foods made in California, for that matter) may not be excellent fun, and really good food. Nor will it take anything away from the delight of tasting a dish in its ‘natural habitat’ when you travel. (Although what you get in a hotel or restaurant probably won’t be anybody’s grandmother’s version, either, any more than that haut cuisine-influenced bush tucker dinner was anything like what Aboriginal Australians ate before 1788.) Curiosity and adventure are good things, as are experimentation and adaptation, and it isn’t worth worrying about how ‘authentic’ a dish inspired by someone else’s cuisine really is.
I guess what I’m ultimately saying is don’t take anything too seriously. Cooking and eating should be enjoyable, and feeding friends and family should be fun and an expression of love. Beyond that, relax, taste, adapt to your own preferences, and don’t worry about the name of the dish. It’s a fine old American tradition, after all. You probably won’t find chop suey or fortune cookies in China, corned beef and cabbage or sweet soda bread with raisins in Ireland, nor spaghetti and meatballs under an ocean of Sunday Gravy and a snowdrift of grated cheese in Italy … unless somebody’s been to the US and brought a version of those adapted, hyphenated-American recipes back home!