Recipes are guidelines, not rules

Keeping along with my theme of “freeing the mind” (have you seen The Matrix? There is no spoon!) from the rigidity of recipes, this photo is proof that you don’t need to follow them as hard and fast rules. Use them as guidelines. And perhaps for base knowledge for those of you who are still building that foundation. But…

be freed from the mentality that you need every ingredient that the recipe calls for or that you even need to necessarily follow all its measurements.

(By the way this post applies solely to cooking and not baking – I readily admit I know nothing about baking as it generally requires strict adherence to measurements and my lazy rebel little heart just can’t handle all that.)

The above image features my take on Cooking Light’s beef ragu with polenta. I don’t remember what the recipe called for, but I do remember the picture on the page – a very lickable picture I recall. And that’s really the most important part of a recipe for me anyway: the picture of the dish, not the recipe.

I think about several things when I see a photo of a dish: how good it looks, what it seems to have (what colors are displayed?), and what it might be missing for me.

How good it looks

This obviously matters to me because if it doesn’t look good, why would I want to make it? While I know that looks are not all that matter when it comes to food, I will attest that looks go quite a ways when it comes to appeal. How often have you seen a picture of a delicious looking dish and not all of a sudden felt hungry? And how often have you had an actually extremely appetizing dish right in front of you and not mentally drooled (if not physically as well)? The point is, when it comes to recipes, if there’s a really pretty picture that comes along with it, I’m personally intrigued and more likely to try making it.

What it seems to have

This requires a little observance and a game of “I Spy.” If you look at the featured picture of this post, what are some immediate colors you can point out? This may seem like a silly question, but my goal is to show how easy it is to cook through very simple (and what will seem like obvious) thought steps. So if we go through this second grade exercise, our answer would be: yellow, orange, green, red, scattered specks of black, and something obscurely on the brown-ish side. The next question to ask is, “What food/ingredient is potentially correlated with each color?”

Applying a little logic along with our now excellent sense of seeing, we’d know from the title of the recipe that the yellow was likely the polenta, that the brown-ish color was likely the beef, and that the red must be some type of tomato sauce. What you’re able to see is what’s “needed” in the recipe. Everything else is about flavor from here on. At this point you can read the recipe to see what it calls for, and then decide for yourself what you want to follow and what you want to do differently.

What do I love that is missing from this recipe? Is there any reason why I can’t add it? Is there anything I don’t like in this recipe? What would I change?

This is the final set of questions to ask yourself when using a recipe as a guide and not the rule. For me, the Cooking Light recipe did not have mushrooms, and I had shiitake mushrooms in my fridge that I found myself wondering if I could throw in. I’m also a fan of adding color contrast where possible so I topped the dish with fresh parsley. That sprinkle of green made it that much more yummy looking to me. And what did I change? I used half the amount of tomato sauce the recipe called for the second time I made this dish because I found that using the entire amount drowned out a lot of the other flavors.

All this goes to say that by all means, use a recipe. But don’t ever let it limit your creativity! Think of the recipe as the box. And listen to me when I tell you to think outside of it 😉

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