It’s All In The Recipe

As someone who develops my own recipes, often getting ideas from tweaking and testing a bunch of others, I’ve noticed that the instructions can vary greatly.  When I experiment with the concepts in Modernist Cuisine, the focus is on precision of cooking temperatures and measurements.  But there’s frequently a choice of cooking options, from oils to water or milk, with no indication of how the choice may impact the flavor or which option the chef preferred.

If I attempt one of Julia Child’s iconic recipes, where there’s almost always a detailed explanation for the need to use a particular ingredient or cooking method, the cooking times may be drastically different as our current acceptance of doneness levels tends to be much less than it was decades ago.  The most accurate and detailed recipes I’ve found have been in Cook’s Illustrated, which can be somewhat overwhelming and, in any case, you’ll be hard-pressed to find them online.

The more I cook and the more comfortable I am cooking,  I’ve learned to adjust my methods and use ingredients in a way that make sense to me.  But when I encounter a one-off recipe, like those in a magazine, that should have been tested and are supposed to be geared to the average home cook, I’m often stunned at how inaccurate the information can be when I actually try to prepare the dish.

For example, I attempted to make the Trini-Chinese Chicken recipe I saw in The New York Times.  The article accompanying the recipe made it sound delicious, and it seemed simple enough.  After my recent trips to the Asian market trying to locate all the ingredients for the Asian chicken wings in Modernist Cuisine, I had almost everything on hand to make it, except for the specific type of hot sauce. But when I took a closer look at the recipe, I wasn’t entirely sure how the author achieved his results.

The instructions said I could use between 2 and 1/2 to 3 pounds of mixed chicken parts (legs, thighs and wings).  But the amount of marinade and dipping sauce was the same, regardless of the amount of chicken or types (some are meatier than others).  Shouldn’t I need more marinade for an additional half pound of chicken? And then it said to marinate the chicken for at least half an hour and up to 6 hours — but it occurred to me that the length of marinating time should impact the cooking time.  How was that accounted for in the recipe?  And then it said to fry the pieces, possibly in batches, over medium heat but never bothered to say how hot the oil should be exactly before I started to fry or if I should fry the pieces covered or uncovered.  There certainly was no way that the chicken was cooked on the pan presented in the photo.  Plus, it said I could cook the chicken for 15 to 20 minutes.  Wouldn’t there be a big difference in an extra 5 minutes of cooking time?  After all I’d learned about precision cooking in Modernist Cuisine, this seemed unacceptable.

Although I hate the feeling of being tied to a recipe, having to follow it word for word and instruction for instruction, if I wanted to go blindly into cooking something, I wouldn’t bother consulting a recipe in the first place.  So it didn’t seem too much to ask that an article in The New York Times explain whether the pictured chicken was the result of marinating for the full 6 hours, cooking for only 15 minutes or how much hot sauce was desirable.  While I may be guilty of leaving out certain information, whether from assuming it was obvious or if it’s just an oversight, at least my readers can easily email me if there’s a question, and I will respond.

Maybe I expect more from such a renowned publication, but the lack of specificity I encountered was further highlighted by my recent attempt to make the Easy Oven Ribs with Sriracha Barbecue Sauce posted by Putney Farm.  The directions on this blog were clear, the description detailed, and the resulting ribs were tender as promised.  If bloggers can get it right, so should the paid publications to which we subscribe.

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My perfectly cooked sriracha ribs thanks to Putney Farm!

In the end, my version of Trini-Chinese Chicken turned out absolutely delicious!  To illustrate the decisions I had to make when following the recipe, below is the original recipe and how I tweaked it follows in parentheses.  I might have messed up a few things and would gladly accept tips from anyone else who tries this dish.

[N.B. When you take a recipe that is fried and bake it and change the ingredients entirely, you’ve made something entirely different, which — for the record — is fine as a concept but not a basis to comment on whether the recipe works.]

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Trini-Chinese Chicken adapted from The New York Times
Serves 4.

Ingredients

Chicken:

8-10 chicken wings, legs and thighs, about 2 and 1/2 to 3 lbs (3 lbs of chicken wings – first and second parts  – and drumettes)
2 tbps of five spice powder
Juice of 2 limes
3 tbsps of soy sauce (light soy sauce)
1 2 inch knob root of ginger, peeled and minced (2 tbsps of grated fresh ginger)
1/2 cup of neutral frying oil grapeseed or canola (canola)
2 tbs of sesame oil (toasted sesame oil)

Dipping Sauce:

1/2 cup of oyster sauce
Juice of 1 lime
1-3 tbps of Matouk’s Soca hot sauce (1 tbsp – found the hot sauce in NYC at Kalustyan’s along with a ton of other hard to find spices and such)
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup of scallions for garnish

Directions

In a large non-reactive bowl, toss the chicken in the five spice powder, then the lime juice, soy sauce and ginger.  Cover (with plastic wrap) and marinate in the frig for half an hour to 6 hrs (3 hrs).

Heat oils in a large skillet over medium-high (medium) heat (until popping).  There should be at least 1/4 inch of oil in the pan.  When oil is hot, remove the chicken from the marinade, allowing the excess to drip back into the bowl (I didn’t find any excess).  Fry in batches, if necessary, turning the pieces frequently until well browned and cooked through, 15-20 minutes.  (Lowered heat to medium low and added half the chicken.  Covered the pan with a splashguard and turned chicken after 7 minutes, then cooked another 8 minutes.  Chicken was nicely browned, even charred.  Then I cooked the next batch over medium low so it wasn’t as browned and turned every couple of minutes and found that the chicken was sticking to the pan and not as browned.  My stove always runs hot so I have to adjust for that, but I preferred the first batch with the nice char and suggest turning only once.)

While chicken is cooking, combine the oyster sauce, lime juice and hot sauce and stir to combine.  Adjust seasonings to taste with ground pepper. (Made dipping sauce while the chicken was marinating instead of waiting to make it while the chicken cooked.  I found it hot enough with one tablespoon because I wanted the flavor of the marinade to come through.  I didn’t add any additional lime either.  The sauce definitely tasted better after it sat for awhile, and there was plenty left over.)

Drizzle chicken with sauce and serve extra on the side.  Top with scallions.

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