A guest essay by Betty Teller
It’s not my fault, not really. I will admit that I procrastinated to the last possible day. But I do that every week. I always put off writing, in the hope that I’ll have an adventure, or inspiration will otherwise strike, so I don’t have to write about raking the yard yet again.
But I woke up early this morning with every intention of jumping right in. I’d cleared my calendar in preparation. I had only one small item on the agenda before I could sit down at my computer.
I had to go buy a few ingredients for the moussaka I was making for the cookbook club dinner tonight. And then I needed to cook it. The recipe I selected was short and looked pretty simple. I figured on 30 minutes to go to the store and about an hour to put the dish together. I’d be at my desk and ready to write by 10:30 or 11 a.m. at the latest.
The cookbook group was meeting at my house, but (this time, at least) I was the world’s most organized hostess. I had set the table a day in advance, and all was ready.
I was home from the store by 9:30 a.m. as planned. I got to work immediately on the dish so I could get it out of the way.
But there was one small snag: The book selected for the evening was a chef/restaurant cookbook.
Here’s my issue with chef recipes. They can be absolutely delicious, but they are also deceptive.
They often include landmines for the unwary.
I had already scanned my recipe for one obvious IED (improvised explosive device) found in books of this type — the ingredient with a page number next to it, telling you that it isn’t an ingredient at all, but rather an entirely separate recipe. Fortunately, the author had avoided planting that particular ordnance.
But she wasn’t entirely innocent of sabotage.
The thing about restaurant chefs is that they usually command an army of willing laborers. For the lucky chef, cooking is mostly assembling. He or she merely reaches out a hand and some underling fills it with the perfectly prepared ingredient at the very moment it is needed. All the chef has to do is toss it in and stir.
I, on the other hand, have no minions. So before I could put on my chef’s hat and assemble my moussaka, I first had to tie on my food prep apron to create my mise en place (a French term that means “chop till you drop”).
And this is where those easy-sounding chef recipes get you. They sneak a world of hurt into the ingredients list.
This one didn’t say “onion,” it said “onion, finely chopped.” Ditto for the garlic, tomatoes, parsley and mint. It wasn’t “cheese,” but “grated cheese.” In place of “eggplant,” it said “eggplant, peeled and sliced lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices.”
An hour later, I was still measuring, grating and slicing, and I hadn’t gotten to step one of the actual recipe.
But I’m an experienced cook. I figured I’d make up time after I got through the chopping. Except the prep didn’t end there.
Once I got to the body of the recipe, I found that the ground lamb was to be cooked separately. I had to pre-bake the eggplant slices. I needed to make the Mornay sauce. And cook and mash a potato. And of course, every step took twice as long as the book said it would.
It took until 3 p.m. to complete my prep, but finally, I could don my toque and assemble the dish — then sit down to write my column at last.
What an easy recipe this must be for the chef! It only took 10 minutes to prepare the individual ramekins.
It’s 4 p.m. as I write this. The ramekins are on the counter, ready to pop into the oven. And they look gorgeous. But I’ve gotta sign off and put my apron back on. The club members will be arriving shortly, and my kitchen looks like a war zone. Every pan in the house is dirty.
It seems that my unreliable dishwashing staff are AWOL again.
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Betty Teller chronicles her kitchen adventures in her biweekly newspaper column, amuse-bouche, in the Napa Valley Register. After 20 years as a museum exhibition developer with the Smithsonian Institution, she spent seven years creating and directing the exhibitions program at the now defunct Copia food and wine center in Napa. In 2005, she started her column and her current career as an editor and food writer. If you’d like to subscribe, email amuse-bouche AT sbcglobal DOT net.