Bits and bobs

Random thoughts about random things by a random person


Cooking prep times (or What if you DON’T have a sous-chef?)

Have you ever used a recipe to cook or bake something? If you have, you probably know exactly where I’m going with this.

But, for the sake of those who either don’t cook or have never needed to use a recipe, I’ll go there anyway. 🙂

In pretty well every “proper” recipe I’ve seen there are two times given: prep time and cooking (or baking) time. Prep is short for preparation, so prep time is, you guessed it, the time it takes to prepare the ingredients for the recipe: taking them out, cutting, chopping, peeling, measuring, etc. The cooking (or baking) time is – wait for it! – the time it takes to actually cook or bake the thing! Ta daaaaaaaaaaa!! Not rocket science.

For some reason, though, the people who write recipes seem to think that we all have sous-chefs at home who do all of said cutting, chopping, peeling and measuring. Then when we walk into the kitchen to make a recipe, everything is laid out in those cute little bowls (like on the cooking shows), all ready to go.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon often over the years. But it really stood out for me somewhere in the past several months when I was intentionally looking for some quick recipes for weeknight suppers. I have a bunch from years ago where you open cans of things and throw in some meat or veggies to create an easy one-pot meal. (Ahhhhh…the days of the cream of chicken soup casserole!!) But I wanted some healthier options that didn’t use a bunch of prepared foods.

So, as I am wont to do, I hopped on the ol’ Google machine. As you can imagine, there were a lot of results. And they sounded ideal: “Healthy dinner recipes ready in 30 minutes!” YES!!!!! That’s it!

Then I read the recipe: Take out X Y Z vegetables. Peel them. Dice them. Put them in the food processor. Make a sauce. Get out this other stuff and measure it. Slice the meat into thin strips. Hop around the kitchen blindfolded, on one foot. OK…I may be exaggerating on that last bit, but you get the point. 😉

Joking aside, I have actually seen a recipe with most of those steps and a listed prep time of FIVE minutes!!WHAT??

Some recipes kind of cheat, too, and include a pre-cooked ingredient just so they can say it’s a really fast recipe. So always read the recipe! (Especially keep an eye out for when something needs to be marinated. You might actually need to start your prep a couple of hours earlier or possibly the day before.)

Even in baking, which I’m more comfortable with than cooking, I find it impossible to achieve the listed prep time.

It might be possible if I treated it like a race, but if I hurry, I make mistakes and drop things – or even forget things. (Ever made banana bread without the baking powder? Good fun.) Plus, I want to enjoy it, not feel like a clock is ticking. I don’t go intentionally slow, either. And my kitchen isn’t huge. Everything is within easy reach – no more than 4 or 5 steps away. Really, if prep times were going to work for any regular person, it should be me.

Sadly, they don’t, so I don’t trust them at all anymore. I scan the recipe to see what’s involved and, at a minimum, double the prep time to help me decide if it’s something I want to take on in the time I actually have.

If you are fairly new to cooking or baking, or if it’s a completely new type of recipe to you, I would suggest even starting with tripling the prep time. Or maybe even totally disregarding it. Give yourself a comfortable spread of time so you don’t feel that ticking clock or, worse, a sense of failure or incompetence that might deter you from trying again in the future.

Cuz, seriously, it ain’t you. It ain’t me, either. It’s the recipe.

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Facing a fear: Butter chicken

I don’t tend to do much experimenting when it comes to cooking. I don’t enjoy cooking as much as I do baking, so I’m just not motivated to venture beyond the old standards. I also have a serious lack of confidence.

Every now and then, though, I get the itch to try something new. Sometimes it works and, well, sometimes it doesn’t (putting it mildly). But even then, I don’t go far beyond what I’m already comfortable with.

Recently I got the urge to go wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy out of my comfort zone and I tried my hand at butter chicken. It’s something I really enjoy eating, but it has always seemed to…exotic…for my limited culinary skills. But, as much as I enjoy it, I am limited as to when and where I can get it.

Starting about 10 or 12 years ago, my tolerance for spicy heat in foods took a hit. I’m not sure why, but it did. I didn’t have a very high tolerance to begin with, but since then mild salsa is sometimes too much for my sadly sensitive palate. Some places have it mild enough that I can eat it and others I can’t touch at all. I tend to avoid it except at a buffet where I can have a little taste before committing.

So, I took it into my head to try to make butter chicken on my own. That way, I reasoned, I could tweak the recipe to reduce or omit heat-inducing ingredients to my own taste.

To be honest, I was extremely skeptical, not to mention nervous, about the whole idea. Firstly, I had no expectation whatsoever that anything I could make would even come close to rivaling what would come from the kitchen of a cherished Indian grandmother.

As such, when I hit up the ol’ Google machine, I typed in “easy butter chicken” not “traditional butter chicken”.

Thankfully, there were a lot to choose from. Hmm…I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, actually. Having never made it before and having no real idea of what went into it (besides chicken, of course), I had no idea which recipe to choose from.

I read a few and, after a lot of reading and guessing, I picked and chose bits and pieces of about three different ones. (I wish I had kept the links to them, but I didn’t. Sorry!) I made up my grocery list and went shopping. That wasn’t the nerve-wracking part – I’m good at shopping. J

It still took a bit of nerve for me to actually get around to the cooking part. I was, seriously, almost afraid to start. Who was *I* to think I could take this on?? My culinary background is a pretty standard meat-and-potatoes kind of thing, not to mention far too much prepared foods. Now, all of a sudden, I was going to take on an Indian classic? And, moreover, instead of picking one recipe and sticking to it, I was going to try combining bits and pieces of three different ones and throwing in some of my own ideas?

It was bound to fail.

I convinced myself, though, that since I was only cooking it for myself, the only real consequence if it failed was that I’d just have to find something else to eat for supper. Having thus given myself permission to fail, I was able to get started.

I went through the various steps, feeling quite chuffed that I was even giving it a go, and started to feel really hopeful when I added the cream – it became that fabulous butter chicken colour and, when I bent close, it even smelled like butter chicken!!

But the chicken breasts still needed to go in and, in my experience, that can make or break a recipe. It’s the texture – it has to cook properly or it could be too dry or too tough or too anything but yummy. I don’t have a great track record with it, to be honest.

Once the chicken was in and the pot was covered, I had to walk away. This is also something I’m not great at. Sometimes I poke and pick at things because I don’t trust myself or the recipe or whatever and things crash and burn. It was hard. But I did it.

And it paid off – it didn’t fail!

In fact, it was a roaring success. (Keep in mind the fact that I had kept the bar pretty low – it was a roaring success compared to that.) While I wouldn’t ever serve it to anyone who grew up with a traditional butter chicken recipe, I will definitely do it again – and again and again and again. I absolutely loved it.

The end result! I had a yummy piece of hot, buttered naan to go with it. It was just what I wanted it to be!

I faced my fears once when I was about 12 or 13 and it didn’t go so well (a story for another time, perhaps). This time, happily, it went smashingly.

And now I can have butter chicken whenever I want!! Woohoooooooooo!!!!