Tuesday, 9 September 2008

On following a recipe

Since my last post I've made a pork roast, and some stuffed capsicums. We bought Dickson TurkOz pide on Sunday night - I was a bit tired after the concert, and besides, I love that pastirmali salt beef.

For the stuffed capsicum, I had no recipe. I just cooked some rice and mixed it in with bits and pieces from the fridge. That included some leftover onions from the pork roast, half of another red capsicum, some fetta, and smoked tomatoes and pine nuts. Shove into the capsicums, and bake until capsicums are done. In this case, I put them at a very slow 130 degrees for 2 hours, because I was going off to yoga class while they cooked. We also had some black kale for a side dish, which I sauted with olive oil and garlic and a touch of orange juice.

For the pork roast, I actually used a recipe. I followed directions from Stephanie Alexander's big book for ""traditional roast leg of pork". It's page 562 in the big old orange book. I can't quite come at paying $100 to update to the rainbow coloured edition.

Anyway, in this recipe, the pork sits on a bed of onions and potatoes, and you pour stock into the dish to keep a level of about a centimetre of liquid in the dish. I thought that the potatoes might turn to mush in this treatment, but it actually worked quite well. But that was partly due to my amendments.

I very rarely follow a recipe, so I suppose it might seem a bit odd that I post them. What I normally do is riff off the recipe, using both my experience and the recipe as a guide. When I was learning to cook, I started by following recipes more exactly. But after a while, you discard the precision in favour of intuition and habit. Unless it's a special case, where you want a specific outcome rather than just dinner. As a rough generalisation, cakes are the most tricky to change, stews are dead easy, and a roast is in between.

It's like music: classicists follow the recipe, with only slight changes. Jazz improvisation has its own rules, and you need to know the genre well before you can do it successfully. But when you do, you can ring considerable changes and get a good and individual result.

The amendments that I made to the recipe, and their rationale, follows.

* I used sage instead of the thyme in the recipe. This was for two reasons. I like the tradition of sage with pork; and I have fresh sage in the garden but no fresh thyme any more. This is a very obvious swap; you could use pretty much any herb you fancied and not go wrong. (Eau de cologne mint would be a bad choice, I guess, but if you like it, then you like it, and why not?)

* I used halved white onions instead of pickling onions. I didn't have any pickling onions on hand. And while I usually keep brown onions, the white ones were better at the shop on Friday. A simple adaptation - I thought at first that only minimal knowledge is required here. But it does help to know that it's good to leave most of the skin on the onion, as outer layers will be inedible. And it's best not to cut off the root end of the onion, except the actual external roots. That way the onion pieces will stay together better.

* I put the potatoes back in the oven and turned it up hotter while the pork was resting. This is from experience. I thought that they were too soft, and I know that roast potatoes will crisp up nicely given ten minutes in a hot oven, especially if sprayed with a little oil. Or pork fat.

* I added some pumpkin. This took more knowledge, because pumpkin takes less time to cook than potato. So at one of the basting times, about 45 mins before the meat was due to be done, I added that in to the tray.

* I cheated with the crackling. I'm never very successful with the "rub oil & salt in" method; perhaps I use too little? Anyway, if you peel off the half-crackled skin from the finished roast, you can pop it under a grill or into a very hot oven for ten minutes to crisp. That's what I did - on a tray next to the potatoes. That one takes knowledge and experience. If you do try this under a grill, keep a close eye on it: it can catch fire very easily.

* I didn't make the gravy and stewed apple as describe in the recipe. I just saved the defatted stock & meat juices, and used some apple I'd made before. This is a dead simple component substitution. Many recipes include modular components, that you can easily swap in and out.

* I reduced the oven temperature by 15 degrees. This is because I have a fast convection oven - not only experience and knowledge needed here, but also awareness of local conditions. Most dishes tend to be quite sensitive to oven temperatures. It's not something to change willy-nilly. I was a little too timid, actually, I should have gone for 20 degrees. The pork came out just a tad on the dry side, a bit too well-done. So now I have learned something I can apply next time.

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