Tastes Like Home

Hi Everyone, “Will the Garlic Pork taste as good as you claim?” That’s a question I was asked recently after a reader received my Garlic Pork recipe that he requested. I responded kindly, pointing out a number of variables related to cooking and recipes, which can influence the outcome of preparing any dish. Today, I want to share with you the long version of my answer in an effort to explain and clarify certain things when it comes to cooking.

How experienced a cook are you?

Cynthia Nelson
Cynthia Nelson

A person’s passion, experience, skill and comfort in a kitchen arm them with key tools to expertly execute many tasks in a kitchen and prepare a variety of food. Learned techniques along with the ability to adopt and adapt to multiple circumstances and situations that could arise while cooking sets them apart from us. For example, when instructed to heat a cast iron pan until it is very hot and then add the oil, only to have it flare up, may cause us to instinctively pour water in the pan hoping to douse the fire (which would burst into bigger flames), rather than toss a wet towel into the pan. Another example, you’re told to turn the heat to simmer as soon as the rice begins to boil. You forget, as you turn to complete another task in the kitchen and the rice has been boiling on high heat for about 3 – 4 minutes, what do you do? Shorten the specified cooking time? Add more water to the rice and then set it to simmer for the original time? Or do you just turn the heat to simmer without adding anything and let it continue to cook for the original time? Only experience in cooking rice and knowing the type of rice you are cooking will aid in coming to a decision that will yield the results needed.

Bajan Pumpkin Fritters - practise needed  (Photo by: Cynthia Nelson)
Bajan Pumpkin Fritters - practise needed (Photo by: Cynthia Nelson)

What I’m saying then, is that your experience and ability or lack thereof will contribute to how good or not your food tastes. I remember reading somewhere – that having an excellent camera does not make you an exceptional photographer. In other words, we can have the best ingredients and the best tools but if we lack the skill and ability, then that shortcoming will be reflected in our efforts. The more we practise, the better we will become.
How you ever made the dish before?

Practise leads to experience and comfort and it is another reason why, each time I share a recipe with someone who is new to the cuisine from which the dish comes, or to the dish itself, I always caution not to be disappointed if it does not come out perfectly (by their standards) the first time. This is why we should adhere to the advice – practise making the dish first before attempting it for the first time on a special occasion. Oh gosh, so very many things can go wrong! There are certain things that are straight forward and one will always get right the first time and then there are other dishes that require a certain practised skill in order to get it right. Take for example roti and dhal puri – those are two things that you get better at each time you make them, from the kneading of the dough, to the stuffing, to the shaping and rolling, to the cooking.

Another thing is if you’ve never made something before and do not have a visual reference for it, (unless you are one of those super confident people), some results can leave you frustrated. The first time I made plum drink I was so disappointed when I saw the liquid had fermented; I swore I had somehow contaminated the drink although I was careful. I called my friend Gillian to complain only to have her laugh and tell me that that is how it is to be at the first stage before it is then strained and sweetened. I was ready to dump the entire thing down the sink. A lack of visual reference is why some people do not like recipe books without photographs.

What is the quality of your ingredients?

Excellent ingredients do not mean that one will automatically yield excellent results. On the other hand, excellent ingredients even in an inexperienced pair of hands may yield a varied result that’s outstanding.

Some people may be able to buy fresh ingredients while others only have frozen available to them. The herbs may be fresh; some may be dried. The poultry and meat may be free-range while some may be injected with growth hormones. I may only have dried peas while you get yours fresh. The quality of ingredients we use also contribute to the end result and taste of our food.

What’s the weather like where you
are? What’s your room temperature?

Is it warm? Is it cold? I once had a friend tell me – “You have the climate for bread and I have the climate for pastries.” It’s true but that doesn’t mean that I don’t make pastries or that she does not make bread. What we do is that we strive to maintain an atmosphere and environment that is conducive to us getting the kind of results we are looking for.

In my column last week I talked about room temperature – certain things that I might have been able to suggest that you keep on your countertop, I may now suggest that you keep in the refrigerator because of the climate. While 7 years ago, a certain pickle may have taken 7 weeks to cure, with the high temperatures these days, it may take only 5 or 6 weeks! Depending on your altitude also, you may have to use more flour or less liquid for certain dough(s).

The variables I’ve pointed to in this column – skill & ability, experience, ingredients and environment are by no means the only ones that can influence the outcome of your ventures in the kitchen. However, they are key. My advice is to remember always that a recipe is a guide, use your instincts and let them guide you. You, better than anyone else know the taste you’re after. Trust your inner chef. Recipes are there to be adapted and they should be because no two of us are the same. If you have the time and resources and want to try the recipe as is for the first time, then by all means, do so. If you like the taste, great, if not, try it again and make the adjustments you feel are necessary to yielding the results you want.

Happy cooking!


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