Step by step example: How I deconstruct a recipe to end up with a simplified version, even if it's something I never cooked before.
The other day I posted my 'recipe' for a pot of red lentils (thank you for the lovely feedback!) - not a recipe at all, strictly speaking, but a set of rough instructions. I thought it might be interesting to write down what exactly happens when I look for a new recipe, and how I go about 'deconstructing' it to end up with a rough and simplified version, a roadmap if you like. Even if it's something I haven't cooked before and kind of complex too. My intention here is to capture the inner dialogue that goes on in my head, in present tense - bear with me if it's a bit of a long one!
At the weekend we got some home-reared pork from our friends at Moch Cymreig Fedwen, just 4 miles up the road. (For context, 95% of the meat we eat (infrequently) is either raised by myself or someone I know personally).
I fancy a stew but unfortunately I don't have any celery to hand for my favourite Greek celery stew so I want to find something new to try. I'm a bit restricted though as I don't have that many ingredients in the house.
I start with a search for 'pork stew' and 'pork casserole', browsing through some options. I always find I'm most attracted to 'local' versions (Mexican, Moroccan, Spanish...). I stop to have a closer look at a Polish Goulash recipe (tomato & wine based), but decide to bookmark that for another day.
Then I stumble over a 'Balinese pork stew' - sounds delicious, and looking at the ingredients, I think I can wing it. I love Asian food, and I have a personal connection to Indonesia (Bali is the only part of Indonesia were pork is widely eaten) and I like that the recipe is a bit different from the rest (not sure though why this is attributed to Anna Friel!)
It is a complex looking recipe so I need to read the recipe several(!) times trying to map out or 'deconstruct' the process. I'm looking for the most essential steps here, not the specific details. For example, like many Asian dishes, it involves a spice paste, so I make a mental note of that without worrying too much about the specific spice paste ingredients.
Step by step, in my head, the recipe gets condensed as follows:
Once I get to this stage of simplification I am able to notice the most 'unusual' part of the recipe: the meat is cooked twice! First roasted with the spice paste, then simmered in coconut milk. I also notice that it is baked for quite some time ('until gnarly') which indicates that I need to make sure I use a cut of meat that can take this kind of treatment without shrinking to nothing (stewing meat from the shoulder with a lot of connective tissue and some fat will do nicely, pork belly should work perfectly too). Long slow cooking always needs to be done in a covered pot to keep the steam in (or everything will end up charred), so I take note of that too.
I have now boiled down the process to just 3 basic steps:
This procedure took several minutes of reading the recipe again and again, trying to 'get my head around it': distilling what is most important and most characteristic. Now I have turned a complex recipe into a very simple 'scaffolding' that I can go improvise with. For me, I decided the three defining elements (that I wouldn't attempt the dish without) would be: spice paste, twice cooking, coconut milk. The rest (exact ingredients of the spice paste, what kind of veg, what garnish, etc.) are the non-critical 'details' I feel I can play with.
So what is it what I'm doing in my head?
How did it turn out? Absolutely delicious! Here are some 'debrief' notes from the back of my mind:
NOTE: For a veggie/vegan version I would use aubergine. It's a 'meaty' vegetable that takes well to spices and to roasting too!
Hope this piece made some sense, despite the length, and helped shed some light on the inner dialogue when cooking intuitively. If you have any questions please do let me know. And I really recommend you try the deconstructing process yourself, next time you look at a recipe.
PS. Some notes on the spice paste, because they always have a long list of ingredients and can be very intimidating. Here's my take on it: