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Trying new recipes: maybe delicious, but risky and expensive

Posted by on Jun 19, 2012 in Blog Posts | 12 comments

So, I was flipping through Cooking Light and saw a new recipe for a cucumber salad I thought I would try. I find that I rely on the same dozen or so stock recipes, but occasionally I want to try something new. When I try new recipes, if one out of four is quick (start to finish 30-40 minutes max) and tasty enough (and doesn’t call for $12 worth of shallots of pomegranate seeds) to make it into the regular rotation, I’m pretty happy…

A few things I noticed about tonight’s cucumber salad experiment (that none of us liked):


  1. this salad called for 3 different fresh herbs, the cost alone would be about $8 to buy them (we used our home-grown dill and skipped the mint and parsley…)
  2. it called for 2 1/2 CUPS of sliced red onion, the photo clearly showed about 1/2 cup sprinkled in. (I just added a sprinkling. I’ve been fooled before when I thought it sounded way off, but decided to follow the recipe.) Good decision here…
  3. it showed unpeeled cucs, and I thought I would try it, but the peel was tough and unappealing
  4. it said “sliced” thin, but clearly it was cut with a food processor or mandolin on the photo, more or a shave

What I did like was the reminder that yogurt-based salad dressings are pretty darn yummy! Will make more of those! Also, M helped me make the dressing, and I loved the way she closed her eyes and inhaled the aroma of the fresh lemon, and the oils. It was a cool kitchen moment!

As I tossed out the rest of the salad that none of us ate, it got me thinking about the broader cultural eating and feeding implications with all the push for eating fresh and organic, and cooking family meals…

Trying new food is risky. When you don’t have enough money to risk wasting an entree or on fresh herbs, you might stick with what you know tastes good and fills you up… I am mindful and grateful that I can afford fresh herbs and can take the time to make a salad with cucumbers, which doesn’t have a whole lot of fill-you-up power, which a hungry family needs.

I just think it’s something that doesn’t get talked a lot about with the whole discourse around nutrition and the war on “obesity.” What if you don’t have skills, or the money to experiment and waste food? How do folks gain those skills, access, etc. If I am risk averse and stick to my tried-and-trues (so stinks when I make a casserole or one pot dish is a flop, then it’s cereal or eggs for the family), and I have the luxury of time, money, skills and a functional kitchen, is it realistic to expect someone who is worried about filling bellies to take a risk?

What do you think? What was the last new recipe you tried that was a flop or a hit?

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  1. inge

    I tried zucchini pancakes with cucumber-yoghurt sauce.

    Not convinced. Cheap, OK to eat cold on whole grain rye bread, but to much effort for the result.

    You had to grate, salt and then press the zucchini *and* the cucumber. Then you mix the zucchini with eggs, herbs (bought them already-chopped frozen, they will keep for a year), and fry them. Only, they are very soft, you need to make them tiny or they will fall apart. And in the end they do not taste any more interesting than an omelette.

    However, the joghurt sauce (with mint from the balcony herb garden) was very tasty.

    Next recipe to try: rice pudding with figs and rhubarb!

    • katja

      I have a pretty high standard too. Has to have a low “effort to taste” ratio… Too much effort is a deal-breaker. I can make enough quick and tasty stuff to avoid the hassle.

  2. Twistie

    As Kelly noted, using a new recipe for a side dish or a variation on an old favorite is less risk than starting off with nothing familiar.

    I’m lucky with the whole experimentation thing since I was taught to cook as a child and encouraged to experiment, which means that now I have a wide range of ingredients and techniques I’m familiar with. That means there’s less risk overall… but it still isn’t fool proof. There’s been more than one meal at Casa Twistie that turned out badly enough that we tossed it and scrounged for something else.

    There’s no way I would think that someone kissing their budget ceiling has an obligation to branch out in potentially unsuccessful ways with their food. Variety is good, but security is more important.

    But I will say my last new recipe turned out beautifully. It was a little number called ‘carrots and onions at high humidity’ and it was delicious. Basically you steam sliced onions and carrots cut into quarters along with a couple sprigs of thyme, and then serve with a sauce made of lemon juice whisked into olive oil. Simple, tasty, quick to make, and the ingredients didn’t cost much, either!

  3. Lisa

    I tried roasted vegetable tostadas last weekend. It was a definite hit! Once you roast the vegetables, the assembly is very fast. To make this on a weekday, I would roast the vegetables ahead of time. I also like the flexibility of varying the vegetables based on what is available.

  4. KellyK

    If I am risk averse and stick to my tried-and-trues (so stinks when I make a casserole or one pot dish is a flop, then itโ€™s cereal or eggs for the family), and I have the luxury of time, money, skills and a functional kitchen, is it realistic to expect someone who is worried about filling bellies to take a risk?

    Nope! Getting everybody fed (and still paying the mortgage and keeping the lights on) has to trump novelty.

    That’s actually a really obnoxious catch-22, because the wider your cooking repertoire is, the better able you are to stretch your food budget. You have more tricks up your sleeve for cooking cheaper cuts of meat or making cheap, boring staples good. You know how to make things from scratch that cost more to buy prepared. You also have better odds of being able to do something with whatever’s on sale.

    I think there are both high-risk and (relatively) low-risk ways to experiment. Making a whole meal from a new recipe is probably the highest risk, particularly if it’s a one-dish meal where all your eggs are in one basket (or, one baking dish). Slightly less risky is a meal whose components are all new recipes, but they’re all distinct, because you have three or four chances for something edible to result. A single new side dish in a familiar meal is less risky. You still run the risk of wasting food, but not of wasting a whole meal.

    Another thing to consider is whether the new thing includes new techniques or new ingredients, and how close it is to anything you’ve already done. I once made a chocolate cream pie that was a total disaster because I didn’t let it cook long enough, so it never set. But now that I can tell when a cream pie filling is “done,” I could probably make a banana cream pie or a coconut cream pie without any trouble.

    I think the lowest risk, and probably a good place to start, is simple variations on the tried and true. For example, taking a dish you already like and adding one or two different components, like a new spice, or a different vegetable than you usually use.

    One thing that helps me experiment is paying attention to what the “blank canvas” foods are. Pasta, rice, bread, potatoes, etc. Because they’re neutral, you can add whatever flavor you want and it usually works. That gives you variety without a ton of risk. One of the quick meals my husband and I like is nachos. Brown some ground beef, melt some cheese over tortilla chips, and pile it all together with salsa, sour cream, and maybe guac or jalepenos. We’ve started playing with variations of this, like cheeseburger nachos (replace the sour cream, etc. with ketchup, mustard, onions, and relish), which turned out really good.

    • katja

      Great points. I’d love to see real basic cooking taught in schools, without all the fear-mongering and nutrition speak. Just show them how to make a basic soup, a tomato sauce for pasta, a few proteins… (Remember the list of the top ten things every high-schooler should learn to cook. Great comments there!) Because yes, cooking ultimately saves money. It is a cruel catch-22.

      • KellyK

        So would I. Most of what we actually made in home ec was cookies and muffins, because of the appeal and the short class period. We learned other skills and concepts, but it was much less hands-on.

        I wonder if it would be possible to have multiple classes collaborate on dishes that require more time than a single class period.

        • katja

          interesting idea! How about one class you just chop and simmer onions, celery and carrots and freeze in baggies, then the next class you can assemble a soup with the mire-poix, stock and noodles and some frozen veggies? I like where you are going with the stages idea, but I also think you can sautee a thin pork chop, piece of chicken or tofu in a 40 minute class…

          • KellyK

            That’s a good idea. It makes lots of sense. A lot of things keep just fine in the fridge for a day, so “prep one day, cook the next” could work for soups, stir fries, and all kinds of things.

            You’re right about being able to cook a thin piece of meat in a 40-minute class period too.

    • Sylvia

      You’re so right about variations on a theme – I am neither a confident nor a talented cook (I’m a strict recipe follower), and I’m not a foodie either – not particularly adventurous, food is fuel more than anything else, etc (I’m not saying that’s better than any other approach, just the way I’m wired and always have been). My dinner-cooking and ability to provide edible food for myself turned a corner when I mastered about half a dozen simple meals in the kitchen, and now I can do at least half a dozen variations on each of them… They are:
      – a simple red or green curry with two main ingredients (tofu & broccoli, pumpkin & chickpea, etc).
      – a stir-fry (teriyaki, peanut satay, oyster sauce, etc etc, with different greens)
      – a stuffed baked potato or sweet potato
      – a quinoa salad, with various pairings (a Greek version, a Japanese version, etc)
      – a simple vegetable soup (can do pumpkin/carrot/sweet potato/pea/etc)
      – a Mexican bowl (basically nachos/tacos/etc ingredients on rice and beans rather than chips or shells)

      All of these things are cost effective (and guaranteed to work) and vegetarian. It sounds like quite a bit, and sure it took time to learn each of those skills, but I genuinely do only know how to cook six things (and then variations on each one). I’m perfectly satisfied with the amount of variety I get, and I can now cook each of those things fairly quickly. And they taste really good!! It’s so much more successful than when every night was Russian Roulette – trying a salad I’d never made before, trying to do homemade pizzas one night and pasta sauce the next… It was so stressful, and I really couldn’t afford (timewise or financially… I’m a young journalist, so I get paid like crap) to have any mishaps (which I frequently did). I try and ensure I get all my nutritional needs by being adventurous with my grains/legumes/veggies/meat-free proteins that accompany each dish – but that’s only taking a gamble on one ingredient, and I know I’ll get the sauce right.

      Now that being in the kitchen every night doesn’t end in stress and tears (and I don’t even have kids, that’s just me!! Lol), I feel less pressured when I am actually trying something new… My current things I’m working on (to take the list up to 8!) are risotto and lentil stew (again, quite flexible dishes). But I know I can try them once a week, end up eating toast, and still get it right the other days. The other thing that has helped has been containing my experimentation and learning new skills to baking/sweet treats. It’s OK if I mess up the cupcakes, because they’re not essential to my nutrition, and I only buy ingredients for sweets if I can afford them (knowing they don’t form part of my core nutrition, and that nothing might come of them). It’s so much less stressful to balls up a cake than your dinner.

      I know this probably sounds a bit pathetic (also, long!!) but just wanted to reiterate that there are people out there who really have struggled in this situation. I grew up poor and in a single parent family (father only), so lived on pot noodles, toast, chicken nuggets, etc, and was never taught to cook (no classes at school either). So I only started myself at 18, and it’s taken me til my 20s to get to the level of confidence/proficiency I’m at now (still not great I know, but I’m happy enough). I don’t even remember how I realised that learning a few things and then swapping the ingredients around was the way to go… Maybe it was dating a guy who cooked green curry about 4 times a week, haha.

      • katja

        Wow. You are so not pathetic, you are inspired, and I would love to post this as an inspiration to others. Wow, just wow. I hope you feel accomplished and confident, and you figured it out. largely on your own, it sounds like… Maybe you should be teaching the classes?? Love this. Really…

        • Sylvia

          Thanks, that’s really nice of you!! I could totally teach the green curry by now, haha ๐Ÿ˜€ Though I have tried to pass some of this stuff on to my family, without any real success I’m afraid.