Because at least we can learn something from all this.
This year, for the first (and hopefully last) time, my father volunteered to cook Easter dinner. I was a bit wary.
But hey—basically all he had to do was follow one recipe. Why? Because convenience is pretty much the only deal in the Hammonds household. That means the fewer home-cooked items, the better: This year's dinner consisted of a Costco ham, Sister Schubert’s rolls, and a salad kit still in its bag (we’re fancy).
That meant there wasn’t much left to tackle except for potato salad. (My Southern mother cannot conceive of ham served without potato salad.) We figured dad could handle it.
The recipe he chose involved grilled potatoes dressed with a pesto vinaigrette. I want to say he chose it because it sounded delicious and fresh, and something that his family would like to eat, but I’m preeeeettty sure it’s because it was on the back of the bag of potatoes he'd picked up on the same Costco run that bore home our Easter ham.
Note: I love my parents. But cooking is not...how do I put this? It's not their thing. My mother has been known to boil canned asparagus ahead of time, then freeze it, then thaw it out and serve it, in order to “save time.” Forget about the sad specter of tortured stalks that may at this moment be interred in the morgue of my mother’s freezer: I still don’t know what the H-word kind of time-saver that is.
Don’t even get me started on their rather cavalier attitude toward food safety and spoilage.
Back to Easter. There was much banging, messing about the kitchen, and my dad yelling at my mom (“Where are the pine nuts?! What are pine nuts?!”), while somehow managing to use pretty much ALL of the dishes.
Even so, I was excited about the salad: an easy pesto topping, something mild and springy to complement the nice, waxy bite of new potatoes. The recipe called for cooking the potatoes twice (first in the microwave, then on the grill), which I knew was intended to create a delicious crunchy/soft texture to hold the basil and olive oil, with nice ridges for rich, fat curls of Parmesan to land on.
A shower of toasted pine nuts would finish this deconstructed beauty of a spring celebration dish with an aromatic crunch and a not-small amount of panache.
Here is what my father served:
Let's just take a look, shall we? This is a very, very brown, very soupy, somehow almost wilted pesto potato salad. My dad plopped a serving on my plate (I could hear the noise, but also sort of see it, like an onomatopoeia set off in funny font in a comic book).
I picked up a forkful, and the first thing that hit me was the cheap, shambolic twinge of cut-price vinegar. Placing it in my mouth and chewing, I learned that some of the potatoes were slightly overcooked, while others were ice-cold, and the whole mouthful wore so many dried spices it reminded me, unkindly, of a girl I used to know in high school who preferred having makeup caked upon her face.
The texture was somehow both dry and mushy, while that vinegar taste hung over everything. This dish managed to defy any and all of the kitchen logic that I have come to know in my time working with food. It felt like laws of actual physics had been broken.
"Don't blame me," My dad said. "I followed the recipe."
This, by the way, was the recipe:
Not terribly simple, but not terribly complicated either.
So what went wrong? How did we get from a relatively innocuous, and tasty-looking potato salad dressed in a mild vinegary pesto, to a bowl of half raw, half mushy tubers lurking like stones in a swampy pile of desperation?
I decided to sit with my dad and try to go over how this thing had occurred, what we could learn from it, so we would never, ever, ever, ever have to do it again.
As we went over his culinary choices, it soon became clear that no decision he made was terribly unreasonable—especially if taken one by one—but put them all together and you get a pretty unholy mess. So here are the choices that my father made when following this recipe, how they went wrong, and the things that we can learn from them.
He Halved the Recipe
In itself that seems perfectly reasonable, but he only cut out half of the potatoes, forgetting to reduce all of the other ingredients.
It may sound like a no-brainer, but once you’re in the kitchen and ingredients are flying, it can be easy to forget—especially if you’re making a recipe you’ve made before or often. This is a big one! If the ratio of ingredients is off, the whole dish can be thrown askew. You really have to make sure to alter the ENTIRE recipe to avert disaster.
He Substituted Dried Herbs for Fresh
Often, it’s just fine to use dried herbs where fresh is called for—fresh herbs can be expensive and if you don’t cook a lot, it doesn’t make sense to spend the money.
The problem here is that Dad used a 1:1 quantity. If you’re going to sub in for fresh, you need to reduce the amount—a three to one ratio is recommended.
Not only that, he subbed out the finely-minced basil that was called for, for a dried basil-oregano mixture sold to “flavor dipping oil for bread.” And he had dug it out of the back of the spice cabinet. Problems: it was the wrong combo of spices, the ratio was off, and given how old those spices probably were, just, like, ew! Clean out your spice cabinets!
He Followed Some Directions Exactly
This seems perfectly reasonable, but here we can blame the recipe, at least in part. The directions said to "halve or quarter" the potatoes—however, they varied wildly in size, so naturally, they cooked at different rates.
Uneven cooking resulted in a mix of raw and over-cooked potatoes—not pleasant. Cutting them into like sizes would have helped them to cook more evenly. And saved at least a few tears.
This is an easy thing for a more experienced cook to figure out, but the recipe didn't really explain how or why to avoid that. So it was part Dad-fail, part recipe-fail.
He Made What Seemed Like a Simple Substitution
Pops assumed, perhaps understandably, that the inexpensive balsamic vinegar he had in the pantry could stand in for the golden balsamic in the recipe.
While you could probably replace the delicate flavor of a white balsamic with a mellow, aged balsamic, the cheap cooking swill he poured over the salad just wasn't going to cut it.
Just as with potatoes, people, and buttercream frosting, all vinegars are not created equal. Take a minute to figure out what an ingredient brings to the recipe—in this case, a hint of acid without the mud-brown color.
He Used Parmesan Cheese—in a Can
We can maybe give him this one. After all, the recipe said “Parmesan” and the can said “Parmesan.” It’s been a years-long battle to get my parents to give up their can of powdered Parmesan. It ain’t happening. And, frankly, if all you're trying to do is cut some of the acid in the jarred tomato sauce you just poured over spaghetti, it's probably fine.
But putting shredded or shaved Parmesan over top of a salad is a lot different. And in a simple recipe like this, where every ingredient has to pull its weight, you can't just dump cold, clumpy powder on and call it a day.
This resulted in an even more powdery potato texture (and it may have been in my head, but I swear I could taste the can). Real cheese is a whole different level of deliciousness. Use it sparingly, wisely, and you’ll find it’s well worth it.
He Cut out a Seemingly Unimportant Step to Save Time
The recipe called for tossing the warm potatoes in olive oil with vinegar, salt, and garlic—and then putting the dish in the fridge to chill. Later, you were meant to add the fresh basil, pine nuts, and cheese.
This would have added a nice luxury finish to a simple side dish. But, because he didn't give himself enough time, he did not chill the potatoes, which resulted in a warm, haphazardly-cooked heap soaking up the glop of powdered cheese, spice blend, and balsamic vinegar.
Sometimes there are extraneous steps to a recipe, sure. But not always. If you’ve got a recipe from a trusted source, examine the method carefully before you toss a step (or an ingredient) out the window. There’s probably a reason for it.