Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Beg, Borrow, and Steal" isn't great advice, Ctd.

I just cooked dinner. It was very yummy.

I followed a recipe. The truth is that when I cook I almost always follow a recipe. And for good reason. Cooking is hard, and I didn't really grow up doing much of it, but I like making good food. More importantly, when I'm cooking there are almost always other people that I'm trying to feed, and I want to make good food for them.

There's no point in not following a recipe, right? The people who write good cookbooks know what they're doing, and their recipes turn out great.

I've got friends who swear that they never cook from a recipe. They say that they just can't stand it.

I thought about these friends as I was making dinner tonight. I was making a ratatouille and some roasted roots, and I kept on forgetting amounts of spices, or how long things were supposed to stay on the stove for, and I didn't have room for the cookbook in my very small kitchen, so I was constantly running back and forth to another room to consult the book. That was sort of annoying, and (if we're being honest) a little embarrassing. Like, shouldn't I know whether the tomatoes go in with the peppers, and whether that matters?

Last night was annoying too. After picking out the next night's dinner, I made a grocery run. The recipe  I had picked called for eggplant; the grocery store was all out of eggplant. The recipe called for grape tomatoes; the grape tomatoes looked sort of nasty. It would have been really nice if I could've just changed recipes on the fly.

Besides for the convenience of being able to think up dishes on the fly, I'm a little bit jealous of my friends who don't use recipes or cookbooks. They're always making new, interesting creations and combinations of food that I just never think of. It's like, how do they come up with this stuff?

It's not as if I haven't learned anything since I started cooking for myself. Of course I have. To start, I've got this great collection of recipes that I hold in my head (and in a binder). When I read a cookbook, I recognize recipes that I think that I could do and that would taste good. And I'm really much better at managing the kitchen, chopping vegetables, telling when things are done, etc.

But I sort of wish that I could just come up with dishes on my own.

My wife and I have got this idea that we can learn how to do this. Here's our plan: one night a week is going to be Challenge Dinner. For Challenge Dinner, one of us does the shopping, and the other has to use whatever ingredients are offered for that night's dinner. So I can buy my wife broth in a box, parsnip and eggs, and she's got to figure out a way to make that into a decent dinner.

Who knows if it'll work. But wouldn't it be nice to try?

[Original post, here.]


  1. Are you talking about cooking or math? When I was reading, i started picturing math students who recognize strategies they think they can do, but have trouble changing on the fly. Maybe they need a Challenge Dinner, too.

  2. I'm with you. I have to use a recipe. I have no ability to taste something and say, "ah, needs more such-n-such!" I also have no ability to read a recipe and discern whether or not I will like it. On the other hand, I did more adventurous a couple of years ago, and started trying new things. We love to watch "Chopped," and trying to guess the mystery ingredient (and being allowed to critique the meal) got my kids to try a lot of things they wouldn't have otherwise. Best of luck to you!

    1. "Chopped" is actually the impetus for this experiment. I've never seen an episode, but my wife loves it.

  3. This sounds like fun! Some of my most successful meals have come from figuring out how to do something from leftovers and random items we happen to have in the pantry.

    I'd say my own experience and practice with following recipes and watching cooking shows (mostly Good Eats) got me to a place where now I feel comfortable experimenting with my own ideas in the kitchen. I still use recipes a lot, especially when I'm working with a new ingredient, but I modify things all the time--often to eliminate mushrooms. :)

  4. It takes individuals varying time frames to become comfortable with cooking by feel. Some get it pretty quickly, some quite a bit more slowly. Some actually never get to that point. And we don't hold it against those cooks who might take a bit longer than others, because as long as they're making progress, they're heading towards their goal. They might not become professional chefs, or even spectacular home cooks. But they'll be able to make a decent meal that'll satisfy their family and themselves. I look forward to working with these individuals in the classroom (oops, I meant kitchen) and watching their personal growth towards THEIR goal.

  5. I completely agree with mslcbillings. I kept waiting for you to launch into a discussion of mathematics education, how we teach are students, and how mathematics education has been done in the past. I was anticipating you to make all of the connections I had floating around in my head that I constantly advocate to my students. Since you didn't take the opportunity (you were most likely baiting the rest of us in), here goes nothing...

    Sure students have a lot of recipes (formulas and process) in their head if they have been taught in a very traditional fashion; however, if they don't have the right ingredients (problem set up in such a way that they can see the parallel to the problem through which they were taught the process), they can not follow their "recipe." Or in an even worse case scenario, unless they pull the recipe out (look up the process, formula, or have the formula specifically called for in the problem), they are out of luck.

    You are absolutely right, recipe followers have trouble switching up on the fly, making substitutions, improvising, and in general creating good things out of nothing. It isn't surprising though, we can follow recipes, but do we really understand the reason for each step in the recipe? Do we really know what things taste like individually and how they pair with other foods? Probably not (at least in my case). Same is true about procedural learners and formula followers. Do they really understand the formulas, processes, and ideas they are using. Do they know that some processes are excellent substitutes for others or that you can use just the basic idea to produce something of better quality? In my experience in the classroom, procedural learners and formula followers are not flexible thinkers because they really don't understand what they are doing and why (I know that I may have just opened myself up to major criticism and chastisement due to the fact that I may have insulted some people).

    I was taught in a procedural fashion, but I have always asked my self "why am I doing what I am doing?" and "why does this work?" This was my way of figuring out what the "ingredients" tasted like, how they paired with other "ingredients", as well as why I might choose to "fold in" the ingredients as opposed to "creaming" them.
    I am no master chef either in the kitchen or the math world, but I would like to think I can at least get by in one of them.

    1. Interesting that both you and mslcbillings made the connection between cooking and learning math. I was spending more time thinking about the connection between cooking and teaching math.

  6. When I read this post, I could hear it in my head as you talking. That was just so cool for me. I enjoyed the diversion from mathematics, but I also was thinking about the possible connection between cooking and teaching math as well. Thanks for the post. :-)