Trust. It’s a rare commodity these days. The lack of trust in our institutions – be that government, academic, religious, corporate, political – has come to a head in this tumultuous summer of COVID and civil unrest. We form an opinion, we then seek affirmation from whatever source will provide it and there are now more sources than ever. We see that happening with the response (or lack thereof) to the virus currently decimating this country as we witness a complete lack of trust in scientists, governmental institutions, and each other.
I was thinking about this concept of trust recently in the context of making a recipe from a cookbook. At the beginning of the year – before COVID swept the world and altered everything – Pixie and I decided to spend the year cooking from our impressive cookbook collections. We each chose one cookbook for each month and have dedicated ourselves to making these recipes with locally-sourced ingredients – both to show how easy it is to support local and to further our mission of strengthening communities through their food webs. Little did we know what a challenge this would become in the time of COVID-19.
Here in New Mexico, our Governor came out early and mandated strong restrictions in an effort to keep the virus from spreading. Back in March, she closed offices, restaurants, schools, and retail stores. Grocery stores had strict measures to follow, including only allowing a certain number of customers at a time. We would shop early in the morning, as quickly as possible, making massive purchases to stock the pantry and freezer and then hole up for a few weeks until we had to do it again. (We are also blessed to have a CSA that delivers fresh, local, seasonal food right to our door each week.) As with the rest of the country, panic buying ensued and I quickly discovered it was more than toilet paper. Yeast, flour, sugar, baking chocolate, rice and pasta were all in short supply. Sometimes the strangest parts of the store would be empty because supply chains were in disarray. I remember discovering all of the tofu was gone one day. (Tofu? Have we come really come to this?) You just never know what will be on the shelves these days so you’ve got to be able to adapt.
Suffice it to say, it has not been easy to follow recipes. At the beginning of each month, Pixie and I make educated guesses as to which crops will be at the market and choose the recipes accordingly, knowing that some changes will need to be made if crops are late or spoiled due to weather and other problems. We can no longer run to the store to pick up a forgotten ingredient. I recently traveled to a high-COVID state and am nearing the end of a mandatory, 14-day quarantine where I was not supposed to be in public, meaning no grocery stores whatsoever for two weeks! So, I struggled with a few of the recipes slated to be tried this month because I simply do not have the ingredients that are normally in my pantry or refrigerator and I cannot go to the store to replenish my stock. What’s a girl to do?
Make substitutions, right? We do it all the time. The recipe calls for curly kale and I only have dino kale; it’s the same vegetable so the result should be fine. One of my recipes this month, Pea and Spinach Soup with Coconut Milk, was nixed because the coconut milk, which is normally a staple in my pantry, was nowhere to be found. (I guess I made a few too many curries.) I thought hard about substituting half-n-half with toasted coconut and realized that the recipe would be completely altered and skipped it. The fresh peas were used in another recipe instead. When I do not have a main ingredient – especially when it is in the title of the recipe – substitutions become tough. These are obvious examples, but really, when you think about it, any substitution you make changes the taste of the final result whether that is substituting a can of fire-roasted tomatoes for stewed tomatoes or switching up herbs. Whenever we make these substitutions, we get a different flavor profile and, technically, a different recipe emerges.
Behind most recipes are people who have spent a lifetime honing their skills, experimenting with flavors, testing, tasting, and trying. Entire batches are tossed in the pursuit of a good recipe. Each recipe is more than a list of ingredients and instructions; it’s a culmination of years of knowledge, education and experience. Each recipe starts out as an idea – possibly inspired by a person, a place, a feeling, a memory – and the chef then mulls it over, thinking about each flavor element and how to achieve the final result. It’s a creative endeavor, but also a scientific one because she has to take into consideration the science behind cooking – the type and length of heat, the vessel in which it will be cooked, whether leavening agents are needed and so many other facets to consider. Then she has to consider the flavors that will work together and the amount of each ingredient. Not only that, but when and in which order should each ingredient be added. Recipe creation is for the adventurous soul!
That’s where trust comes in. When I crack open a cookbook, I place an incredible amount of trust in the chef who created the recipe. I know that these recipes have been tested, tweaked, and re-tested repeatedly. When I begin measuring the ingredients, I have the utmost trust that, if I follow the instructions, I am going to achieve something wonderful. It takes trust to spend the time and money necessary because if the recipe is not good, I have wasted money on ingredients and the most special commodity of all: time. And, these days, running out to the store to pick up a wasted ingredient simply is not possible.
While there’s nothing wrong with using a recipe as a spring-board towards a different dish, and it is something I do all the time, we should reflect on the relationship we build with trusted cookbook authors. We all have our favorites. Now we have the internet where a few pecks on the keyboard or smartphone will usher in a vast variety of recipes – some of which are quite good and others … well, we all learn from our mistakes. Novice cooks often ask me how to know if a recipe is good and I advise them that once you find a chef you like, trust her. Check out her books and her blog. Follow her on social media and you will discover a whole host of other chefs that she follows. Trust her recommendations there as well.
There really is nothing like a trusted cookbook in these times of uncertainty. Regardless of your political inclination, you can still trust recipes to get you through the time of COVID-19. For which, I am truly grateful.
Pepper, July 2020