These days, I've been talking about the art of writing cooking recipes with Katja Jenčič, translator and book editor. As we were going over notes for my new book, we got stuck on a seemingly innocent question: what is the point of writing down recipes for dishes? And, if it really must be done, how can one write them well and for the benefit of the reader?
We agreed that a recipe is basically a set of instructions leading their user to a happy ending in the form of a tasty dish. The procedure must be stated clearly but must also contain warnings or tips highlighting the essential and crucial steps in the preparation of a dish. Really, the point of a recipe is not to provide exact quantities of ingredients, but rather to transmit the experience of the writer to the reader.
Katja’s grandmother, for example, never used a recipe when preparing a “potica”. Until the end of the 19th century, recipes were generally never written down. A young girl simply watched her mother, aunt, mother-in-law or any other experienced housewife, and learned through observing and discussing things with her during the cooking process. Through the development of print and a general increase in literacy, cooking knowledge gradually began spreading through books, turning recipes into basic content-building blocks.
A lot of things have changed in the kitchen since then; recipes, however, still remain firmly anchored in our everyday lives. All of us who cook use them, be it in digital form or, rather conservatively, on paper. We spend less and less time peeking over each other’s shoulder, resorting instead to processed, pre-cooked dishes, prepared by a cook in a food processing factory or a machine performing its work by following a predetermined algorithm or, well, a recipe.
The digital world provides us with an infinite number of recipes for practically any dish you can think of. Now, users are facing a new issue: how to choose which one of a hundred recipes to follow and to trust? If you spend at least some time checking out online recipe sources, you’ll quickly realise that a large portion of recipes are exactly the same, providing the same ingredient quantities and even describing the process itself in the same way. In short, we’re talking about unverified content.
As a cookbook author, I often question the point of writing and editing recipes in the form of a book when the digital one is just a click away. For the purpose of credibility, I remain a firm defender of analogue. In its essence, printing a book is an expensive and technically complicated process, in which both the author and editor must provide concise writing and verified content. It’s no joke, really: the book must inspire its reader with a sense of confidence that they’ll be able to follow logical steps, from beginning to end, in order to prepare the dish with as few redundant pieces of information as possible. By putting their name on the cover, the author is staking their reputation, as a guarantee that a cookbook will really get you there.
And so, cooking recipes remain with us, supporting us through the process of cooking which is, after all, not an insignificant task. A recipe for a well-written recipe, however, is another matter. As an author, I’m constantly drawn to this question which I struggle to find a good answer to. I’m trying hard, though: with every book I write, I spend quite some time discussing with my editor and designer about how to write down quantities and procedures, what is important and what isn’t, until it all boils down to the very important question of how to present these pieces of information to the reader. Fonts and their sizes, page breaks...the list goes on and on.
In order to make myself even more insecure when it comes to choosing the “right” path, I've decided to share with you my goulash recipe. The reason I chose goulash is because it's a very popular and well-known dish that can be prepared in as many different ways as there are people making it. We could say it’s a quite simple and generic dish with a thousand faces.
Since I’m (currently) following the principle that a recipe must invariably contain the experience of its author which will, so to say, make or break the dish, I completely left out the quantities for experimental purposes. You can simply set them out as you go along (seriously, though, show me a person who actually weighs the ingredients, following the set-out guidelines of a recipe to a T?).
Anyway, this recipe will be of a descriptive type and will include all of my experiences gathered within the last six months during which I have made goulash at least five times, the last being a day before I set out to write this article: as part of a birthday celebration, I prepared a potful of this beloved dish. I intentionally didn’t use the recipe I had prepared for the upcoming book: by going where the inspiration took me, I tried to put the thought that we need a recipe for an easy life out of my system.
For me, shank is the best piece of meat to make a goulash out of. I have tried making it with veal shoulder, ribs, and neck, only to find out that, after stewing it for a long time at low temperatures, the shank comes out really juicy and tender.
Lendava locals have taught me that the only fat used to make a really good “bograč” (a type of goulash) is pork fat. Along with my local butcher Marko Kosmač from Ježica, we concluded that was really the case. Since you can heat it up to higher temperatures than regular cooking oil, pork fat will really make sure to close up the pores of the meat while roasting, resulting in a juicier final product. What’s even more important, though, is the taste of fat adding a certain soft, sweet and juicy aftertaste to the goulash. I cannot exactly explain the phenomenon, but believe me when I say that goulash is definitely richer when cooked with fat.
The ratio between goulash and onions does not necessarily have to amount to 1:1. The larger the quantity, the higher the meat content. For my last version of goulash, I used three kilograms of shank and two kilograms of onion.
At the butchers, I buy a piece of shank, clean it and cut it into appropriate pieces myself. Why? Around the muscle part, the shank contains chewy fat tissue that I can clean most accurately myself. Nothing goes to waste, though: I use the offcuts to make broth which I later use for making goulash.
In June, my wife and I attended a concert in Zagreb where one of the food stalls was offering “čobanac”, the Slavonic variety of goulash. I was surprised to see the chef add diced carrots to the onion as it was sautéing in the pan. I liked the idea: since the carrots add a little sweetness to the goulash, I now often add them to the dish myself as well. I also add quite an amount of sweet and spicy minced peppers that the Slavonians use in abundance.
The chef at our holiday campsite, who was also Slavonian, had advised me to never add wine to goulash if I intend to eat it the next day. Since wine acidifies the dish, she said that it will turn sour faster, especially in the summer. So I didn’t use wine, and I also resisted the temptation to reduce the dish with purée, as some Slavonians are prone to do. Somehow, I don't find it necessary since we simply add more onion for this purpose.
Recently, I was talking to Robert Kutin, the manager of the café in the Ethnographic Museum of Ljubljana and an old cat when it comes to catering. We started talking about the opening ceremony of the “Španski borci” cultural centre in mid-September where Robi and his team will prepare 120 litres of goulash for the guests to enjoy. I asked him whether he intended to reheat pre-made quantities of goulash at the risk of burning it, which often happens. He said that he planned on cooking the meat and the onion separately, only adding the onion to the meat once it’s thoroughly heated-through, along with its liquid. A cool detail, right?
So, off the top of my head, this is what I spontaneously know about making goulash. Is it enough so you can prepare a tasty dish? My birthday goulash was a success; I hope yours will be, too.
I am a star-eyed observer; I watch the world unfold before me and I am amazed at everything I see. The human person is always my main focus, even when I chop up carrots or write down my recipes. I like to talk to people that work with their own hands and with the earths soil itself. At home I crouch down before my computer and type down every impression and every note form the last 5 years and I publish this at the very end in a book for everybody to read. Throughout this whole process I always stay a father, sometimes a little grumpy, other times cheerful and high in spirit.