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Saturday
Jul102010

Measuring up

Well, now the time has come to write some recipes and I am realising that I don’t measure up. Not in the sense of feeling inadequate, but literally; I rarely measure anything when I’m cooking.

I am currently reading a book by Jenny Linford called Writing About Food and was relieved to discover that this is a challenge faced by many food writers. Linford introduces her section on measurements with the welcome news that “Some food writers feel that there is now too much emphasis on quantifying ingredients in recipe-writing” and that many feel constrained by the need to measure every ingredient, rather than improvising. Good, I am thinking, so a handful of this and a pinch of that will suffice, this is going to work for me.

Bad news. She continues by advising that, nonetheless,  “today’s conventions require that, in general, quantities are given for every ingredient”. Oh dear, this is going to require a complete overhaul of the way I have cooked to date.

Linford cites Dorinda Hafner, who wrote in her introduction to A Taste of Africa:

I have had enormous problems trying to translate my typical African “let’s estimate” style of cooking into easy-to-follow, easy-to-identify Western recipes. My mother and her mother before her have always cooked straight from the heart and this is the way I, too, have learnt.

She could not have expressed my sentiments more clearly. Take, for example, the prawn spaghetti sauce pictured in my first post. This is one of my staples which I make on a fortnightly basis, but it is never the same twice and I like it like that, otherwise I would get bored of it. The outcome is dependent on my mood, what flavour I am craving and what I have in the fridge. Sometimes I add tomatoes, sometimes I don’t; sometimes chilli, sometimes none; usually parsley, sometimes dill. The list goes on... As for measurements, the amount I put in depends on how much I have or how much I fancy.  

Reading on, the blow is softened slightly with the voice of reason from Elizabeth David who, in her book Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, wrote:

There is surely a happy medium ... By temperament a non-measurer, I have myself, first through the wish to communicate recipes and now by force of habit, become the reverse. I find that the discipline of weighing and measuring does one’s cooking nothing but good providing that one does not waste time messing about with quarter salt spoons and five-eighths of pints

Hurrah, so there is hope for me yet! Encouraged by Elizabeth David's own reformation, I plan to measure where I used to estimate, but in communicating this information, a happy medium is what I'll seek. Where measurements are of the utmost importance, such as in baking, I will ensure that I give them accurately. When they are less so, I'll make it clear that they are approximate and should be taken with a pinch of salt...

or two...

or three.

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