Know When to Hold and When to Fold (and a recipe for green beans)

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My daughter, home from college and eager to help prepare something for an upcoming holiday feast, called me at work in a panic. “The matzoh balls are falling apart!” she said.

I should have never left her alone with such a recipe at such a tender age. Matzoh balls are one of those recipes you should learn at your mother’s knee, and she had never watched me make them. I should have been there to help her get the feel for the proper texture, to know when to add more matzoh meal or more water to get just the right consistency for light, fluffy dumplings.

Though I confess that’s not how I did it. My mother wasn’t much of a cook. She never made matzoh balls, ever. My grandmothers did, though. When I decided I wanted to be a good cook, I got out a recipe book and started practicing. I don’t think I produced any matzoh balls that fell apart, but I produced several batches that could have been bounced off the floor, until I got a feel for it. I think developing a feel for the food and for the recipe is the essence of being a good cook.

Reading between the lines

Anyone can follow a recipe, with some basic instruction to understand the terms (like the difference between “beat in” and “fold in”). It’s knowing what’s behind the words that does the trick. You can call it talent, but I think it’s more a matter of experience or common sense.

Sometimes it’s not that easy to distinguish between a recipe that just won’t work and one that can be tweaked. In poker terms, you have to know when to hold and when to fold.

I recently clipped a recipe for “Honey Mustard Green Beans” – I can’t remember from where. It said to mix up the ingredients, put the beans in a baking dish, cover the baking the dish with foil and cook the beans for an hour at 250 degrees or 30 minutes at 350. The green beans were supposed to be “tender-crisp.”

I should have known that something baked that long would not come out “tender crisp,”  but for whatever reason I followed the recipe. The dish was a mushy mess. There was way too much liquid. The beans were soggy. I was relieved this was not a company meal.

Give it another chance

I was about to toss the recipe but then I thought I’d give it another chance. Too  much liquid? I reduced all the ingredients except the beans by half (in fact, I increased the amount of beans from 1¼ pounds to 1½), and baked them in an uncovered pan. Beans too soggy? That’s what long, slow roasting will do. For “tender-crisp,” you need high heat for a short time.

So I cooked them at 425 degrees for 10 minutes or so, uncovered to help the moisture evaporate and prevent the beans from steaming. The result was a delicious side dish, with the beans tender-crisp as they should be and coated with a sweet-and-spicy glaze. So here’s my advice: if you make a dish and like it in general but wish it were just a little more…something, try some of these quick fixes:

  • If it’s too sweet, try again using half to three-quarters as much sugar.
  • If it’s too greasy, cut down on the oil, butter or margarine. (More than 30 years ago a friend served us a wonderful carrot cake, and gave me the recipe. But when I made it, I thought it was too oily. So i reduced the oil from 1½ cups to 1 cup and make it that way to this day.)
  • If it’s too dry, add more liquid, or cook for a shorter period of time.
  • If it’s too mushy, use less liquid or cook uncovered instead of covered.

Good cooks also know what you can substitute for something in a recipe you don’t like or don’t have. You can usually substitute milk for cream; it won’t taste as rich, but it will usually work. You can usually substitute margarine for butter, though again you’ll lose a bit in taste. But be careful if you use oil instead of solid fat; the consistency of the dish may be affected. No shallots or leeks? Use a little onion, just be aware that the taste of onion is much stronger. Don’t like cilantro? Eliminate it but use parsley to keep the color.

That kitchen bible, The Joy of Cooking, has an excellent section on substitutions. You can also find information on substitutions by doing a Web search. My daughter has now made matzoh balls often enough to know what the mixture should “feel” like. And I’m proud to say that she, her brother and her sister are all good cooks.

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