Use your initiative

Recipes work best when they are guides, rather than rigid instructions

There was a classic example of the kind of unfeasible recipe I wrote about in my last column (26 March) in a recent feature in the Guardian where Allegra McEvedy offered dishes "to spice up your life". One was a Moroccan chicken tagine, advertised as taking 35 minutes to prepare and cook. By the time you got to the instructions and saw that the timings added up to 40 minutes, you already knew that the schedule was impossible. Your eye had scanned 19 ingredients. Nine required chopping. Among them were a chilli, to be deseeded as well, and a swede - chopping which is a significant and hazardous undertaking, I find. I reckon I'd be pushed to be ready to start cooking this dish in 35 minutes, let alone have it on the table.

Trying to make such a lengthy recipe fit the theme of everyday cooking was obviously wishful thinking. Recipe writers do not want to daunt us, and always err on the side of making procedures appear simpler and quicker than they really are. We have an insatiable appetite for recipes, the vast majority of which we will never attempt. Briefly, the words in the glossy cookbook or magazine cause us to imagine ourselves recreating a taste of Tangier, before the gap between the recipe and our usual experiences in the kitchen causes us to move on.

It is easy for me to carp. I do not have to write recipes to fulfil what the market wants: instructions that are precise yet straightforward, simple yet distinctive. We are insecure about our cooking, and we want all recipe writers to be like Delia Smith, reassuring us that if we follow their instructions we will not go wrong. At the same time, we want to keep up with foodie fashions. A simple stew won't do any more; it has to have a contemporary spin.

However, most recipes do go wrong, or at least require improvisation. We get the worst of both worlds - instructions that, when addressing techniques, are simplistic, and, when listing ingredients, are fussy.

I am nostalgic for the Elizabeth David approach. People complain that her recipes can go wrong, and that her instructions are sometimes rudimentary. It is true that her quantities can sometimes be idiosyncratic, but she does not pretend she is doing anything other than offering guidance for the home cook. Here she is on the subject of cassoulet, for which she has just given a painstaking guide:

"The cassoulet is a dish which may be infinitely varied so long as it is not made into a mockery with a sausage or two heated up with tinned beans, or with all sorts of bits of leftover chicken or goodness knows what thrown into it as if it were a dustbin."

That mix of the relaxed and the stringent is the most inspirational sort of cookery writing.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?