Today, we’re going to talk about one of my favourite topics… food!
(Just to be clear, since this statement tends to be misunderstood: When I say I love food, what I mean is that I love eating great food. The act of cooking… well, that can be fun, too, but I definitely wouldn’t call it one of my favourite pastimes.)
But whether YOU love cooking or just do it out of necessity, like most adults you’ve probably worked your way through enough recipes to know that basically, they’re all the same: a list of ingredients, and instructions on how to “assemble” them.
Some are more complicated, some pride themselves on being particularly easy. Some include optional ingredients, or garnish or side dish suggestions.
But overall, you pick a recipe, and then follow instructions.
With more cooking experience, though, people usually get a bit more creative.
Maybe you leave out the beans that you don’t like. Substitute milk with rice or soy milk for a friend who is lactose-intolerant. Or adjust the seasonings to your taste.
You play around with things, and substitute where it suits you.
But for all my love of
cooking food, being able to exchange rosemary for chives doesn’t really show lots of internal structure in cooking – at least nothing that would be worthy of The Hidden Things.
At least that’s what I thought until I came across the work of Jules Clancy over at The Stone Soup.
Perceiving the internal structure of recipes
On her website, Jules prides herself to only ever publish recipes with 6 ingredients max (plus very few basics like salt and pepper).
The real revelation, though, is hidden inside her recipes and cookbooks:
Jules has carved out a structure in the process of ingredient selection, and she’s using that structure very smartly in her recipes to suggest substitutions – and to simplify the process of meal planning enormously.
Her secret is that she’s looking at ingredients in terms of their function. And at recipes not as individual recipes, but as templates.
Let’s talk about an example: a simple stir fry, like this beef, zucchini and cashews stir fry.
It uses zucchini, minced beef and some cashews sprinkled on top for extra crunch. Also, there’s a bit of garlic, some oyster/soy sauce for taste, and optional fresh herbs for decoration.
(That looks yummy, btw. lol – predictably, it didn’t take long for me to get hungry while writing about food…)
And if you skip further to the bottom of said page, you’ll see loads of variations, add-ons and suggested substitutions.
But what’s more interesting than this recipe is how Jules perceives its structure – or rather, the structure of stir fries in general.
Thankfully, she shares that perception with us in another post about the nature of stir fries. (Scroll down a bit and click on “Formula” to see the relevant part.)
Turning similar recipes into “recipe templates”
Jules has broken down the components of a stir fry by their function – she’s created a stir fry template:
- There is protein (’cause a certain amount is healthy for you and it also makes you feel sated).
- There are veggies (because they’re super healthy and should make up the bulk of your meal anyway).
- There’s an “aromatic” component, because nobody likes bland-tasting food.
- There’s a “sauce” component to tie the stir fry together at the end.
- And there are garnish/highlight ingredients to give your stir fry the extra oomph.
(Note that she isn’t listing the frying fat here, or basic seasonings like salt/pepper, as that’s an assumed given in all her recipes. But of course, those are important components, too.)
All of these components are listed with their required amounts. That, plus the “assembling instructions” below turn this into a full-blown stir fry template – just like there are templates for assembling other stuff, e.g. in manufacturing.
You follow the template, you get a stir fry. 🙂
Now, you can go through your cookbooks or browse online recipe sites and compare stir fry recipes – and they’ll mostly adhere to this template.
Some will tamper with it a bit, e.g. go without garnish/highlight, or play with the quantities of things (more heavy on protein, or more heavy on veggies, etc).
But overall, a stir fry is a stir fry is a stir fry – after all, that’s what makes it a stir fry in the first place. Its essence, if you so want.
Jules’ magic is to capture the essence of dishes in such templates.
Applying templates in real-world cooking…
Once you have the template, the real fun begins.
You could pick ground beef as protein, zucchini as veggies, garlic as aromatics, soy sauce as sauce and roast cashews as highlight ingredient, and you’d get the One Pot Beef, Zucchini & Cashew Stir Fry.
Or you could go with a more elaborate dish of chicken (protein), broccoli, baby corn, carrots and red pepper (veggies), ginger and spring onions (aromatics), roast almonds (highlight), and some fancy sauce with half a dozen ingredients, and end up with this Ginger Chicken Stir Fry.
You could also (gasp!) have variations of the template. For example, fry the veggies first and put them aside, then do the protein, then throw everything together, instead of doing the protein first.
Once you’ve seen the basic template, it’s almost impossible to not recognize it in other stir fry recipes, isn’t it? 🙂
… and in the rest of your life
Of course (much to my dismay), life doesn’t just consist of eating great food. So…
What else is there in your life that you could look at from this angle?
Where are you using the same template “recipes” over and over again, but with different “ingredients”?
How could you group some often-used things by function to find smart substitutes whenever you need them?
Have fun playing with playing with ideas!
Disclaimer: I’m not in any way affiliated with The Stone Soup. Currently, Jules is heavily promoting her meal planning service, and I’ve never tried that so can’t vouch for it.
I’ve bought a few of her digital cookbooks, though, and the recipes we’ve tried were very nice: tasty, simple and healthy. If that appeals to you, check out her site – if not, better do something else with your time. Like, searching for templates, “recipes” and “ingredients” in other parts of your life… 😉
Image: Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash