Thursday, August 23, 2012

Recipe for Disaster

Have you ever come across a recipe that is so obviously bad you wonder why anyone would create it, never mind publish it somewhere? I found one in a home décor catalog recently that had me alternately laughing and gagging.

The recipe is titled Oriental Salad, although the only “Oriental” ingredients are soy sauce and bok choy. The directions invite us to toss together 1 head of this Chinese cabbage, chopped “fine,” and 2 bunches of scallions, chopped, as well as 4 ounces of slivered almonds. So far, boring but not awful, although there will be nearly equal amounts of cabbage and onion. To this, we are supposed to add 2 packages of ramen noodles (about 6 ounces total), without the flavor packet, after mashing them and then sautéing them in ½ cup of butter, i.e., one whole stick, one-quarter pound. Good lord! That’s enough butter to lavishly lubricate a pound of cooked pasta. And what exactly is the point of sautéing the ramen in butter?? (That much butter would be more like poaching them.) That’s not how you cook dried noodles, even those that have been parboiled, as ramen have (that’s why they cook so fast), and butter in no way qualifies as an Oriental ingredient.

Now we move on to the dressing, and it gets much worse. The recipe would have us mix 2 tablespoons of soy sauce with ½ cup olive oil, ½ cup cider vinegar, and 1 cup of sugar. Where do I begin to catalog what’s wrong with this? First, the proportion of oil to acid is wrong; the usual ratio is 2 or 3 to 1, not 1 to 1. Then, there is nothing Oriental about olive oil or cider vinegar, and there will be nothing Oriental about the flavor. Two tablespoons of soy sauce is too much salt. There’s way too much dressing for the amount of solids. Finally, a full cup of sugar is such overkill it will render the entire mess inedibly sweet to anyone over the age of 5.  The directions tell us to pour the dressing over the solids and let it “set—the longer it sets the better it tastes (overnight is a good time frame).” After 24 hours, the chopped cabbage will be thoroughly wilted and so enveloped in fat and sugar as to be irrelevant, and the sharpness of the scallions will be lost. The crunch of the bland butter-coated ramen will compete with the crunch of the bland almonds, and the only discernible flavors will be sugar, fat, and salt.

Let’s transform this recipe into something both edible and Oriental. We can start with 1 head of chopped bok choy or napa cabbage and 1 bunch of chopped scallions. We’ll add 1 cucumber, split in half, seeds scraped out, and sliced into ½-inch half-moon pieces, to add juiciness and freshness. To make it an entrée salad, we can add about ½ pound of diced cooked chicken seasoned with ginger, garlic, and lemongrass. For the dressing, we’ll use ¼ cup of rice vinegar, ½ cup of peanut or other flavorless oil, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of sugar, I tablespoon of sesame oil, and 1 teaspoon of ground ginger. We’ll omit the almonds but retain 1 package of ramen noodles, sans flavor packet, and break them into small pieces. Instead of sautéing the ramen, we will let them soak in the dressing for 1 to 3 hours to soften before tossing them with the other ingredients in a large bowl and serving immediately. And there you have it, a delicious salad with about 80% less fat, 94% less sugar, and a great deal more flavor, suitably adult and recognizably Oriental.

I am dying to know if the perpetrator of the original recipe ever actually prepared this salad and ate it—and really thought it was not only okay but worth sharing. Years ago, the New York Times outed Emeril Legasse as a fraud whose recipes seldom worked and who relied on showmanship to build his following of, we can only suppose, noncooks. Did it have any effect on his popularity? No. I find that sad.

This is article 25 in a continuing series. © 2012 Christine C. Janson

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