The recipe for success

Some of the best cooks don’t use recipes for their delicious pelau or curry goat. Franka Philip found out why not – the hard way

  • Photograph by Shirley Bahadur

One of the joys of being a good cook is that you don’t often have to rely on recipes. Not many of my West Indian friends who cook well actually use recipes for pelau, curry goat or coo-coo; they just cook instinctively and experiment from time to time, with great results.

That’s all well and good if you’re cooking for fun, but what happens if, like me, you’re trying to create a catalogue of recipes for a book or a blog? How do you begin to create recipes?

The first time I was faced with this problem was a few years ago, when I was asked by the UK’s Good Food Channel to submit a recipe for Trinidadian Stewed Mutton. Easy, I thought, but then, as I started to write down every step, I realised it was far more complicated than I’d expected. I felt a bit overwhelmed at having to record every little detail.

So I tried some iconic Trinidadian cookbooks, looking for a shortcut, but quickly discovered that in a lot of cases, the methods weren’t clear enough. It seems that back in the day, cookbooks were written on the assumption that the reader was already familiar with the whole process. As for the measurements, they varied from book to book, with one even saying the reader should add ingredients by the “potspoon.” I laughed out loud at the prospect of a non-West Indian reading this recipe, because a potspoon is not a measurement at all. A potspoon is the big metal spoon that’s normally used to stir the pot, and believe me, they are not all created equal – the amount they yield could be anywhere from two to four tablespoons.

I stuck with my recipe, which I tested about four times before getting it right.

So now that I’m thinking of producing a set of recipes that could be used in a cookbook proposal, I thought I’d better seek guidance on writing recipes and creating new ones. First I spoke with my friend Susan Low, deputy editor of the UK food magazine Delicious. She was of the view that if you can cook without recipes, it means you’re a better cook.

“A good recipe writer is not necessarily a good cook,” she said. “However, writing recipes is really a skill, and one that needs to be explained and developed.”

With that in mind, I went to meet Hattie Ellis, one of the UK’s top food writers and editors, who is much in demand for her skills as a recipe writer. We spoke at her cosy west London flat, which is of course a treasure trove of cookery books. Ellis has edited Caribbean cookbooks, and said that when she’s been to the region, she was totally “blown away” by the food.

“In the Caribbean, the food culture is really very strong, and in a way the sign of a good food culture is actually when you don’t have many recipe books, because everyone knows how to do it because they learnt how to do it from their granny. But it is important to write down recipes and pass them to a new generation.”

Ellis cited a project she is working on that involves travelling to several countries to record their traditional chicken dishes.

“As I sit in people’s kitchens watching how they cook chicken, I’m always trying to get them to slow things down, to get things bit by bit. Then you’ll notice little things, like how they’re chopping, or how much salt they add, and at what point they add it, or even what kind of pan they use.”

In some countries, the way the chicken has been reared makes a lot of difference to the way it’s cooked.

“In Vietnam, they cooked local free-range chickens differently from how they cooked the imported factory-raised chickens, because the result is totally different.”

When she said that, I recalled how my mother would always stew home-reared chickens, because they were just that bit tougher and leaner than other chickens.

“So if the ingredients list says chicken, you do need to know what kind of chicken it is. And if they say, ‘Chop the chicken into six pieces’, you need to know what that means – how they expect the chicken to be chopped.”

Ellis could not stress enough how important it is to get the small details – the things we take for granted.

“When you’re getting a recipe from someone, you need to stop them and ask: how can I tell when it’s ready? Lots of people do things by instinct, so you have to ask questions like, ‘How thick is “thick”?’ In many cases it’s a personal thing.

“It’s difficult to convey things like touch, but you can describe how something looks.” To illustrate her point she picked up a copy of Jenni Muir’s A Quick Guide to Grains, and went straight to the description of cooked wild rice: “the grains split lengthways revealing fleshy white interior.”

I mentioned that in the Caribbean, just as everywhere else, the evolution of food and cooking has been fuelled by the Internet and cable television, notably the American channel The Food Network. Ellis agreed that food television is a wonderful place for getting ideas and gaining understanding about different cultures and cuisines. But the most glamorous, impressive recipes aren’t necessarily the most authentic.

“You want the roots of the culture, those recipes that people really cook. They’re not very foodie and incredibly ‘cheffy’, as can be the case with so many cookbooks. When really good cooks write recipes, they convey all the sensory cues and can act like teachers, so when you’re cooking the recipe, it’s like having someone by your side.”

Recipe: Spicy Mutton Stew

For the marinade:
4 tbsp chopped coriander
4 tbsp chopped parsley
4 tbsp snipped chives
1 tbsp thyme, leaves only
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 lemon, juice only

For the stew:
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp granulated sugar
1kg stewing mutton, from the
shoulder or leg, cut into 3cm cubes
2 onions, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 carrots, diced
3 tbsp tomato purée
1 litre brown stock
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
4 – 6 stalks parsley
1 Scotch bonnet chilli

1. Combine all the ingredients for the marinade and tip into a food processor. Blend until everything resembles a paste. You could also use a mortar and pestle
2. Tip this herby mixture over the mutton and stir well. Cover and leave on one side for at least two hours, or overnight, in the refrigerator
3. Heat the oil in heavy-based saucepan or casserole over a medium heat. Add the sugar and heat until melted. Continue cooking until it becomes a golden caramel. Take care not to overcook the caramel otherwise it will become bitter
4. Turn up the heat and add the mutton to the pan in batches – enough to cover the bottom of the pan in an even layer. Fry for around five minutes, until the meat has browned and is well coated with the caramel. Return all the mutton to the pan
5. Add the onions and garlic and continue cooking, stirring all the time, for 3 – 4 minutes, until the onions have softened
6. Tip in the carrots and tomato paste, pour over the stock, and bring the stew to a simmer. Tie the bay leaf, thyme and parsley stalks together with string and pop this bundle into the stew
7. Float the whole chilli on top and simmer for 1 hour before removing the chilli. This ensures the stew isn’t too fiery in flavour
8. Continue cooking on a low heat for a further hour, until the meat is tender
9. Serve with mashed potatoes, cassava or yam
If you’re interested in writing your own recipes, here are a couple of books I recommend highly:
The Recipe Writer’s Handbook Barbara Gibbs Ostmann and Jane Baker
Recipes into Type: A Handbook for Cookbook Writers and Editors Joan Whitman and Dolores Simon