Food bloggers post endless streams of drool-inducing photography along with clever stories about what inspired them to make such-and-such, which by the way is the most delicious thing ever. They’ll show you wonderful pho, glistening pan roasted brussels sprouts; a creative savory french toast with bacon and cheese; or whatever else you’re looking for. And these things are all great, but they leave one of the best parts on the table: failure.
More than any other single factor, failure makes a good cook. When you’ve had baked wings come out of the oven so salty that they are inedible, you learn that if a sauce is even a little salty, you must apply it after you bake the wings, not before–and that you don’t marinate the wings in it either–even when recipes tell you the opposite. When you’ve had sauce slide right off your pasta, forcing you to eat plain noodles with a fork and the remaining bowl of sauce with a spoon, you learn to omit oil from the pasta water and to finish the pasta’s cooking process in the sauce. And so on. All the best culinary pro-tips result from people having mucked up the dishes they’re now pro-tipping about.
Learning to cook anything takes time and repetition, things which are no less valuable than the final product even though almost no one seems to talk about them. This holds true even for the adaptation of existing recipes to your taste and your kitchen. Factors like the characteristics of your stove matter. The nature of the ingredients you can find where you live, your elevation, and your climate all radically alter perfect times, temperatures, consistencies, and textures. Rarely can an existing recipe tell you how to make something perfectly in your own home the first time.
My current foray into this process is an attempt to upgrade my vegetable game to a serious level, as I mentioned when I wrote about Ottolenghi’s Cucumber Salad. More recently, I tried a Moroccan Carrot Salad inspired by a recipe in this Four Ingredient Cookbook. It turned out alright, but failed as an absolutely delicious, crave-inducing way to eat carrots. Here’s what I did, modified slightly from the recipe as it appears in the book:
Moroccan Carrot Salad
8 small carrots, sliced as thin as you can by hand
½ teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons Bragg’s vinaigrette
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- Boil the carrots in lightly salted water until they are tender but not soft.
- Drain the carrots, rinse them in cool water, and let them sit for a few minutes.
- Place the carrots into a mixing bowl.
- Add the cumin, vinaigrette, and parsley, then chill thoroughly.
Normally, the recipe ends here. Not today. This salad lacked the deep and distinct flavors I would want from a dish like this, sat too heavily on the tongue from too much oil, and put the cumin perhaps too forward even for a Moroccan dish. Nonetheless, the thing has fantastic potential. The first problem seems so obvious that I cannot imagine how I overlooked it initially: store-bought dressing. Salad dressing, especially vinaigrette, is fairly easy to make from scratch, and the taste difference is remarkable. As an additional benefit, you get to control the flavors. In this case, I would add more garlic, which the dish needs and which would meld nicely into the vinaigrette. I would use more vinegar and less oil. This flaw should have been even more obvious given the context of the recipe in a Four Ingredient Cookbook.
Apart from improvement on the vinaigrette and using less of it, the carrot here should be just slightly crunchy so as to stand up better to the dressing. “Tender but not soft” is too much cooking. That, plus halving the amount of cumin should do the trick. This thing should have sharp flavors, but nonetheless feel light and refreshing. I’m nearly there, but the trip here provides as much enjoyment as the destination. I’ll let you know how it turns out.