Reflecting on recipes

Margaret Prouse
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As I sit in my office, I am surrounded by cookbooks: one to be reviewed, five to be ranked for an award panel, three that I picked up at last weekend’s Pinch Penny Fair, two that were given to me.

Those are just the new ones. My cookbook collection fills two big bookcases, and I subscribe to two magazines that regularly deliver more new recipes.

I also have a few faded and splashed cards that were written in my mother’s distinctive handwriting and a woman’s lifelong collection of recipes, handwritten and clipped from publications and organized in binders, photo albums and recipe boxes that I purchased at an auction.

Most of the work that I do is related to selecting, adapting, developing and sharing recipes.

And yet, I know that people often cook freestyle, without consulting recipes, especially for everyday meals. They may consult recipes when preparing a special meal or when baking, but seldom when preparing Tuesday supper. I have heard it said that the average person has a seven-dish repertoire that he or she cycles through week after week.

What, then, is the use of all these recipes? Why are whole sections of bookstores and libraries devoted to cookbooks? How is it that people often tell me they clip out recipes from the newspaper, even though they don’t use most of them? What makes us fill our purses with recipe handouts at trade shows, fairs and grocery stores?

What’s going on here? Here’s what I think, based on nothing more than personal observation.

When people prepare the seven (or 10 or 14) dishes that they habitually make, they are using recipes, but not written ones. They know what goes into them without needing to look anything up.

Popular wisdom says that experienced cooks don’t measure; they put in a little of this and a handful of that, and it all works swimmingly. I think they do measure, but they do it differently. Without even putting it into words, they know how big a splash of oil they need to brown pork chops in the particular pan they use over the biggest burner of their kitchen range turned to the setting that they like to use. They know that a blob of butter a certain size, combined with this size sprinkle of flour will thicken the amount of milk needed to make the basic white sauce that they need. They may not be able to quantify it, but it’s not intuition. It’s visual measurement, based on repeated observations.

Cooking, while important, is only one of the things that most people have to do in a day. Often, they need to prepare things quickly — another reason they make things they are used to making.

When you’re in a hurry, it’s not enough that something will taste good or be nutritious. The formula has to be easy to remember. For example, the basic topping I use for all fruit crisps is dead easy: 1/4 cup each of brown sugar, whole wheat flour and butter, with 3/4 cup rolled oats. I may add slivered almonds or pumpkin seeds or coconut on a whim, but the basic recipe is so simple that I never have to look it up.

I think the reason that things like tuna casserole made with condensed mushroom soup are so popular is not taste, but simplicity: mix a can of this with a can of that and pour it over a few noodles and dinner’s ready.

Recipes, on the other hand, guide cooks into new territory and help them to explore the unfamiliar.

They help us cook familiar foods in unfamiliar ways. Maybe I’m tired of serving beef with horseradish and want to try it in a Tex-Mex inspired stirfry. A recipe will get me started, and if I like the tastes, I may incorporate the dish into my personal repertoire of dishes made without referring to recipes.

Recipes can help cooks learn to use ingredients that are new to them — maybe vegetables such as rapini or pak choy — and make it easier to add variety to meals for good taste and good health.

Recipes can make it easier to explore the food of other cultures and traditions. When people are inspired to take their cooking in a different direction, by serving vegetarian meals several times a week for example, it helps to have a selection of recipes to turn to.

Recipes help cooks produce dishes with relatively consistent nutrient content. They help people meet dietary goals such as controlling their intake of nutrients such as carbohydrates or sodium.

Here are some opportunities for people ready to try some new recipes.

On Wednesday, May 7, 6:30-8:30 p.m., I’ll be leading a class called Healthy Cooking for Parents on the Go for the Town of Cornwall and go!PEI, at the Cornwall Civic Centre. The class will include time-management tips, cooking demonstrations, tasting and a set of recipes to take home. The class is open to the public at no charge. For more information, send me an email at To register, contact or 628-6260, extension 228.

The following Saturday, May 10, is Herb Day at the Farm Centre in Charlottetown, with programming that includes a session led by Gail Kerns on cooking with herbs. For more information on the day’s activities, check


Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at

Organizations: Farm Centre

Geographic location: Cornwall, Charlottetown, North Wiltshire

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