Loaves and Dishes

Wendi Spraker

There’s an old saying, “When you go in search of honey, you should expect to be stung by bees.” Therefore, does it stand to reason that when you go in search of a good recipe that you will have a thick recipe book fall on your head?

No, certainly not. Unless you are digging through my voluminous cookbook collection and then, it’s a real possibility. In fact, while searching for an excellent stuffed pepper recipe, with said books crashing on my skull, I thought, “I should share with my readers how to find and discern a good recipe from a bad one.” And thus began this week’s article.

Where would you start searching for a stuffed pepper recipe? Here is what I do…

I search my trusted and true resources: The Better Home and Gardens Cookbook (mine is about 35 years old and in pieces) Cooks Illustrated (online version) and www.loavesanddishes.net . If any of those sources has what I am looking for, then I stop looking.

Second, I search my less favorite but other cookbooks (I have so many I couldn’t possibly name them here).

Third, I check my online favorite resources: Paula Deen, The Pioneer Woman and Ina Garten.

Finally I check allrecipes.com making sure I read all of the comments for the recipe in question very carefully. If the comments are mostly good and state something like, “This was good but it needs more butter,” then I will add butter. If many commenters say, “This was terrible,” then I walk away and keep looking.

Lastly, I do a general google search to see if I can find what I need and evaluate the recipe for myself. That process follows.

Once I have searched through all of my resources and have either a) my single recipe from my known and trusted source or b) several versions of a recipe that I’m just not sure about, I do the following…

I read over the ingredients and amounts to see if everything seems reasonable. I look for glaring oversights like, does it have some element of sugar, salt, acid and fat? If so, could I easily add a missing element?

Do the cooking times seem reasonable?

Does my family generally like the included ingredients?

Were there any changes I would need to make based on the comments I read?

What special equipment might be needed and do I have that equipment?

Set to make the recipe, I make sure that I have a paper copy of the recipe in the kitchen and a pen. Any changes I make, I write onto the recipe as I go so that I’ll remember for next time.

Here is one final sage piece of advice. Do not make a recipe for the first time for a guest you want to impress or for a potluck dinner. Use those occasions to show off your best work.

Only test recipes on people who still have to love you when dinner is over: spouses, parents, grown children and their families.

Never ever listen to feedback that they tell you. I’m certain you hang out with nice people and nice people are prone to lying. Nice people will say things like, “That was good,” or “You really outdid yourself,” when what they mean is “That was better than the shoe leather meat we had last week,” or “You outdid yourself in the category of ‘That was awful’”.

If you want to know what people really think of your dish, be a private eye. Look around the table as people take their first bites watching for clues. What do you see? Do they tentatively take one bite, chew for a second and then get big mouthfuls more? Do they close their eyes in ecstasy? Do they cough, choke and spit it out into the napkin? All of these give you a clue as to how the dish tastes.

Listen carefully. Once you serve dinner does the conversation stop and all that you can hear are forks scraping on plates? Can you hear anyone saying in a low hum, “Mmmm, this is really good” or “Oh, try some of the meat with a little bite of the potatoes, it’s delicious!” If so, you’ve got a hit.

Watch for more clues. Do people want seconds? Are plates nearly licked clean? Did your guests quietly use their bread to sop up every last drop of dinner from the plate? Is there any left at the end of the meal? Did anyone want to take some leftovers home for their lunch for tomorrow after they cleaned their own dinner plate? Score!

If your recipe testers left almost all of their dinner on the plate saying, “You know, I really wasn’t that hungry after all,” or if you end up throwing away almost everything you cooked, then you do not have a winner on your hands. Do not take this personally. Never ever listen to what small children say about your meal. Those little people can really hurt your feelings.

Whatever happens, don’t give up. If your recipe didn’t turn out like you hoped, then evaluate what went wrong and try it again. Perhaps it is time to look for a new recipe or to call a friend to see if they have a great recipe.

I’m always here to help too. Feel free to shoot me an email at wendi@loavesanddishes.net and if I can help you find a recipe, figure out what went wrong with your dish or offer some pointers, I’ll be happy to. I might have to ask you if you have a good stuffed pepper recipe though, because I still haven’t found one I’m happy with!


Wendi Spraker