I'll spare you the details of being a grad student wife. If you want to learn more about it, you'll get a kick out of Piled Higher and Deeper comics.
Now you know why I can't stop smiling :)
About the food...
After a whole week of healthy eating, I thought it was about time to satisfy my craving for potato vareniki (Russian and Ukrainian word for pierogies).The passion I feel for this dish is not unlike the passion Americans (myself included) feel for burgers. What can be simpler? The whole thing has just a handful of ingredients -- pasta type dough wrapped around creamy potato and sautéed onion filling. Yet, there are so many subtle nuances that can elevate such dishes to cult-like standing. With burgers, it's all about perfecting the balance between charring the outside while keeping the inside rare enough to explode with juices that leak to your elbows as you take a bite. With pierogies, it's all about making the dough that's elastic and supple enough to provide a bare hint of resistance as you take a bite. Both have to be seasoned to perfection -- under-salted ground beef or potatoes taste like "blah" and are the first give away of inexperienced cook.
You can serve pierogies 2 ways: just boiled or boiled and then sautéed in butter to crisp up (that's the one in the picture). Both ways you'll need plenty of sour cream, but if I just have them boiled, I also add a little butter.
I normally provide recipes for dishes that I appear on this blog. But this time, I decided to skip the recipe and talk about the process of recipe writing instead. A Jamie Oliver type recipe would be easy to put together, but it would probably do you no good. A Julia Child/Marcella Hazan type recipe would take me several hours of writing and days of testing, and that work would probably never pay off because I doubt anyone would care. Seriously -- raise your hand if you are willing to spend 3 hours making pierogies. Well, that's what it takes, and unless you have some pasta making experience, you'll probably need several tries to get it just right.
I find recipe writing to be a very interesting (although sometimes painful) process -- probably because I used to be a Usability engineer in my previous life. The most important questions a recipe writer needs to answer are:
- who will be using this recipe?
- what goal are they trying to accomplish?
- a home cook
- to make an amazing version of a particular dish
Since "a home cook" is a category too vast, I have the second bullet to narrow it down, but not by the level of experience, but by the goal of the cook. My primary audience are obsessive cooks who won't settle for "quite edible" or even "good." They are perfectionists, whose goal is not just to put some food on the table. They are eager to master the art of cooking and to make a truly fabulous dish. This means I have a very small audience -- cooks who are willing to carefully follow 5 pages of instructions. It's almost unheard of these days in the world of cookbook publishing, but that's the audience Julia Child and Marcella Hazan served so remarkably well.
Don't all recipe writers want their audience to end up with a great dish? On the surface, it seems that they all want you to have something wonderful for dinner. The real result depends on which trade offs they are making. The world of chef pop stars has an image to protect -- no one wants to be the boring-10-pages-of-instructions guy. They want to be your pal. They want to be cool. They want to make you think like they are luring you into the kitchen when they are really luring you to the couch for some pleasant food day dreaming with their books and TV shows. They make it sound so easy. Hey, the recipe is only 5 lines -- even I can do that. Who needs all that nonsense about how to knead the pasta dough? According to Jamie Oliver, you just "work the dough hard for about 3 minutes or until smooth, silky and elastic." And if you don't have a pasta machine, he doesn't hesitate to recommend that you roll it out with a pin. I tried it as my first attempt to make pasta several years ago. There is only one word to describe the result -- CRAP!
What was Jamie thinking when he wrote this recipe (assuming *he* actually wrote it because at the rate celebrity chefs publish their books and produce their shows, I doubt they write it all themselves). First of all -- how many people will actually attempt making their own pasta? Most will buy wonton wrappers. Second of all -- how many will be able to tell the difference between great pasta and mediocre one? Most of them just want to play with some dough and have fun. Jamie knows extremely well what most people want, and that's why he makes the big bucks. He is selling the image of food that's rustic and beautiful. And the good sales man that he is, he knows that if he makes it sound like it requires real cooking skills, it won't sell very well.
Sorry Jamie, I don't mean to pick on you. There are plenty of cookbook writers whose recipes are as bad as yours. It's just that you make a perfect counter example to Marcella Hazan. Her goal was not to make incompetent cooks feel better with "You can do it!" cheer leading. Her goal was to teach anyone, regardless of their experience, how to cook great Italian food. Not some sad parody of it, but the real thing. Her pasta and gnocchi recipes are flawless. It's as if she is there in the kitchen with me, helping me avoid all the pitfalls (like rolling pasta with a pin the first time you do it is bound to be a disaster). What to do if your dough is too wet or too dry, how to test when it's just right, how to knead, how long to knead, etc. If you think you can make a great pasta without knowing all this, you are kidding yourself.
I don't believe in evangelical cooking, the idea of "let's make it look easier so that more people can join the fun." If you don't think cooking is fun, and if kitchen is not your favorite room in the house, I ain't the person to convert you. But if you love it already and don't want to settle for less than perfect deliciousness, you've come to the right place.
P.S. If you try one of the recipes on this blog, I'd love your feedback. There is no way to write great recipes without usability testing :)