Recipes are like road maps that can take you to wonderful, exotic, sometimes challenging places.
I didn't always believe that. Ever since I started messing around in the kitchen, I've always gotten a charge out of throwing things together. It's kind of a thrill to take whatever ingredients I could find in the pantry or fridge and turn them dinner. It works out just fine, most of the time.
One of the most intimidating things about working in a professional kitchen was following recipes to the letter. There was no room for fudging. I eventually got the hang of measuring things by weight instead of in terms of cups and tablespoons. And, yes, there was certainly a warm feeling when it turned out just right.
Still, despite my strengthened skill set, I was a bit nervous when my friend Kim O'Donnel asked if I would be willing to test some recipes for her cookbook, The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores Will Devour, which hits bookstores next week!
That seemed like a whole lot of responsibility. If I make a mistake and measured incorrectly, well, that could be a big deal. But I took the plunge into a big pot of rice and beans.
The recipe I tested and liked best was Smokin' Hoppin' John, the black-eyed pea and rice dish that's a New Year's Eve tradition in the South. It's supposed to bring you good luck.
I had never heard of Hoppin' John before moving to Memphis at the end of 2003, but the first New Year's Eve I was there, I needed some good luck starting a new job, so I gave it a shot. And—rats!—it turned into a big gummy mess.
Kim's version called for chipotle chili and smoked paprika to add some kick to the dish. I had never heard of smoked paprika and the search for this ingredient took me to the wonderful World Spice near the Pike Place Market, where bulk herbs and spices from around the globe are available. There were at least a half a dozen different kinds of paprika, and I picked up a couple. One was sweet, another fiery. Both smelled like walking down the streets of Madrid.
It was while searching out this seasoning that I had my recipe epiphany. Had I not been trying to track down these ingredients, I never would have discovered smoked paprika. (Which I now love and rub on practically everything I throw on the grill.)
I followed Kim's excellent instructions and in no time was digging my spoon into a bowl of Smokin' Hoppin' John. (Not missing the meat at all!) The only feedback I gave her on the recipe (see page 146) was an enthusiastic "yum!"
Now, writing recipes, that's a whole different story. I've been asked to share some of my recipes and I've got to say sorry, I just kinda of made that up. Not really sure how much of this and how much of that I added.
That's all going to change very soon, though—I've promised to write some recipes for my daughter, who's going back for her sophomore year of college. (Go Geoducks!) She'll be living in her first apartment, cooking for herself for the first time. Only hope I'm up to that challenge.
About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been apprenticing in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. She recently began interviewing cooks for Seattle Weekly's food blog, Voracious.