What matters to me when I consider trying a recipe?
1. Does it look yummy? A recipe needs to appeal to my eyes as well as to my palate if I’m going to give it a try. I am highly unlikely to try a recipe if there’s not a picture of at least the finished product. It’s even better if there are some in-process visuals. So I’ll try to include plenty of photos with my posts.
2. Does it require real, mostly un-processed foods? If a recipe consists mainly of, “Open this bag of stuff and dump it in with this can of stuff,” I’m probably not interested. I want to cook, not just assemble. I’m not a fanatic about unprocessed foods, and I don’t put a lot of effort (or money) into organic cooking or being a “locavore,” but I do know that generally things that are closer to their natural state are tastier, and also happen to be better for you. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Taste and cost are two major factors that will cause me to override this rule. For example, in the dead of winter, it’s way more cost-effective to buy canned tomatoes of any kind, and they taste better than the tomatoes that are shipped in from Florida or South America or wherever. But in the summer, give me tomatoes from the Farmer’s Market or better yet, my in-laws’ garden!
3. Does it require some cooking skill? I am not afraid to chop and I can make a roux. I actually enjoy really working at making food, up to a point. I am even willing to learn some new skills if the recipe explains them clearly. However, I am a mom of three kids so I have to be realistic. I don’t have hours to spend in the kitchen, so it can’t be too fussy. Which leads to the next question…
4. How long is this going to take? One of the few things I dislike about my current favorite cooking mag, Cook’s Country, is that it doesn’t estimate how long a recipe takes, unless it’s one of the Under 30 Minute recipes. Give me some idea of how long it’s going to take me to make this dish, start to finish, please. First of all, I am not naturally a planner (evidence to the contrary on my Menu Planning page notwithstanding) and I am actually a pretty bad judge of time in general. If I think something should take me five minutes it usually ends up being more like fifteen, while at the same time I am always surprised at how it actually only takes less than five minutes to unload the dishwasher or do some other mundane task. Most nights I need to have dinner on the table at a certain time, and I always get started later than I really should. So if a recipe requires a lot of advance planning, it probably isn’t going to make it into the rotation too often. When I’m being really disciplined, I remember to get meat out of the freezer the night before to thaw, but all too often I’m relying on the microwave to do the work for me. That means anything that requires a long marinade or rising or any other kind of long-range planning is probably out. I know, that’s kind of stupid, and it’s something I’d like to change about myself, but there it is. Ready in under an hour, from the time I walk into the kitchen to the time we’re putting it in our mouths, is my strong preference. I will break this rule only for special occasions or REALLY yummy dishes.
5. Can I get the ingredients? I live in northwestern Pennsylvania in a small town where my shopping options consist of Aldi, Wal-mart, and something called Comet Food Warehouse, which defies description. I only go to Comet for an occasional sale on meat. There’s nothing like a Giant Eagle or Kroger closer than 40 minutes, and it’s not worth the drive for me. Aldi and Wal-mart suit my frugal nature just fine, but fresh basil counts as an exotic ingredient here, at least in the winter. So I don’t mind getting a little adventurous with different tastes and ingredients, but oftentimes I’m limited by what I can’t get.
6. Is it fairly inexpensive to make? I am what some people might call frugal and what other people might call cheap. I grew up on generics and so I know they’re usually as good as or better than brand names, and I’m willing to try them to find out. In fact, I have a natural distrust of brand names, with a few notable exceptions (Heinz ketchup is the only ketchup, and there is only one Coke.) No wonder I’m such an Aldi devotee. However, I am willing to pay for taste. I get the Grandessa brand of pasta sauce at Aldi rather than the other stuff that’s more like Ragu, even though it costs a little more. And I figure shopping at Aldi gives us room to spend a little more for really good quality meat from our local beef farm, so even though we don’t pay all that money for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (the Aldi stuff really is just as good! And I used to be pretty picky about Kraft!) we do get to have rib eye for dinner every now and then.
7. Is it reasonably healthy? I love Paula Deen, and I love butter, too, but I also love fitting into my clothes and I love my husband not having a heart attack, so I try to walk the fine line between, “But it tastes fantastic!” and “Congratulations! You gained 5 pounds in under an hour!” So we don’t have mashed potatoes and gravy as often as I really want to and I try to keep the frying to a minimum.
8. Will my family actually eat it? I have one very picky child and two not-too-picky-but-still-have-kids’-palates children, so I take them into consideration. I am not willing to be a short order cook, so I don’t often make one thing for the grown-ups and something different for the kids, although I will reserve a little plain cooked chicken or undressed pasta if it makes sense to do it.