Your Recipes Are Half Missing!

. . . but you probably don’t know it!

Ever wonder why a recipe might not taste as good as you’d hoped, even though you followed it exactly?  Here’s a big reason:

Recipes are usually missing half the information you need to make them turn out the way you want.

Of course this vital information hasn’t been omitted intentionally. It’s just that there’s a lot of know-how that goes into making recipes. If a recipe writer were to actually document all the ingredient notes, cooking tips, cautions about doneness and seasoning, and all the other details and nuances that go into creating a dish, it would fill a small booklet. Since nobody wants to read a small booklet to make a single dish, a writer shares just the key points, and that summary is what we call a “recipe.”

Your recipes might as well have half their pages ripped out!

You’ve heard of the phrase, “reading between the lines.” This idiom came from an early method of transmitting coded messages by writing secret information in invisible ink between the lines. Only by “reading between the lines” would the recipient learn the secret information.

This is actually a pretty good description of what’s going on with a recipe. There is a lot of invisible information that would make your dishes turn out better. But you need a decoding device to decipher it. In the kitchen that “device” takes the form of our knowledge base of cooking techniques, tips, tricks and other know-how, e.g., what kind of pan is best for sautéing vs. soup making; how to strain broth, cook frozen fish and use fresh herbs; what kind of salt to use; the difference between mincing, dicing and chopping; and how to tell when a vegetable or piece of meat  is done.

For the longest time this kind of know-how was fairly universal, so recipes could be pretty brief, like this recipe for Colcannon from the 1960s. (1)  (Don’t worry–we have a more modern version for you!)

1960s version of Colcannon recipe

As we’ve become less and less familiar with cooking, however, recipes have had to become longer and longer, making them more and more tedious to follow.  And even at that, there is still a lot of information that isn’t included.

So where does this leave the everyday cook who is yearning for tastier and more satisfying meals? Begin building your knowledge base!

Happily, it’s not the hopelessly daunting task it might seem to be. A surprisingly large number of knowledge bits are used again and again. Discover what makes one recipe click and there’s a very good chance that bit of knowledge will apply to a dozen other recipes, too. Very often, the only difference between a new cook and someone we consider a “good” cook is simply that good cooks have experimented more and thus have a bigger knowledge base to draw from.

4 Ways to Begin Building Your Knowledge Base

  1. As always, the best teacher is experience. Nothing like a limp vegetable stir fry to know that’s not what it means to “cook just until crisp-tender.” As important as having a kitchen learning experience, however, is observing it, learning from it and checking it into your database. That’s how a new tidbit becomes an entry in your knowledge base and not just a random bit of misfortune that is quickly fumbled through and forgotten.
  1. Books and articles are another great source of cooking know how. In fact, my cooking “education” is almost entirely a combination of experience plus reference reading. One time, for instance, I read a simple newspaper article on three secrets for great sautéing. It revolutionized the way I sauté–and is the foundation for the way I teach the technique in our classes. Besides the weekly food section of the newspaper, some of my favorite cooking know-how sources are: The Joy of Cooking (1997 ed.), Cook’s Illustrated, Fine Cooking, James Peterson’s Vegetables, and the Culinary Institute of America’s The Professional Chef.

It’s not a bad idea to make a practice, once or twice a month, of reading something about cooking–even if it’s just a recipe that shares a little background knowledge. Get started now by checking out the next blog post where I detail how I read between the lines to make Colcannon to better suit my tastes and health needs.

  1. Of course, there is much to be learned from watching and learning from others, whether that’s just a friend, family member or television chef who focus on technique more than pure entertainment.
  1. Finally, of course, there are cooking classes, whose exact purpose is to share “between the lines” cooking know how. They can really fast track your knowledge base creation, as long as they are not too narrowly focused on a single recipe or food type. Look for classes that share general, frequently used techniques and everyday cooking.

These are exactly the goals of our new Cook Happy | Live Healthy online course–which is why I hope you check it out if you’d like to build your knowledge base and gain more confidence and comfort making recipes that sparkle and sing for you. Or invite some friends over for a Cooking Get-Togethers–enjoy being with friends while learning more about everyday cooking.

One Last Caution Please don’t let this article be reinforcement for any notion you might have that cooking is an exclusive club, only for those “in the know.” Not the case at all–there is room for everyone in the kitchen! Find out how everyone–regardless of experience–is moving along the same “Good to Better Cooking Continuum,” and know that this article is only meant to help you progress from meals that are good to meals that are better, i.e., ones that better fill your yearning for yumminess, wholesomeness and comfort at mealtimes.

Now go check out my recipe for a healthy version of Colcannon, which includes a lot of the information missing from the 1960s version above!  And then read how I used my knowledge base to create this version in “Colcannon: Decoding the Missing Information Between the Lines of a Recipe.”

(1) 250 Irish Recipes: Traditional and Modern, [Mounth Salus Press:Dublin] 196? (p. 76-77) from: http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodireland.html

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Recipe: Irish Colcannon–a Healthier Version

Simple Potatoes, Kale and Onions Make a Beautiful, Super Nutritious and Tasty Dish

STEP 1


  • ½ Tbsp. butter
  • 3 cups green onions sliced about ½” thick (from about 2 bunches, using both white and green parts)

Place a large, lidded skillet over medium heat and add butter. When melted and just lightly sizzling, use a spatula to spread over the bottom of pan, then add green onions and cook just long enough to take off their raw edge, about 2-3 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

STEP 2


  • 6 cups Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into ¾” dice (from about 2 lbs. or 6 medium potatoes)
  • ½ tsp. sea salt
  • 2 cups rich broth, no- or low-sodium
  • 1 cup water

Into the same skillet, put potatoes, salt, broth and water. Cover pan and bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer potatoes about 10 to 15 minutes, until almost soft when stuck with a fork.

STEP 3


  • 4 cups loosely packed kale leaves, stems removed and cut into roughly 1” squares
  • 2-3 Tbsp. salted butter
  • Unrefined salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Grainy mustard–optional condiment

Add kale to potatoes and continue simmering, covered, until potatoes are soft and kale is tender to taste, about 5 to 10 more minutes. Remove lid, turn heat to medium high and boil until most of liquid evaporates. Meanwhile, use a potato masher to mash potatoes roughly, leaving some texture. When desired consistency is reached, remove pan from heat.

Stir in reserved green onions along with butter, salt and pepper, to taste. Serve topped with an additional pat of butter and/or mustard, if desired.

Mashing the Colcannon

Even though the kale is already added, it won’t interfere with mashing the potatoes.

Leftover Fun

Don’t worry if you end up with leftovers.  You’re set for a quick and nutritious breakfast the next day–or two:

Pic of Potato PancakesMake Potato Pancakes  Beat 1 egg + 1/8 tsp. baking soda into about 1½ cups Colcannon, beating with a fork until thoroughly combined. Melt about 2 tsp. butter in a large, heavy-bottomed saute pan over medium to medium-low heat. When butter sizzles lightly, drop in Colcannon batter to form roughly 3” patties. Fry on both sides until golden brown.

Helpful Hint: If you will have patience and allow the patties to brown thoroughly before flipping, they will cook through nicely, flip easily without breaking, and have nice, golden crusts.

Pic of

Riff on Spanish Tortilla Mix 2 eggs + 1/8 tsp. baking soda into about 2 cups Colcannon, beating with a fork until thoroughly combined. Melt about 1 Tbsp. butter in a 10” heavy-bottomed saute pan over medium to medium-low heat. When butter sizzles lightly, pour in all of the Colcannon batter to form a large pancake. Cover pan and lower heat to medium-low or low. Allow tortilla to brown all the way across the bottom. Flip onto a plate, then slide back into pan to cook the other side. Tomatoes make a nice serving accompaniment.

Creative Fun

Although not traditional, you can experiment with some fun additions:

  • Bacon, sausage, hamburger (brown and cut or crumble into pieces)
  • Shredded cheese (sprinkle on top)
  • ½ to 1 cup cream or whole milk (mix in while mashing potatoes)
  • Chives, red onion or leek greens instead of green onions
  • Roasted chiles
  • Carrots, beets or parsnips (substitute 1 cup for 1 cup of the potatoes)
  • Other Greens (chard, collards or spinach) or the traditional cabbage

Be sure to read the other posts in this series about information that’s hiding between the lines of a recipe, and how I created this recipe by teasing out between-the-lines-information to meet my tastes and health needs.

Colcannon: Decoding the Missing Information Between the Lines of a Recipe

A traditional Irish dish, Colcannon was reserved for special occasions since “few Irish cottagers grew turnips or cabbages.” (1)  How interesting since those foods are so common nowadays!  Common though they may be, when combined with affordable potatoes you get a lovely dish that is not only budget-minded but also highly nutritious and tasty enough for company.

The following recipe for Colcannon caught my eye, no doubt because I’m part Irish, but also because autumn’s cool weather has finally blown in, making a hearty potato dish sound perfect.  What’s more, it takes good advantage of cool-weather produce:  I have lots of kale and green onions from my garden along with plenty of potatoes in with my CSA share.

Read Between the Line Pic

Reading Between the Lines  While making the recipe, however, I noticed how often I was “reading between the lines,” making additions and substitutions based on my health needs (I’m dairy-free), tastes and experience in the kitchen.  Another post explained how a lot of a recipe can be missing–as if written in invisible ink between the lines.  Read on to see how much and what information can be “missing” from a recipe, and how to begin building your knowledge base of trick and tips to make meals that are ever more satisfying for you.

Mind Your Ingredients  It all starts with good ingredients.  They are especially critical in dishes that have only a few to rely on for flavor, particularly when 1) the main ingredient (potatoes) is on the bland side and 2) when the main flavorings (cream and butter) have to be reduced or eliminated for health reasons. This is where tricks, tips and experimentation come in:

Colcannon RecipesColcannon--Substitutions

Health Boost  Interestingly, the modifications above also had the effect of improving the healthfulness of the dish.

  • Nothing against butter, but with 100 calories per tablespoon, it’s helpful to be moderate–and it’s not so very hard to reduce  5-6 Tablespoons to 2-3 Tablespoons.
  • While I eliminated the cream due to a dairy allergy, it also saves a lot on the calorie count.  Since butter and cream are the traditional  flavor enhancers, however, reducing or eliminating them makes it all the more imperative to use the flavor boosters listed above.
  • Potato skins, besides adding flavor, are loaded with vitamins and minerals, like vitamin B-6, thiamin, niacin and vitamin C, as well as iron, potassium and magnesium (2)-–plenty of reasons to leave them in the dish instead of tossing into the compost bin.
  • Finally, increasing the kale from three cups to four and tripling the green onions also boosts flavor along with nutrients.

My Recipe for Colcannon  See how I used all this information from “reading between the lines” to create my healthier version of Colcannon.

(1)  FoodTimeLine.org

(2)  “Does the Skin of a Potato Really Have All the Vitamins?”

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