Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | December 17, 2013

On Recipes and Writing

Deer in my snowy backyard, December 8, 2013

Deer in my snowy backyard, December 8, 2013

This December has brought lower than normal temperatures and greater than normal snowfall here in the southeastern Pennsylvania-southern New Jersey area. We’ve had more snowfall this month than we had all last winter — and it’s technically not yet winter. This kind of weather not only puts me in the mood for the holidays — for decorating, baking, singing, shopping, and gathering with family — but also for warm drinks and homemade soup. So, as the snow drifted down, I donned my green Christmas tree sweatshirt, made a cup of hot cocoa, and rummaged through my collection of clipped recipes and cookbooks to find an easy soup recipe whose ingredients I already had on hand (since I prefer watching the snow to driving in it).

These days I often use recipes as a starting point rather than following them to the letter. When I got married, however, I had no idea how to cook a meal. My grandmother had taught me how to bake — her specialty — but she was not a good cook, and my mother did not welcome help in her kitchen. Neither could even offer me recipes because neither measured ingredients. At the time, I didn’t understand how anybody could cook without measuring ingredients; I needed recipes!

Someone had given me a Betty Crocker cookbook as a wedding gift, and I used it to teach myself how to cook. (I still return to that tattered cookbook for long-time favorites.) Over the years I’ve gleaned recipes from magazines and added cookbooks to my shelves. I’ve learned techniques and gotten tips from the magazines and cookbooks and from television shows and friends. Not all my efforts were photo-worthy and some were barely edible. Eventually, after cooking hundreds and hundreds of meals, I figured out how to plan so that all the dishes were ready to serve at the same time. I also learned enough about what my family and I liked to stray from the recipes, substituting ingredients that we preferred and switching or adding seasonings.

These days I often create meals using no recipe at all, just throwing together available ingredients with complementary seasonings and sauces. Although I’m still learning and always will be, I know that certain foods and seasonings taste good together, and I tend to eyeball instead of measure ingredients. As a result, when people ask me for my recipes, I can’t repeat them. Ironic, isn’t it? Now I understand why my mother and grandmother could not give me their recipes.

As I sat watching the snow fall last Saturday, enjoying my homemade potato-onion soup (recipe below) and trying to come up with a topic for this blog post, I reflected on the parallels between cooking and writing. Like a beginning cook, a novice writer needs to stick to the prescribed ingredients and put them together according to the directions provided by those who know what they’re doing. For writers, both the ingredients and directions for putting them together effectively can be found in courses, books, magazines, conferences, conventions, blog posts, and from more experienced writers. Writers need to learn and learn and learn while they write and write and write. Skipping this studying and practicing will result in an inferior product. While writers might try out those wretched first drafts on family, friends, or critique groups, when something is put out there for public view, it should be the best work possible.

Only after learning, learning, learning and writing, writing, and writing, after trying many and varied techniques and approaches, does a writer learn the right balance between showing and telling or between too little or too much description — or, in brief, between what works and what does not. That’s when the writing becomes ready for public view.

And even then, professional writers will tell you that there is always more to learn. Writing is a continuous opportunity for challenge and learning. And that’s what makes it fascinating!

Here’s my basic recipe for the soup. Make it as written, or if you’re a more experienced cook, give it your own twists. You might try using Canadian bacon or ham in place of the bacon bits or another herb in place of marjoram. Have fun!

                                               Creamy Potato-Onion Soup

olive oil spray
3 Tbsp real bacon bits
1 Tbsp butter or butter-olive oil blend
½ tsp sesame seed oil
3 medium onions, diced
5 medium-large potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch cubes
3 cans low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups low-fat milk
1 tsp marjoram
1 tsp black pepper
salt, to taste
1/4 cup parsley, minced

Directions:

1.    Spray stock pot with olive oil spray. Add bacon bits and heat to medium, stirring occasionally. Add butter. When butter is melted, add sesame oil and onions. Stir occasionally and cook until onions are translucent.

2.   While onions are cooking, heat two cans chicken broth in a large saucepan. Add potato cubes. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cook 8 to 10 minutes, until potatoes are very tender. Remove from heat. With a potato masher, slightly mash potatoes in broth. Do not drain.

3.   Add potatoes and broth to onions in the stockpot. Add remaining can of chicken broth and milk. Stir in marjoram and pepper. Heat through and taste. Add salt, if needed.

4.    Stir in parsley and serve.

Enjoy the soup and have a warm and wonderful holiday season!

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