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The Laws of Diminishing (Culinary) Returns

Over and over again, I prove to myself that more time spent in the planning and preparation of a meal does not necessarily make for a more delicious, more enjoyable, more exquisite meal.

I spent part of Friday and all day Saturday shopping for and preparing a meal for company. Oh, the meal was good -- but definitely NOT worth the time and effort I put into it.

Has anyone else noticed this "diminishing returns" phenomenon?

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  1. It really depends on the dish. I have put a ridiculous amount of time and effort (for me, anyway) into making pierogi & tamales from scratch, only to end up with something not appreciably different - or one penny cheaper - than a Mrs. T's or Trader Joe's product. Conversely, I can spend 20 minutes on a stir fry of squid with broccoli and mushrooms in black bean sauce, which is as good or better than any restaurant version I've ever had.

    1 Reply
    1. re: small h

      That's EXACTLY what I mean. So maybe I need to come up with a list of wonderful, easy-to-prepare company menus that will free up my time and have me enjoy the meal with my guests that much more.

    2. I'm less ambitious than I used to be in the time spent on company dinner category and there are times when all of that effort pays off, but sometimes you kill yourself and things just turn out ok. But the general rule is that the higher the quality of the ingredients, the less you need to do with them. For example, last night I grilled dry aged organic grass fed sirloin steaks from a local farm, fresh local spinach steamed in the water clinging to its leaves, and oven roasted local new potatoes tossed in olive oil, served with an excellent artisanal potato bread and fresh local butter. A perfect dinner that took little time or effort to make and the only seasoning required was salt and pepper. I do the same thing with really fresh fish and whatever I bring home from the farmers market. Good quality fresh food needs little intervention or extensive preparation to shine. On the other hand, I once spent hours making a classic beef wellington that was beautiful but such a yawn compared to the effort. On the third hand, my pierogis are definitely better than Mrs. Ts but they'lll never taste like the ones I get from the Russian or Polish ladies at the church sale.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Ellen

        I agree that sometimes fresh and simple is the key to success. One of my family's favorite meals is a simple fresh sauce over good pasta. It doesn't get any easier or more satisfying than that.

      2. I spent 12 hours making tamales Saturday and by midnight they were all gone. We ate them drunk, and not sure the people would notice if I just bought them from a random tortilleria. I did improve my method of making them by purchasing a plastic trowel from the hardware store, took mere seconds for a perfect schmear.

        1 Reply
        1. re: DallasDude

          When I lived in San Antonio I was invited by the family of a co-worker to participate in their annual pre-Christmas tamale making event. I was honored by the invitation and it was a huge amount of fun. We started at 8 in the morning and finished eight hours and many margaritas later. I've never laughed so much in one day. However, the finished product was pretty much what you could get by the dozen in just about any respectable local Mexican restaurant and already packaged for freezing. It was definitely a social, not a culinary, event.

        2. I rarely cook from a recipe. I will, however, select ingredients up to 2 days before cooking a dinner for guests. The preparation of those ingredients is determined much later, usually just an hour or so before the meal (with the exception of long-cooking sauces, marinating or something like that).

          The more complicated (I say "convoluted") my plans for dinner become, I guarantee you the "wow" effect of a dish (or of the whole meal) diminishes.

          Like others who've posted here, some of my best "home-run" dinners were created a' la minute from a short list of simple ingredients.

          1. Yes! I'm not as ambitious as I used to be, either, because at times when I've put everything I've got into some meals, that I thought were absolutely the best thing ever made (sometimes the magic works), they get appreciated, for sure, but most of my family/friends don't really cook to the point where I'd call them "good cooks", or maybe it just wasn't as good as I thought. When it comes to family, i've definitely put more energy, time, and creativity into group meals than anybody else, but has it been worth it? I sure like being thought of as the best cook in the family, but wow- the time I put into it is sometimes a study in diminishing returns in retrospect, and I don't think my reputation is at stake any more when I use shortcuts because I use one hell of a lot fewer shortcuts than most of the others. I could do a lot less and still be appreciated. But I learned a lot in my extreme cooking years, so yes, it was worth it. I claim my right to ratchet down a little bit after all those years of frantic cooking, but with God as my witness, I swear I will never feed a group Stouffer's lasagna. Even though I might get it for lunch at work (but probably not).

            1 Reply
            1. re: EWSflash

              Yes... that sense of feeling underappreciated, especially by "non-hounds" who really don't care about, or even recognize the nuances in a finely executed dish, is something I'm familiar with. In fact, sometimes *I* am the only one at the table saying, "Wow, this is really delicious." And what about those times when a guest has really enjoyed a particular dish I've made and asks for the recipe, and upon looking at the recipe declares, "This has so many ingredients and takes so long to make -- never mind; I don't need the recipe." (Okay, that's more likely a comment coming from one of my kids than a dinner guest, but still...)

              So maybe we do it to please ourselves. For me, I think there's a weird psychological component, too. Something like, "Food=love; therefore, the more time I spend cooking, the more love that goes into it." Or maybe I just like to torture myself. Who knows!

            2. Yep....all the time. With Thanksgiving dinner being the biggest culprit.

              Another thing I find is that when I put a lot of time and effort into a special meal, I am generally over the meal by the time it hits the table.

              26 Replies
              1. re: Janet from Richmond

                Once, when I was hosting Thanksgiving dinner, I took the time to make individual menus. I printed the menu on vellum paper, I pressed and dried a bunch of leaves, and glued a single leaf to a piece of colored card stock that was a little larger than the vellum. The vellum, which is opaque, was placed on top of the card stock and the two were attached with ribbon that was threaded through the top. There was a menu at each place and they were very pretty. But when I heard someone say, "Cindy obviously has too much time on her hands," I promised myself I'd never fuss like that again!

                1. re: CindyJ

                  My family's reaction would be "WTF?" LOL Same with things like soup served in pumpkins, etc.

                  But it was nice for you to make the effort :-) I'm lucky if I am able to get appropriately dressed (showered and out of sweats and/or yoga) pants by the time dinner is served.

                  1. re: Janet from Richmond

                    You mean Yoga pants aren't appropriate for Thanksgiving?!

                  2. re: CindyJ

                    Cindy J, I laughed so hard when I read this. It has happened to me so many times. But, for me, God is in the details and I would have loved your table. I was a travel agent for 25 years so when I would return from an exotic location I would have a dinner party based on food from that country. I spent weeks on the Thai dinner and several people said, "I don't think I could spend a week eating this food...how did you stand it?" I have arthritis now and can't do elaborate anything and it is just fine with me. I will do special things for my kids and grandkids because they love it but not much else.

                    1. re: CindyJ

                      Ouch Cindy! I admire your restraint in not smacking that person. I'm betting it was pure jealousy from someone who is addicted to television. Don't suppose you have a picture of those menus? They sound lovely.

                      1. re: givemecarbs

                        The comment was from someone who actually pays quite a bit of attention to the details of her own table settings, so I was surprised at the comment.

                        Here's a photo of the menu.

                        1. re: CindyJ

                          probably just jealousy on her part. . . let it roll off your back & don't let her comments affect your own enjoyment of what you do.

                          1. re: CindyJ

                            Agree with soupkitten on the jealousy. What a lovely menu!

                              1. re: CindyJ

                                Cindy, the menu is BEAUTIFUL. And, had I been lucky enough to be at your Thanksgiving meal, I would have told you so!

                                  1. re: CindyJ

                                    Man, families. Whatever happened to "if you haven't anything nice to say, say nothing at all"?

                            1. re: CindyJ

                              Cindy, I can't think of anything but jealousy that would have motivated your guest to diss your menu. I'd be flabbergasted if I encountered it, but in a good way. I'd want to take it home as a souvenir. Not sure what I'd do with it afterward, besides show others the pinnacle of Thanksgiving dinners I'd attended, and openly admit my jealousy. You did a great, over-the-top thing. People should be more grateful for that extra attention.

                              That's my story, and I'm stickin' with it.

                        2. re: Janet from Richmond

                          "Another thing I find is that when I put a lot of time and effort into a special meal, I am generally over the meal by the time it hits the table."

                          Same with me. I can spend all day peeling, chopping, searing, brasing, etc... and by the time I get dinner on the table, I don't even want to eat or will only eat a few bites. Meanwhile, everyone else is happily chowing down. Crazy!

                          1. re: Janet from Richmond

                            OMG- you're SO right! Except for Thaksgiving, of course.

                            1. re: Janet from Richmond

                              jfood does not do tgiving as a cook, mrs jfood loves the holidays and takes over the kitchen.

                              but to your other point, when jfood makes dinner for his normal 10-person group, by the time it is on the table and everyone is eating, jfood has lost his appetite. more often than not he nibbles a little to add notes to the recipe for the next time.

                              1. re: jfood

                                It seems a number of us have the para. 2 issue (having mrs jfood cook holiday dinners would NOT be a problem!). Perhaps that's why I adore Hazan's carbonara and MMRuth's arugula salad. So easy and so wonderful. Also things like jfood goat cheese ravioli because it's made ahead of time and just cooked at the end. I think I'm going to give this some thought and try to plan to enjoy things more.

                                1. re: c oliver

                                  I think I'll do the same. Cook less; enjoy more!

                                  1. re: CindyJ

                                    Maybe the reason so many of us have recipes where we say "it tastes even better the next day."

                              2. re: Janet from Richmond

                                <when I put a lot of time and effort into a special meal, I am generally over the meal by the time it hits the table.>

                                I have a theory about this. We know that smell & taste are very closely connected, and that we can't really taste much if our sense of smell is diminished. I think that when I stand around in the kitchen, smelling the food as it cooks, my brain concludes that I've already eaten. So I'm not all that hungry once the meal is ready.

                                1. re: small h

                                  That's not a bad theory. I think you are onto something there.

                                  1. re: small h

                                    I know when I am in the kitchen cooking for long periods of time I am not interested in eating. I have to force myself to even taste before sending out.

                                    I owned a bar, and could not force myself to drink.

                                    1. re: small h

                                      I agree. I feel the same way. Working with chocolate is even worse. When I'm doing a big baking or candy-making session the smell of chocolate, which I love, actually starts to make me feel sick.

                                      1. re: small h

                                        brilliant, jfood likes that idea. Jfood finds whenhe starts smelling the aromas he gets more hungry and then the desire does subside.

                                        Maybe we can develop the next new diet based on this theory..."The sniff and smell diet."

                                        1. re: jfood

                                          Maybe the solution is to wear nose plugs while cooking. ;-)

                                          1. re: jfood

                                            <Maybe we can develop the next new diet based on this theory..."The sniff and smell diet.">

                                            Look! Someone has. Several someones, in fact.


                                      2. Holy crap! Yes, oh yes! I was making braised short ribs Korean style and decided to age my damn meat at home. Using the Alton Brown method, had to try to get a certain temperature and humidity level in my fridge. Only way I could have done that was to stick wet paper towels in the fridge and get rid of EVERYTHING in it except for the meat. Had my counter full of condiments and veggies. Was able to have nothing else in the fridge for a few days. My short ribs were good but no where near worth the trouble I had to go through not having a fridge. Will never do that again!

                                        1. Yes, I've occasionally had that feeling when I spend a day (plus some time the previous day starting a marinade) to do a big dish like Pot au Feu following some totally classic French recipe and the result doesn't taste all that much better (if at all) than the standard two-hours-from-start-to-finish beef stew I learned from my mother.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: BobB

                                            Exactly! One of the dishes I made for Saturday's dinner was Bouef Bourguignon. I began the prep on Friday, cutting up the meat and veggies, preparing the bouquet garni, and marinating the ingredients in wine. On Saturday, I browned the meat and veggies. Then, while they were braising, I rendered the lardons, cleaned the mushrooms, blanched and peeled the baby onions, and sauteed the m'rooms and onions in the bacon fat... Oh, it was tasty all right, but worth those many hours of work...? Probably not.

                                          2. More often than not I absolutely agree. I've learned to walk the fine line between simple yet homemade (more or less) and not worth the effort because I can buy something just as good. On Sunday for example, I made pork chops with mushroom gravy in the crockpot, roasted red potatoes, and Steamfresh peas & mushrooms. It was absolutely delicious, the family loved it, we had great leftovers, and it took very little time. On the other hand, my husband's Italian sauce and meatballs take hours of effort and cooking, but is also worth every single minute. Plus I end up with six months worth of meatballs and sauce in the freezer. But Chinese or BBQ - forget it. Too many good carry out options to bother with that.

                                            1. I don't know if I'd call it "diminishing returns" when it comes to how a dish turns out, the only way to know how a recipe tastes is to prepare it. Of course it's always disappointing when a recipe doesn't live up to expectations, but then I just consider it a so-so recipe and don't bother to prepare it again.

                                              I'd call it much more "diminishing returns" to continue to go out of your way to cook for people who don't appreciate it. My in-law family is very happy with canned/boxed foods, so that's what I prepare for them. They're happy, it's no effort on my part, so it's win-win. However I'd be CRAZY without my food friends who do appreciate my cooking efforts and who reciprocate by preparing fabulous homemade meals for us.

                                              I totally agree CindyJ that Food=Love. We had a friend visiting from England last month (staying with the in-laws). We had them all over to our home several times and along with the meals I made a Red Velvet Cake, a Persian Love Cake and Lemon Lavender cupcakes. My MIL thought I was crazy to make homemade goodies. I actually told her that "a homemade cake is love".

                                              6 Replies
                                              1. re: Axalady

                                                I wonder if, when your MIL tells you you're "crazy to make homemade goodies," it's a telling reflection of her own inability to make those types of goodies herself. Why else would someone put you down for your effort? It's exactly the same as my comment above regarding my Thanksgiving menus.

                                                1. re: Axalady

                                                  In a restaurant this weekend I was treated to a moron (who also informed all and sundry he was a lawyer) saying repeatedly (this was about cupcakes) "why make it when you can buy it". Because what you make is almost always much better and is made with better ingredients and because you show your love for others by doing so, you stupid jerk!

                                                  1. re: buttertart

                                                    Well, yeah. But to be fair to the poor zhlub, we're chowhounds. And chowhounds who can cook, at that. Some people can't cook to save their lives.

                                                    I'm sure somewhere out there is a Web site for knitters where the devotees (needlecats?) bemoan how so many people go out and buy sweaters when they could make nicer ones at home.

                                                    1. re: BobB

                                                      Obnoxious schlub, but it's true, not everyone can cook.

                                                      1. re: BobB

                                                        the knitting group I belong to refers to ourselves as the "happy hookers."

                                                        1. re: BobB

                                                          There are indeed. I'm a knitter, and we all know that knitting a sweater takes a lot longer and costs a lot more than just buying one, but where's the fun in that? Crafting something from scratch, whether food or clothing=love, either for yourself or someone else.

                                                          I do get offended when people don't at least appreciate the effort I've put in. My sister was so bad that when I knit something for my baby nephew I would add a note that said something like "this is made with 1000 stitches of love," to give her a sense of the time I put in.

                                                    2. I spent 3 days recently making Peking duck, from scratch. It tasted like...... roast duck **sigh**. My dinner guests thought it was lovely, and it was.. it just wasn't Peking duck. I could have spent certainly less time and probabaly less $$$ to have run up the road and grabbed a PD from the window if the Cantonese resto up the road.

                                                      Inversely, last night I served Mme Mouse (my daughter) and her friends a steamboat, with home made stock and seasonal produce.

                                                      Maybe 5 mins max, in the prep work and the girls just RAVED about it.

                                                      5 Replies
                                                        1. re: thinks too much

                                                          Similar to shabu-shabu or a Chinese hot pot. Think Malaysian broth fondue.

                                                          1. re: DallasDude

                                                            Shabu Shabu is one of my go-to dishes for entertaining one other couple, but it's way more than 5 minutes' prep.

                                                            1. re: pikawicca

                                                              Yea. Could be fast if you used pre-made (or boxed) broth and just sliced some veggies and a steak. But wouldn't be the same I am sure.

                                                              1. re: DallasDude

                                                                Frozen stock, thawed over the day, some baby boks ripped into individual leaves, some sliced chicken thighs, some pre-fab fish balls and some quartered 'shrooms.

                                                                Not to be "foodist", but it was pretty much thrown together out of what I had in the fridge. If it had been for guests, I'd have done something "better: and spent more than 5 mins on it.

                                                      1. I have had issues with "diminishing returns", and I agree with a lot of the other posters who can't be bothered to makes things like Chinese BBQ pork, Peking Duck, tamales, tortillas, etc etc etc because they are lucky enough to be able to buy excellent premade versions. I live in a big city, and have access to many lovely pre-made products, and so never have to think about making dim sum from scratch, or my own French baguettes and croissant, or my own challah and knishes and saucisson. I think if I lived somewhere remote, I'd have to try my hand at some of these things so that I could eat them.

                                                        But there are times when that multi-day prep is so worth it. I think of the time Carswell decided to make Cassoulet for a bunch of lucky hounds/friends. Yum... I have never had such lovely cassoulet, and boy was it a lot of work! I also think about my favorite oxtail daube from Paula Wolfert's book, which takes 3 days to make, and it is worth every minute (in fairness, I should disclose that Hubbie is in charge of the Daube making. But he also really likes it, or he wouldn't make it. ) Or our Chile rellenos from scratch - so much fussiness but so delicious. Our Spanish tapas nights are very fussy and take a lot of time, as we love to have many many dishes to offer - every one has been a fantastic hit with friends, well worth the time and energy. So I think there are times when it is worth al the fuss. I do think it helps that many of our friends are hard-core food-lovers, and it helps to have an appreciative audience.

                                                        14 Replies
                                                        1. re: moh

                                                          Which Wolfert? My husband is an oxtail maniac and it's getting to be oxtail weather.

                                                          1. re: buttertart

                                                            We make the Oxtail Daube on pg. 264 of Wolfert's "The Cooking of Southwest France". And good news, i rechecked the recipe and it is only 2 days of cooking, not 3! I love this recipe, it is the perfect winter's day meal, and so good with a glass of good red wine.

                                                            1. re: moh

                                                              Oh great, I have that book (but haven't touched it in years), will try the recipe. Am toying with getting her new clay-pot book, our library doesn't have it - have you looked through it? Any good?

                                                              1. re: buttertart

                                                                I do not have her claypot book, in fact I only have her one book, but am considering getting more as I like her recipes. I did find it pretty funny that most of them require more than 1 day of cooking - I kept on trying to make a recipe, only to find I hadn't enough time as you were supposed to start them 3 days in advance.... I've learnt my lesson now, and whenever tackling anything form her book, I look at least 4 days in advance.

                                                                1. re: moh

                                                                  I know exactly what you mean. I think that's why I've cooked from them as little as I have - I got them when I was a beginning cook, and while the recipes were enticing, their length and exacting methods were daunting. Time to have another look. (My husband makes the tarator soup from the middle eastern book in the summer - he says it's supposed to take a lot less time than it does him.)

                                                              2. re: moh

                                                                This is definitely a recipe I want to make. I did a search and found it right here on Chow!


                                                                1. re: Axalady

                                                                  The pig's foot sounds over the top, but in fact it adds a wonderful richness and gelatin goodness to the braising liquid. It is an awesome recipe. Thanks for finding the web link Axalady!

                                                            2. re: moh

                                                              Oh boy, Moh! You're killing me! I'm going to have to buy that cookbook now! Where am I ever going to find room? : )

                                                              1. re: Miss Needle

                                                                Miss Needle, you will just have to throw out a few unimportant items like the washer and dryer. It is an awfully nice cookbook....

                                                                1. re: moh

                                                                  Sadly, I don't have room for a washer and dryer in my apartment. Seriously, I've been thinking of getting rid of our dining room table to make room for our books. Who needs a table to eat? Just got the Time Life series of cookbooks from around the world, and I'm having a difficult time trying to find a place for them. Sigh! I'm afraid I may have a slight cookbook addiction!

                                                                  1. re: Miss Needle

                                                                    OK Brain flash!!!

                                                                    Make a table out of cookbooks! I'm certain you have enough! Hubbie claims you need to be able to put your legs under the table, but I am not so certain. The central pedestal could be a book shelf, and you could put extra book shelves under the chairs.

                                                                    Ooh - Hubbie just had a brilliant idea! You could have a book shelf with fold-out leaves that convert the shelf into a dining room table. That way you can access your books easily, but still be able to eat at a table. I'll get him to work on a design.

                                                                    Nothing wrong with a cook book addiction :)

                                                                    1. re: moh

                                                                      This is probably a topic for a whole other thread, but I've been considering organizing a neighborhood cookbook swap. I've got so many I no longer want/need/use, maybe others can use them.

                                                                      1. re: moh

                                                                        Ha! What a cool idea! Yes, get your hubby crackin' on a design! : )

                                                                        1. re: moh

                                                                          *LAUGH* Sounds like a take-off on Kramer's coffee table book.

                                                                2. well, i kinda think it has to do with proficiency. when you are preparing traditional broiled skink for the first time, obsessing over every detail, sweating the small stuff, etc, and yet the result is not as great as restaurant x's broiled skink, which the chef and his grandma have prepared traditionally for 30 years. . . yeah that stinks, and it feels like a lot of effort for something disappointing. but when you prepare the skink several times, gain proficiency, speed/ease, etc. . . and in addition the result improves, hey-- this skink stuff is worth it.

                                                                  think about the first time you made scratch bread or pasta or pastry crust. ugh. why does anybody do this, and it's so clumsy and messy and tough and overcooked/underrisen and i can buy it for five bucks and i'll never get the three hours of my life back. . . phooey! but now many years later, when you can crank out a beautiful pie in 10 mins flat while texting with one hand and dictating your memoirs at the same time, absolutely not thinking about the task *at all* (full proficiency). . . all the effort (and early failure) becomes worth it, right?

                                                                  2 Replies
                                                                  1. re: soupkitten

                                                                    So then, clearly, there are some recipes that are well worth the time and effort, and others that are not. I'd love to have a collection of recipes that are time and/or labor intensive but worth it. There are a few mentioned here -- Paula Wolfert's Oxtail Daube; Carswell's recipe for Cassoulet (is that posted anywhere on CH?). What are some others where the end result justifies the effort?

                                                                    1. re: CindyJ

                                                                      A dish I love to spend the time making is Choucroute, which one can rarely find anywhere, properly made or not. I have a large Le Cruset dutch oven that is perfect for it. Cassoulet is another worthwhile endeavor. As are short ribs and osso bucco. All very hearty, satisfying and perfect for spending hours preparing inside when it is cold outside. This Oxtail Daube sounds like its right up my alley. The Choucroute recipe from the New York Times linked below is great although I vary the meats depending on what I'm in the mood for. The challenge can be finding a good variety of high quality European-style meats to put into it - wild boar, smoked garlic sausages or keilbasa, weiss or bratwursts, smoked spare ribs or smoked pork chops and/or black forest ham if you're not near a good Gernan or Polish butcher shop - but it does make a lovely presentation for company and the only thing it needs is good crusty bread and a dry crisp riesling.For short ribs I follow the general instructions in the book Heat by Bill Buford. I think the recipe is around page 72 in the soft cover version of the book. It's a great step by step instruction on how they should be made rather than a detailed recipe but it works for me. For Osso Bucco I rely on either Marcella Hazan or Mario Batali.


                                                                  2. I don't think that I experience the diminishing returns phenomenon to which CindyJ refers. At least, when I cook, it is because I want to, not because I have to. I get a kick out of doing it.

                                                                    Sometimes what I make is better than what I could buy (hopefully, more often than not!), but I have certainly cooked at times when I knew that I could buy a comparable or better food commercially. For example, try as I might, I cannot make a better pizza than the commercial establishments. But it is more fun to make it at home, even if it is not as good as what I could buy.

                                                                    Also, I get a kick out of improving. I think, "Okay, that recipe I made last night, didn't turn out so well, but I think I know what I did wrong. Let me try it again!"

                                                                    1. Oh yes.

                                                                      I once made an entire meal from the French Laundry cookbook as a farewell gift to good friends (and myself as well) before we moved to Dubai.

                                                                      I spent a week prepping for the meal. Spent a fortune on obtaining the best-quality ingredients and even trekked to New York for a special culinary item.

                                                                      I must have worked two solid days on last minute preparation for the six course meal, right up to the dinner itself.

                                                                      The dinner lasted four hours because of the timing of the dishes, longer than I had anticipated, and while my guests and family were happily swilling wine I was in the kitchen.

                                                                      And the food.....

                                                                      Not mind blowing. Good but given the amount of time and money I spent on it, worth it? No. I spent most of the dinner (when I wasn't in the kitchen) thinking that we'd be just as satisfied and happy had I made a simple roast chicken stuffed with lemons.

                                                                      Perhaps a telling lesson is that the most widely acclaimed dish of the six-course meal was the butter roasted steak, which was the easiest part of the meal.

                                                                      1. Interesting thread. To me, some techniques are worth taking the time, and I can't hurry a dish that benefits from time. Which is not to say that there are steps not worth the effort or time, but with experience, I learn to read a recipe and streamline where appropriate or, even add steps if the recipe is already too shortcut to yield good flavors. It's my experience that the diminishing returns phenomena is more a matter of whether I enjoyed the process or felt harried and hassled by it.

                                                                        1. I totally agree I have lately been working on crafting the perfect dinner party menu. I am collected combinations that allow me to completely relax while having people over while enhancing my reputation as a cook. My current favorite: Beef back ribs (The base of prime rib) with a spice rub that includes smoked paprika and lots of black pepper. Throw these in the over at 200 for 7 hours and forget them. The meat is succulent and tender and crispy and flavorful. Serve that with creamy cold cascadilla soup (from moosewood cookbook) .This tomato juice, sour cream and fresh dill base with crunchy raw cucumber, peppers, mushrooms and garlic. An appetizer of dilled shrimp on French bread, and dessert is a fresh berry trifle. The trifle, soup and shrimp are all items that are great when you make them the morning or even the day before . All you do is whisk the ribs out of the oven when you want to around 7 hours in and serve up the cold items with it. If I want to serve a heavier meal or have more traditional guests, I sometimes serve champ (basically mashed potatoes with green onions and sour cream) along with the meat and cascadilla. This meal always gets raves. As opposed to the time I made oeufs a la niege. I spent all day making custard and meringue quenelles and even a spun sugar nest. It was gone in 10 minutes and then I had the kitchen to scrub for more hours. Totally not worth it.

                                                                          1. Two examples come to mind: laboring over a vinaigrette with multiple ingredients vs. just salting the salad greens, letting them wilt, and then just tossing them with olive oil and vinegar. I've found the latter very often to be tastier, and obviously much less work.

                                                                            The second was, in my opinion, a massive waste of time: Tom Colicchio's braised short ribs recipe. I did everything the recipe said, including the whole starting on the previous day so the ribs can marinate in the wine mixture, slow-braising them the next day, reducing the wine to sauce -- which really just turned out to be overly greasy and not particularly flavorful. The ribs (happy meat from a local farm) sucked. I am NEVER making that dish again. So. Not. Worth it.

                                                                            1. Simple is wonderful, but it is also too easy! I mean, let’s face it. There is a certain amount of vanity involved here. Who wants to prepare a meal that is so easy that anyone can do it? Frozen corn with a little olive oil, black pepper and lemon juice cannot be beat. Everyone loves it, but it is so darned easy, no one is willing to take such a dish to a potluck affair.
                                                                              On the other hand, if I refer to myself as an innovative cook, most folks would exclaim that sounds dangerous! Perhaps the solution is to prepare something wonderfully simple that everyone loves, but say that the recipe is a very complex family secret. 

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                                                                              1. re: condie

                                                                                You must go to way better potlucks than I do. I'd kiss your feet for that corn. Simple, delicious, edible MMMM.

                                                                              2. I've always thought of cooking and eating as a two-part process. The act of preparing a meal, no matter how many hours spent, is just one part of the process and should be enjoyed just for what it is. The anticipation of eating the meal is not the most important part of the preparation, rather, it's the preparation.
                                                                                I spent many years working 16 hour days in restaurant kitchens, not be able to eat at all. My appetite was constantly overwhelmed, competely saturated. Then at one point I realized that the eating part was not my focus, it was my customer's. I eventually was able to prepare food and visualize the effect it would have on the customer without reaching a level of appetite saturation that negated the entire cooking/eating process for me. Kinda like a Zen "be here now" thing.
                                                                                As far as the people I invite for dinner not enjoying the meal as much as I anticipated they would, given the work I put into it, well, I don't love them any less but I made it and I can enjoy it all I want. More for me.

                                                                                1. Yes, definitely. If I spend too long smelling a dish as it cooks, I get so tired of the smell that I can't eat it. Or at least not with gusto.

                                                                                  Or if a dish is just loads of work--lots of peeling or slicing, using loads of pans, bowls, and other implements, lots of standing around frying things, etc.--I never enjoy it as much. I think there's a point at which I just get tired and impatient, and then there's no chance I'm really going to be thrilled with the result, no matter how much anyone else likes it.

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                                                                                  1. re: Kagey

                                                                                    You know, sometimes I wonder what I truly love, cooking or eating.

                                                                                  2. Absolutely!!

                                                                                    I am a caterer of 25 years and without question, the most successful results have come from 8 ingredients or less of the highest quality - prepped in the least amount of time - at the last minute!

                                                                                    1. I really do enjoy cooking and some of my most beloved family recipes are fairly easy to prepare. However, there are some things, such as my thanksgiving turkey stuffing, that has a lot of ingredients and a bit of preparation that goes into it, that I won't compromise because it is very much enjoyed by my family. I'm approaching 60 and not as spry as I was when in my 30's and 40's; so, rather than me doing the whole dinner, everyone brings a part of the meal to my son's home. No one is overly stressed out and everyone has a chance to show off a little of their culinary talents!
                                                                                      I have decided to make tamales this year and have bought a steamer and all my ingredients. That plastic trowel sounds like a good idea~ I have never tackled this alone and I am wondering if I've bit off more than I can chew! I'm not sure I can get anyone to help as everyone is so busy. I suppose I could do this over a period of 2 or 3 days, right?
                                                                                      (Pray for me!)

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                                                                                      1. re: Awwshucks

                                                                                        I had some relatives visit, who cooked amazing dinners everynight. However, they took hours to cook, even longer to clean up after, and cost more than it would have to go out. The food was delicious, but as opposed to being inspired to cook more I was put off the process entirely. I was, though, properly appreciative and am always so as a guest!

                                                                                        1. re: dvsndvs

                                                                                          Don't even get me started on the clean-up after preparing a "feast." The way I cook, it seems like every pot, pan, bowl and kitchen tool I own is waiting to be cleaned. Although, truth be told, it's my husband who generally clears the table and handles the cleanup chores in the kitchen.

                                                                                          1. re: CindyJ

                                                                                            This is how my husband cooks also. I clean up regardless of who cooks and Saturday night he made carbonara and I thought I was going to have to call FEMA in. I love the gesture of him cooking and the food, but hate facing the kitchen. Fortunately, I'm a much neater cook who uses many fewer dishes and items.

                                                                                            1. re: Janet from Richmond

                                                                                              If he makes a mess with carbonara, which is one of the least messy dishes IMO, I shudder to think what he does other times. Yikes.

                                                                                              1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                You ought to see breakfast, Thankgiving dinner and anything involving mashed potatoes. And he always uses a giant pot when a medium or small pot will get the job done easily.

                                                                                              2. re: Janet from Richmond

                                                                                                Well, I'm lucky that after nearly four decades of marriage (YIKES!), we've got the kitchen routines pretty well worked out. He enjoys my cooking; I appreciate his help.

                                                                                                1. re: CindyJ

                                                                                                  We are pretty much in the same boat as far as appreciation of and assistance from husband are concerned - and the number of years married. It seems there are quite a few long-married folks on this board. Maybe the old PA Dutch adage "Kissin' wears out, cookin' dont" is true after all? (Fortunately for us, the kissin' hasn't either.)

                                                                                                  1. re: buttertart

                                                                                                    How did this cleaning miracle happen? We've only been married 18yrs and maybe we just haven't reached that level of symbiosis but if there is an on button please clue me in! Do I have to wait until the kids are gone? Uhhgg, some days I just want to chuck every dish and pot. Yep, I think dirty dishes may be the source of my diminishing returns.

                                                                                                    1. re: just_M

                                                                                                      There is no on button (smiles), I put up with dishes being around a little longer than I would like, but if they're there he will attend to them. Dinner parties he clears up after before hitting the sack. Works for us. (We don't have children, by choice.)

                                                                                        2. I have greatly changed my entertaining in the last few years. I want great food, but I mostly want to be with my friends and family. That's why I often do a braise, like osso buco, the day before, then make an appetizer or two, a knock-out salad, and some homemade bread (started the day before). On special occasions, I just start cooking days before and chill or freeze. If I make something like tamales, I'll do it over two or three days and make dozens for freezing.

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                                                                                          1. re: bayoucook

                                                                                            I'm with you completely on that. In my insecure and overachiever youth, I made everything from soup to nuts from scratch. Now it's about being with friends and showing my love for them (partly) through food. I can cut ALOT of corners and it's still a great gathering. And I'm rested enough to actually enjoy myself :) I love being my age --- I'm getting smarter and smarter all the time :)

                                                                                            1. re: c oliver

                                                                                              I just had an AHA moment as I read your post, c oliver. I have good friends, not CHs by any stretch of the imagination, who I either dine out with or do a "pot-luck" type meal with fairly often. Our get-togethers are NOT about the food, but rather, about enjoying each others' company. I also have other friends who I either dine in or out with, for whom I fuss and fret and anguish over the details of a meal when it's my turn to host. My AHA...? I enjoy myself a gazillion times more when I'm with my non-foodcentric friends.

                                                                                          2. I'm also one of those who likes to try making from scratch what everybody else buys canned or frozen. So one day I try baked beans with the molasses and bacon and the whole nine yards. After cooking for...what was it...twelve hours or so, I ended up with a large pot of something that looked and tasted EXACTLY like Bush's baked beans!
                                                                                            So I'm sticking with my mac&cheese recipe (put a couple drops of liquid smoke if you don't have smoked cheddar).

                                                                                            1. I may be playing armchair psychologist here, but I strongly suspect you're just suffering from sensory overload. I can NEVER evaluate how good a meal I have "slaved" over is because by the time I get the food on the table, my sense of taste and smell is just about dead. It's the old "Best part of Thanksgiving dinner is the midnight turkey sandwich" thing for the cook. Another part of entertaining with a big meal when it comes to evaluating whether it was "worth it" is what your guests take away with them in the form of memories and enjoyment. Give it a while and let your senses rest, let the feedback from friends trickle in, and then think about it. Sounds to me as if everyone had a wonderful time!

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                                                                                              1. re: Caroline1

                                                                                                Well, with Thanksgiving coming up I am thinking of a honeybaked turkey, and then making all the sides. I need to find the sweet spot between bringing it all in, and spending eight hours cooking.