The Laws of Diminishing (Culinary) Returns
- CindyJ Oct 26, 2009 07:57 AM
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!