I know this happens to you. You’ve got a favorite dish – maybe a pasta sauce, a crab cake, a beef stew, whatever – that you make over and over. Everyone in your family loves it, and it’s a part of your regular recipe rotation. You could make it with your eyes closed. You don’t measure, you just pour. You know when it smells right, when it looks right. And it’s always good.
Except for once in a blue moon, when it’s positively great. You think you’re doing the same thing every time but, every now and then, something happens and you just hit it out of the park. It’s perfect.
In golf, it’s called hitting it on the screws.
The problem is, since you don’t know what you did, you can’t do it again. My mother calls this problem the Kitchen of Irreproducible Results, and my father has learned to enjoy his occasional perfect meal, because he knows he’ll never have that particular dish ever again.
What happens? It could be because you got the ratios just right. It could be because you had a particularly good piece of meat, or crop of asparagus, or variety of basil. It could be because you ran out of the cheap wine you usually cook with, and you used the stuff you were drinking, or vice versa. It could be because the recipe gods simply decided to smile on you that night.
Whatever it was, your mojo was working. I still remember a sauce of red wine, shiitakes, and sage that I must have made twenty years ago. There was a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie that my father still talks about. And there was last night’s pasta with smoked trout.
I’ve made variations on this recipe a zillion times. It’s very simple. You sauté onions and garlic, add wine and stock (and maybe some clam juice), smoked fish (trout, salmon, bluefish, whatever) and frozen baby peas. Throw in a little half-and-half, cream, goat cheese, or sour cream, and it’s all over but the salt and pepper.
Because I do change it up, it’s never exactly the same. But it’s so similar, time after time, that I was genuinely surprised when, last night, it was perfect.
Maybe it was the trout, caught in our backyard the day before and smoked by my husband in our Weber kettle grill. Maybe it was that I left out the clam juice, or left in the sour cream, or used the Ruffino Orvieto that was the only white wine we had in the house. Or maybe the recipe gods simply decided to smile on me that night.
Now, you might make the case that precise measuring would solve the irreproducibility problem, but I’m not buying it. This is partly because believing that would commit me to precise measuring, and I have a pretty good idea how long that commitment would last. But it’s partly because no two foods are exactly alike, and there’s a lot of blind luck involved when you start combining five, or six, or ten ingredients that are all a little bit different from the ones you used last time, even if you are using exactly two teaspoons of each.
Besides, it might be humid in your kitchen, so things take longer to cook down. Maybe it’s cold outside, so the fish takes longer to smoke. Maybe you turned the fire a little higher, or a little lower. Or you used a different pan. Measurement can take you only so far.
I don’t think a recipe, no matter how precise, can capture what happens when you hit the sweet spot. It’s skill and it’s chemistry, but it’s also just dumb luck. But what’s it called when the stars are aligned and you just happen to turn out the perfect dish? In golf, it’s called hitting it on the screws. In cooking, it doesn’t have a name, but I think it should.
It happens to you, doesn’t it? So, what do you call it?