Name that phenomenon

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?

14 people are having a conversation about “Name that phenomenon

  1. That is how I cook! Every time! I just wrote a blog post about it yesterday… I take my hat off to the food bloggers who can capture their creations with not just a list of ingredients, but with weights and measures too!! I never measure anything that goes into a dish – unless I’m following someone elses’ recipe.

    But as you say, when it is perfect, oh THEN I long to have made a note! I’m getting better at retro-guessing how much of something I put in…

  2. This happened to us too the other day, but with a “simple batch of eggs.” oh so fluffy, will we ever prepare them like that again?

  3. Ann — I think most people cook that way. Opportunistic dinner is a daily reality for most of us. But taking notes has been helpful, I must say. Six months later, when I have absolutely no clue what I did, having written it down makes things easier.

    Dina — It can happen with the simplest dishes. Why are these eggs different from all other eggs? Who the hell knows?

    Husband mine — Very nice. Now why couldn’t you have thought of that BEFORE I wrote the piece??

  4. I did that with a pizza, once. It was awesome. I still make good pizza, but if one week it’s especially better than other weeks, my husband still says that it’s only a ‘tribute’ to that one pizza, which I’m still trying to recapture. And who measures on a pizza?!

  5. I like “pot luck.” (Trust Kevin to come up with le mot juste.) We take notes; we wrack our brains trying to remember what was different in our preparation of the one perfect iteration of a familiar dish. All to no avail. I think that must be the genesis of the written recipe. Recipes represent the triumph of hope over experience.

  6. I’ve been following your blog ever since my sis pointed me in your direction. It was about your bees to be. And I have to comment on the perfect dish.. I dutifully (dully) follow a recipe to the letter, unless I’m cooking with wine; and that’s when I usually create happy accidents (as they say in watercolor class). After that I just chase the dragon knowing I’ll never figure out how I made a lasagna we cried over. The name of that phenomenon in my house? “She loves to cook with wine, sometimes she even puts it in the food.” I really think that when you are relaxed, happy, and humming, then creativity and instinct take over, and yes, the recipe gods smile.

  7. I call it divine intervention!

    But I’m not a great cook, so I am really, truly surprised when it’s just perfect and I’ve cooked it. I usually just let my husband cook – then things are bound to taste great. I’m more of a baker.

  8. Paula — The key, I think, is to just keep making pizza. Eventually, you’ll make another that measures up. Anyway, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

    Susan — Hunger! It is, indeed, the best sauce.

    Mom — So many things represent the triumph of hope over experience. I never thought of recipes in that light, but I think you’re right. Now I think I can almost understand Thomas Keller, and his infinitely detailed, incredibly precise recipes.

    Lostbee — Welcome to Starving! I’m very glad to have you. And I think you make a good point — maybe it’s not precise recipes, but a relaxed, devil-may-care attitude that creates the best dinners. Pass the pinot noir!

    Fiona — Cooking is art, but baking is chemistry, and the two disciplines seem to attract two different sorts. You’re lucky to have one of each in your marriage!

  9. Yes, it happens in my kitchen too. No, I don’t have a name for it either. But I do think you left one crucial variable out: hunger, the body’s demand for food. When I’ve done hard physical work, dinner always tastes better. Really. It’s not just that I want more of it, but the flavors really pop on those nights. Not every meal in such conditions is fantastic, but the phenomenon you describe happens more often when my body has really earned its kibble. Hunger is the best seasoning, as they say.

  10. Heather Robinson says:

    I can relate to not being able to recreate the perfect dish but more recently had the opposite happen. I have a lentils recipe that is tried and true, a real “go to” meal in my house. The last time I made it, it was a disaster. Bitter taste and the lentils never softened. As far as I could telll I did everything right and I followed my recipe exactly but it ended up in the garbage disposal anyway. Oh well!

    By the way, my four year old son was sitting in my lap while I was reading your blog. He swears he saw you yesterday at our Friends of the Library sale. I’ll have to let him know you were cutting up a tree and not shopping for used books.

    Love your blog, love the new look, love your writing!

  11. Kate — I see you vote with Susan, and I’m entirely in agreement that being hungry makes a big difference in how we taste food. I’m sure that’s a part of it, and I’m going to take note the next time I hit “pot luck.” It can’t explain the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, though, eaten when we were all fuller than any human has a need to be!

    Heather — Sounds like you got some seriously cruddy lentils. But it’s kitchen disasters like that make the case for keeping chickens! They would have loved what your family wouldn’t touch. As for the Library book sale, I do frequent them, but I haven’t been to one lately. When I do go, I hope to run into you and your son. Thanks for the kind words.

  12. Hi there. I bought a piece of smoked bluefish at the farmers market yesterday and wanted to make a pasta dish with it. I changed it up a little based on what I already had on hand. I wanted to share my changes: I used fresh tortellini. I made the sauce out of Bass Ale, goat cheese, garlic andthinly sliced white onions a few pinches of sugar. I chunked up the bluefish and tossed it in at the end. My boyfriend and I each added habanero peppers to spice it up, but we like heat in almost everything. Thank you for your original recipe! It made this a new culinary sensation for me!

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