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Unobtanium: The recipe. May 10, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, ranting again about one of my pet peeves. Fans of the movie “Avatar” will recall that corporate greed for a mineral called “unobtanium,” available only on the inhabited moon Pandora, led to the near-destruction of the moon and its native life forms. Obviously, “unobtanium” is a heavy-handed reference to unobtainable. But my peeve has nothing to do with “Avatar,” which I really enjoyed. Instead, it’s about recipes that demand unobtainable ingredients.

I love cooking, and I love reading recipes and imagining making them, what I would change if I were making them (if anything), and how I could adapt them to my limited range of cooking options. (Try: an ancient stove with two working burners and a defunct oven, a countertop convection oven, no food processor, no dishwasher—thus, no food processor, try cleaning one by hand—no microwave, and so on.)

I’m an experienced cook, and an imaginative one, so I can usually spin a recipe into something our friend Ben and I would enjoy. The sole and very sad exception is fried foods. I hate grease, and much as I love fried foods, I’m not about to pour inches of oil into a pot and dunk anything into it. Eeeeewwww!!! If I’m craving yummy and fried, I’ll go out to eat.

I don’t resent recipes that call for techniques I’m not able to do with my limited equipment. After all, most people have fully functional stoves, microwaves, grills, food processors, dishwashers, stand blenders, and the like, even specialty stuff like ice-cream makers and juicers. It’s that “unobtanium” issue I take exception to, the “If you don’t live in NYC or San Francisco and are willing to spend $100 on one meal’s ingredients, forget trying to get these, but I’m going to put ten of them in this recipe anyway so there’s no way you can make it. Drool, fools, drool!!!” approach.

This morning, my ire was roused on this hot-button issue by a seasonal spring recipe for “Smashed Pea Toast with a Snap Pea Salad.” That sounded interesting, and even vegetarian, so I eagerly started reading. Certainly, it was nothing I’d ever made before. And nothing, I quickly realized, that I’ll ever make, period. The recipe starts with tiny peas from local farmers, procured within 24 hours of picking. Good luck with that! Then you need 1/2 pound of black trumpet or morel mushrooms. Good luck with that! Next, a Meyer lemon. Good luck with that! And finally, Idiazabal cheese. Good luck with that!

If you’re publishing a recipe in a national or local paper, it seems to me it should be one people across the country or locally could actually make. I can’t tell you how many recipes I’ve seen this spring calling for ramps, a wild onion relative native to very limited parts of the country, that say “Oh, you’ll find them at your local farmers’ market.” Not anywhere I’ve ever lived. Not ever.

The point about unobtanium ingredients was inadvertently made in two other articles in the papers our friend Ben and I get. One was about a culinary travel adventure, where the writer went to the Andalucia region of Spain to sample all the marvelous regional specialties at the local restaurants, tapas bars, and markets. The second was about celebrity chefs who had come to Philadelphia and opened high-end restaurants. Both mentioned the (obviously unobtainable) ingredients and dishes they encountered or served.

But I had no problem with this. Someone who was thinking about traveling to Spain could clip the article on Andalucian specialties and stick it in their travel guidebook. Someone planning a night out in Philly could clip the article on all the great new restaurants and see if they could get a reservation. Unlike the recipe article, in neither case was someone promising that you could make this food. The implication was that you would have to go to experience it. That’s an honest implication, as opposed to implying that you could make a dish in your own home using locally unobtainable ingredients.

‘Til next time,