One of the most basic definitions of a design, is that it is a plan to give form to function. By that definition, recipes surely qualify as designs. But a recipe can have several functions that often seem to compete. The most basic purpose of food is to keep people alive with the secondary concern of keeping them in good health and not making them ill. But an equally important function is that the food be enticing primarily to the palate but also to the eye and perhaps the nose, to ensure that it will be eaten. And if the recipe is to be rendered professionally, as in a restaurant, a prime function is to realize a profit for the owner. Toward that end, the food costs are an obvious concern as is the complexity of preparation in terms of labor costs, so a bit of trimming may be required here and there.
Lastly but no less importantly to me, the designed dish should be able to be eaten as conveniently and practically as possible and respect the inherent qualities of each ingredient. And thereby hangs my main cavils about too many recipe designs, past and present.
Among the most egregious of the currently fashionable culinary creations are the towering hamburger constructions often suggesting the Leaning Tower of Pisa rendered in meat, bread, cheese, bacon, pickles, pigs ears or tails, and anything else the chef has lying around the kitchen. Not only are such conceits impossible to eat out of hand, but flavors of the myriad ingredients muffle each other. This is especially ludicrous after we are told about the super-prime quality of the basic beef; with so many garnishes and sauces one might as well use ready ground supermarket beef. But perhaps those absurd burgers do perform one currently important function as do the similarly designed knife and fork sandwiches: they inspire Instagrams, all of which rate the caption “You’re not going to believe this.” And I don’t.
Not all travesties are modern. Rarely has there been a more ill-conceived recipe than that for Beef Wellington, an old-time haute fancy dish that called for wrapping a perfectly roasted filet of beef in foie gras, then in a pastry coating, all to be re-roasted. That meant the beef steamed within itself as the fat oozed unpleasantly from the foie gras to render the crust limp and greasy. How much better to simply put a slice of foie gras and another of black truffle atop a rare-roasted slice of beef filet and call it tournedos Rossini for which each element gets due respect.
Much as I deplore all of the above examples, none irritates me as much as the modern presentations of linguine with white clam sauce—Linguine alla Vongole Bianco—one of my three favorite comfort foods. The obvious idea is that clams lightly simmered in a bath of garlic-flavored olive oil and garnished only with chopped parsley, be entwined with the long pasta for each heavenly mouthful. In the olden days in New York—say before the mid-’60s—clams were prepared out of the shells, sometimes whole or, better yet, chopped and simmered along with the oil and garlic. Then suddenly we began to hear that the high class way in Italy is for the clams to be served in their shells, steamed in the aromatic bath but unshucked. How ridiculous is that? Not only does the cook have to scrub and scrub again to be sure no grain of sand remains to wash down onto the pasta, but the diner has to extricate each clam thereby winding up with greasy fingers while the pasta grows cold. (What combined to make the new way popular was that it meant less work for the kitchen while assuring patrons that the clams were not canned.) In fact, searching through a number of old-time Italian cookbooks published in Italy I discovered many of the recipes called for the clams being shucked—some before and some after steaming. In Italy they tended to use tiny clams while the custom here was for little necks or even cherrystones to be trimmed into hard and soft parts, the former being allowed more cooking time.
To make my case, I can cite no less an authority than the Italian critic, Vincenzo Buonassisi, who in his classic volume Il Codice della Pasta, calls for removing clams after steaming. So does the grande dame of Italian food history, Ada Boni in The Talisman Cookbook, the 1950 translation of her epic, Il Talismano della Felicità. As for current interpretations, the famed Rao’s removes and chops the clams as does Sal J. Scognamillo at Patsy’s, the restaurant his grandparents founded in mid-town New York in in 1944. “It’s more functional to have the clams out of the shells,” Sal says, “but would you believe some customers insist on having them in the shells... and, even worse, some ask for grated cheese to be sprinkled on top?”
All of which proves once again that there is no accounting for taste.