It’s funny how relationships work. Back a few years ago, I was…ahem…between jobs and I e-mailed an old colleague about possible recipe editing because she then worked for a cookbook company. One thing led to another and I ended up spending three years writing books for the company.

That same friend is now the project manager for an upcoming Southern cookbook for a prestigious publisher and I got an e-mail from her the other day. It was titled “cookbook emergency.”  I like emergencies. I do some of my finest work in an atmosphere of panic and angst.

Seems the copy editor for the book had a laundry list of recipes about to be published and they just weren’t sure they would work. Right up my alley. I can read a recipe and immediately tell you if it won’t work and why. I can’t do percentages or explain why a fax machine operates, but I can do that.

And so for the first time in my life I became an official recipe tester for a major cookbook. I got pretty excited about that. Perhaps too excited. I volunteered and my friend shot back several recipes. Two I tested and one I knew wouldn’t work going in. Here’s what happened.

First recipe: Cuban Pork Roast with Chimichurri “Barbecue” Sauce

Warning signs:

1. It called for a 20-pound pork shoulder or butt, skin on. If there is such a thing as a 20-pound pork shoulder you can commonly find at a grocery store, I would like to see it. And a shoulder does have skin; a butt does not. Warning, warning, Will Robinson.

2. It called for a marinade but the directions didn’t call for actually marinating the meat. They called for just pouring it over this flatulent piece of pork and sticking it in the oven. No, no, no. It would just slide off the pork and burn in the bottom of the pan.

3. It called for a chimichurri with “2-3 cups of olive oil.” Which is it? And there was nothing in the ingredient list that even remotely suggested a barbecue sauce.

This is the one I totally passed on.

Second recipe: Whole Fresh Ham with Cracklings

Warning sign:

1. It called for 1 (15- to 20-pound) fresh uncured pork leg. Seriously? What home cook could fit a 20-pound pig leg in their oven? I went to my beloved Publix to see a whole pork leg. They had to bring one out of the back of the meat department. Not much call for these and I see why. It was the size of New Jersey.

I committed to this one and took 7 pounds of uncured pork leg home with me. It looked like a volleyball. I faithfully followed the instructions using all 34 ingredients (including 4 prunes for the sauce – what impact could 4 prunes possibly have on a 20-pound pig leg?). It just sucked. The meat was dry as a desert and the “paste” made from 16 of the ingredients from that torturous list slid off that huge haunch of ham like clothes from a stripper. King Daddy gamely pronounced the pork “edible” and promised to eat every last scrap. After five days sitting lonely and inglorious in the refrigerator, I crammed it all down the disposal. A pig gave his life for this.

Pretty on the outside; ugly on the inside

Pretty on the outside; ugly on the inside

On the bright side. On the bright side.

Third recipe: Browned butter pecan pie

Huge hit. Easy to make with very few ingredients. I can’t give you the recipe because the book’s not published yet, but let’s just say the browned butter mentioned in the title is the key.

Winner winner, chicken dinner

Winner winner, pecan pie dinner

Here’s my rule on cookbooks. I know everything in a cookbook isn’t going to be a game changer. What are the odds? If I can get one good recipe out of a cookbook that I make over and over, I consider it a victory. Browned butter pecan pie. Victory.


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