Almost every recipe I try needs adjusting. Two examples come to mind, crab burgers and grilled chicken.
In the crab burger recipe that appeared in this column about two weeks ago, I called for tossing 1 1/2 tablespoons of crab seasoning on 5 ounces of crab meat. Big mistake. That should have been 1 1/2 teaspoons, not tablespoons. So unless you like inflamed lips, adjust the seasoning downward.
The grilled chicken recipe I tinkered with called for grilling a chicken for a mere 30 minutes. The other night I tried to follow this regimen but lost my nerve. I ended up grilling the chicken for about an hour.
The recipe was in "James Beard's Simple Foods" (Macmillan, $22), a recently published collection of some delightfully avuncular columns Beard wrote in the 1970s for American Way, the magazine of American Airlines.
Beard was an enthusiastic eater, a feeling that was evident the one time I met him a few years before he died in 1985. He was at some New York food gathering, and was having some difficulty walking. But when he spotted the word "Baltimore" on my name tag, Beard stopped and his face brightened. "Ahh, Chincoteague oysters," he said, and asked me how the year's crop was shaping up.
That same passion for good food came through when I read his approach to grilling chicken. He knew that cooking chicken for only 30 minutes would not sit well with the squeamish. But he stuck to his beliefs. "I like the white meat moist and I don't care if there's a drop of pink juice at the joint of the thigh and the leg," he wrote. "I think it makes for better eating."
It convinced me. I wanted to grill a juicy chicken, that night. I snapped the Beard book shut, shoved it in my briefcase and hurried home to my barbecue grill. I called my wife and worked out a deal. If she would swing by the store on her way home from work and get a fresh bird, I would cook it for supper.
As I waited for the bird to hit the home front, I stirred up the two mixtures that Beard applied to the chicken. The first was an herbal rub. I put half a cup of olive oil in the bowl, then attempted to add a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. When the heap of pepper had filled about 3/4 of teaspoon, the pepper grinder fell apart. That was the first adjustment to the recipe. The pepper was cut down by 1/4 teaspoon.
I added 3 tablespoons of dried rosemary to the rub. I picked the rosemary and followed Beard's tip of disarming the spiky tips of the rosemary needles by crushing them with a mortar and pestle.
Next I made the second mixture, the basting solution. I took another 1/2 cup of olive oil, added a heaping teaspoon of salt, the juice of a lemon, and 1/4 cup of dry white wine.
As soon as the chicken arrived home I jumped its bones. One of the keys to cutting the cooking time of the bird, Beard advised, was to remove its backbone.
So I split the whole chicken into two parts. Then with a small but sharp knife, I went about the task of separating backbone from bird. It was not pretty, but I got the job done. I divided the chicken into four parts, two breast pieces and and two leg and thigh pieces.
With my hands I rubbed the rosemary-laced liquid on both the skin and bone sides of the chicken. I placed the chicken bone-side-down on the grill and brushed it with the lemon and wine mixture. The charcoal fire of about 40 coals was perfect, ashy and hot. Beard's instructions were to cook the bone side 12 to 15 minutes. After 15 minutes I basted the chicken and flipped it over. It had a wonderful aroma, but the meat looked mighty pink. According to Beard, the chicken should cook another 15 minutes. I kept it on 20 minutes, and the chicken still looked to me as if it could get up and walk.
The longer I cooked the chicken, the more I rationalized my decision. I told myself that Beard's bird was smaller than mine. His weighed 2 pounds, mine was a 4-pounder. Besides, Beard's fire was probably hotter than mine. And the chicken just didn't look cooked to me.
When, after an hour, I finally took the chicken off the grill, the skin had excellent flavor, but the meat was too dry.
Which proves that every time you adjust a recipe, you run the risk of eliminating the flavor that made the dish exceptional. So the next time I grill a chicken I will be braver, and the meat will be redder.