Cooking has been my passion since college. For more than twenty years I’ve spent a huge amount of my time reading cookbooks, trying recipes, learning methods, combining ingredients. I’ve gotten good at tasting “in my head,” having a pretty good idea of what a recipe will taste like before I try it. Usually I can tell by looking if a recipe will be worth cooking.
But not always.
Not long ago I borrowed the library book “Flavor Exposed” by Angelo Sosa. The author’s name may sound familiar; Sosa was a contestant on Top Chef some seasons back. I recall finding him rather irritating on the show, but I came across the listing and found the subtitle – “100 global recipes from sweet to salty, earthy to spicy” – intriguing enough to give the book a try.
Not many of the recipes caught my attention, but I liked the idea of ramen in Spam broth…. And at this point I can imagine the look you’re giving the screen, all raised eyebrows and pursed lips, like “what is wrong with you?” (Except maybe for my stepsister in Hawaii, where I understand Spam is ubiquitous.) In my experience, though, Asian cuisines have more respect for humble sausages and preserved meats than we do in America, and it seemed to me that the intense umami saltiness of Spam could be a great base for noodle soup.
So I bought a can of Spam and gave it a try.
It was a pretty simple recipe, but on closer inspection, kind of weird. It called for a can of Spam, a few aromatics including ground ginger, Sansho pepper, and thyme, and some sesame oil. I gathered the ingredients, leaving out the thyme because I have almost never seen thyme in an Asian recipe and it just sounded wrong. In retrospect, maybe that should have tipped me off. As well as the ground ginger – why on Earth would you not use fresh? It’s not like he was trying to keep the ingredients list simple, not with Sansho pepper thrown in there. (I planned to substitute a Japanese togarashi spice mix that included some Sansho pepper.)
Anyway. The recipe told me to toss the Spam in water and boil it until it fell apart. I am here to tell you, my friends: You can boil Spam as long as you want, it does NOT fall apart. I boiled the Spam and boiled the Spam, I poked the Spam with a spatula, I twisted a knife in it, I tore at it with a fork. The only changes to the shape of that potted meat were the ones I made directly, except for a slight bulging in the center where it became waterlogged.
I looked more closely at the recipe, to discover that the next step was to add an amount of toasted sesame oil measured in TABLESPOONS to a few cups of broth. Sesame oil is strong stuff; I’ve rarely seen it added in amounts larger than a teaspoon to anything. That amount would just create a sesame-flavored oil slick of a broth. I was not doing that.
At this point I began to realize: There was no way anyone had ever tested this recipe.
I tasted the broth. It was, basically, extremely salty water with a mild meaty flavor and a bit of fat. That’s when I started to get seriously irritated. Sosa may have tossed this recipe onto the page in a fever dream or something, but I’d paid five bucks for that can of Spam, and I was getting something out of it. I went to work, tossing in everything I could think of that might go into a nice dashi: wakame seaweed, fresh ginger root, garlic, a tiny bit of soy sauce (not much, because whoa on the salt!), a little bit of sesame oil.
Eventually, I managed to retrieve a spoonful of something tasty enough to pour on some noodles and call dinner, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
I strained the broth and tasted one of the chunks of Spam. Which tasted exactly the same as it had going in. So I tell all of you now: For goodness’ sake, if you ever buy Spam, get the low-sodium kind. Because this stuff had been boiling for HOURS, had made a pot of very salty broth, and was still a little too salty.
A few days later I took the still-flavorful Spam, added some jarred Thai red curry and a few other ingredients, and ground it up to make meatballs. When placed in the oven, they softened and melted into a puddle, so I pulled them out, let them cool, stirred in an egg and tried again. They settled into patties more than balls, but set up. Thus was another lesson learned: Egg is in meatball recipes for a reason.
Anyway, I may have lost the plot a little there, but the basic points are these:
1) I don’t recommend the cookbook “Flavor Exposed,” which is a relief, because that title is weird. It makes flavor sound like a trenchcoated flasher or something;
2) Spam is crazy salty;
3) Trust your instincts when you read a recipe – if an ingredient sounds totally out of place to you, think hard about whether the recipe makes sense and how much you trust the author (but stay open to trying new things);
4) A terrible recipe can often be saved.
On the other hand, sometimes you just need to throw it out and order pizza.