What Makes a Perfect Recipe?

What Makes a Perfect Recipe?

What Makes a Perfect Recipe? 1240 775 Alison Ashton

Every time I make these pickled red onions – and I make them often because we always want a jar on hand in the fridge — I think, “Damn, this is a perfect recipe.”

It’s from Danny Trejo’s fab 2020 cookbook Trejo’s Tacos, and there’s a lot to love about his book, namely, the recipes work really well in a home kitchen. That’s not always the case with cookbooks based on restaurants, but you can tell Trejo’s team worked hard to ensure the food from their restaurants translates to recipes intended for home cooks.

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Maybe that’s because Trejo remembers what it was like for his own mom cooking for their family when he was growing up. “I can remember her planning meals,” he told me. “She’d have these great meals at the first of the month, but going close to the end of the month, when money was running out, we’d have Out of the Cupboard this or Suck It Up and Eat It that. She was inventive!”

So why do I think this is a “perfect recipe”?

The sum is greater than its parts. This recipe is just a handful of ingredients and a low-skill technique that consistently yields great results. I’m all for a recipe that yields a delicious reward with a minimal investment of time, skill and/or ingredients. If it’s impressive, even better!

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It’s flexible. If I discover I’m out of apple cider vinegar, I can sub white wine or red wine vinegar (the latter makes the onions even more magenta) or rice vinegar or even plain ole distilled white vinegar. I’ve used this brine to quick pickle shallots, jalapeños and radishes — sometimes separately, sometimes all together. A recipe that inspires more creativity in the kitchen is a winner.

There are no extraneous ingredients. I don’t mind a long ingredient list or even ingredients that take some work to track down. But if you’re going to throw me a long list stuff, every single item better pull its weight. I’ve made many versions of pickled red onions – they’re a popular component in many cookbooks these days – with a lot more ingredients. None of them trumps this straightforward combo.

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When a recipe checks all those boxes, I’m thrilled. If it’s also mindful of the challenges of real-world cooking in a home kitchen, even better. That means the author considers cleanup, too, by minimizing the bowls, pots and pans needed. Like most home cooks, I also the chief dishwasher and anything I can do to cut back on that chore is a bonus.

But here’s the rub: “Simple” recipes are deceptively easy to create.

Years ago, I worked at Cooking Light magazine, and one of the most popular columns was Superfast recipes that could be done in 20 minutes, start to finish. Readers loved those — who doesn’t love the idea of getting a delicious dinner on the table?

They also were the most challenging to develop. Ingredient lists and techniques have to be smart for speedy recipes to really sing. Creating a five-ingredient recipe that’s easy to make and delicious, too? That’s hard, so I’m always impressed when anyone pulls it off. Trejo pulls off the perfect recipe with this one.


Pickled Red Onions

1 medium red onion
½ cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tsp kosher salt

1. Cut the onion in half, and then thinly slice it either into half-moons or vertically. Place it in a medium heatproof bowl or a 2- to 3-cup heatproof glass jar.

2. Combine the vinegar and remaining ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, swirling the pan occasionally. Cook just until the sugar and salt dissolve. Pour over the onions. Cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate up to 2 weeks.

Makes 1 pint.

Adapted from Trejo’s Tacos by Danny Trejo and Larchmont Hospitality Group LLC (Clarkson Potter).