How to Spot a Bad Recipe

As a home cook who makes nearly every meal for himself, I’ve seen a lot of recipes both online and in cookbooks. These recipes can range from transcendentally delicious to damn near inedible. If you’re a new cook, it can be hard to predict the distinction, especially if you’re trying to follow a recipe that has no user ratings. While there is no definitive way to tell good recipes from bad ones, there are some clear warning signs that your next meal may launch rancid warfare on your taste buds.

The problem with most bad recipes is that they sacrifice flavor for things like time or product placement. This usually means using processed products in place of home-prepared alternatives. It’s perfectly understandable for home cooks to want to save time, but cutting corners is rarely worth it. There are plenty of great recipes out there that are also fast. If you want a good lasagna, take the time to make it right on a night when you do have time.

1. No More Canned Soups or Sauces

Why does Mary Sue Huggins from Georgetown, Texas, want you to put a can of cream of mushroom soup in your green bean casserole? She’ll tell you it’s because that’s the way her mom and grandma did it, but the truth is that she doesn’t really know any better. Creamed soups add a creamy consistency to recipes and help thicken sauces, but they’re also filled with a bunch of ingredients you probably don’t want, not to mention the substandard taste. Instead of soup, a good recipe will tell you how to make a sauce from a roux, which is just a mixture of flour and fat. It may take a little more time, but the flavor will be much better.

When it comes to sauces, there are good options available on the shelves, but there are also many culinary atrocities. Good canned or jarred sauces, however, can be expensive because of their short shelf life. A recipe that calls for a canned sauce can almost always be replaced by something homemade, leading to results that will be far more palatable.

2. No More Pre-Cooked Proteins

Ever bitten into a canned or packaged piece of fish or chicken and thought, “Wow, this is tender and full of flavor?” No you haven’t, you liar. Pre-cooked proteins are dry, bland, and can make otherwise great dishes unappetizing. Sure, beef jerky is pretty good, but if you’ve seen a recipe that has beef jerky in it, you’ve ventured further down the spiral of culinary dystopia than I have. If a recipe tells you to buy your beef, chicken, or fish in a can or cooked package, look elsewhere. There’s no telling what other horrible ideas they have hidden in the cooking techniques.

3. Beware of the Microwave

Unless you’re reading this from a college dorm room, there’s little reason for you to ever use the microwave while cooking. Folk wisdom states that microwaves kill off the valuable nutrients in your food, but that’s not really the problem. The real problem with microwaves is that they don’t offer the same flavor benefits, such as the Maillard reaction, that are delivered by other cooking methods. If you insist on using a microwave to cook your meals, cook only for yourself so no one else has to suffer.

Microwave Cookery

4. You Don’t Need to Use Acme Cheese

Placing products in recipes is one of the oldest marketing techniques for food companies. In fact, it’s probably how Mary Sue Huggin’s grandma learned how to make green bean casserole. While some of these recipes may yield decent results, there’s no reason to limit yourself to that name-brand product. Substituting real cheese for processed orange plastic is likely to improve the flavor of your dish in drastic ways. I won’t go as far as to recommend you make your own cheese because there are plenty of good products on the shelf. Just stay away from the pre-shredded bags, which contain anti-caking chemicals that can ruin the taste, texture, and meltability of otherwise good cheese.

5. Low-Fat Ingredients

There are legitimate reasons to reduce the amount of fat in your diet. A lack of a gall bladder and other digestive issues can make metabolizing large amounts of lipids unpleasant for many, but for most of us, using low-fat products results in reduced flavor and texture in pursuit of perceived health benefits that have been debunked since the 1990s or earlier. While you don’t see Snackwells cookies anymore, the grocery store is still full of low-fat mayo, low-fat yogurt, and other products that replace fat with sugar, salt, and other chemicals that aren’t necessarily better for you. Unless you have relevant health issues, I recommend staying away from recipes with these low-fat ingredients and going with one’s that use as many whole, natural ingredients as possible.

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“You Hurt My Feelings” – A Personal Reflection

After I first saw You Hurty My Feelings, I had no intention of writing a review or sharing my thoughts about the film. The Upper West Side characters felt alien to me, and I had trouble empathizing with their struggles. Overall, I enjoyed the humor, acting, and brevity but felt the experience was superficial and vain. I was wrong.

A few days after watching the film, I experienced a professional rejection that made the conflicts in Holofoener’s script especially resonant. I was let go from a writing project because, in very direct terms, I was not meeting quality standards. Despite having success with my editors and clients for some time, and in certain cases receiving glowing feedback, my current work was not cutting it. This is a painful thing to hear, and when I realized Julia Louis Dreyfus’s character, Beth, was going through the same thing when her agent rejected her new book, it made me examine the film’s themes and how I overlooked their reflections in my own life.

A professional rejection can sometimes feel like an indictment of the self, making it seem indistinguishable from a personal conflict. For many, there is considerable overlap in our creative output and interpersonal relationships. Our ability to communicate ideas makes us money and builds the fundamentals of friendships, love and family. Sometimes, we even involve our close friends and family in our creative endeavors, and we inevitably care a great deal about what they think of its quality. This magnifies the emotional impact of rejection.

In parallel with the professional rejection in You Hurt My Feelings, the main character encounters personal resentment from her grown-up son and uncovered criticism from her husband. Both forms of rejection are mirror images of each other but engender similar feelings: mostly failure and inadequacy. Without getting into details, a comparable conflict is playing out between two of my family members. Their feelings of interpersonal failure, along with my professional rejection, have made the emotional currents of the film far more poignant.

Where I think You Hurt My Feelings falls short is in its resolution. In the last few minutes, the film flashes to a year in the future to a happier family with stronger, seemingly healthier relationships. Beth’s new book is published, and she seems to be satisfied professionally again. Her husband has improved his own shortcomings at work, and the son has finally finished writing his screenplay. While these developments don’t feel fully earned, they mostly work to create a positive emotional response, which is often a requirement for drama films made in the modern era.

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Austin’s Awful Light Rail Ridership

The city of Austin’s light rail has one of the lowest ridership numbers among large cities in Texas and the United States. As of February 2023, the single route system had only 22,800 passengers per month, significantly lower than metro areas with much smaller populations, such as Tuscon, Cincinnati, and Norfolk. Figuring out why there’s such low ridership is never an exact science, but there are several factors likely preventing Austin residents from using MetroRail on a regular basis.

One factor keeping people from using the Red Line is train frequency. Times between trains range from 25 minutes in the early morning and peak commute hours to more than 35 minutes on Saturdays. There is no service on Sunday; God is resting, and so must we. Compared to Portland, where light rail trains arrive every 15 minutes during peak hours, this frequency is impractical, especially for commuters or anyone who needs to be punctual. If you miss one train, you might wait longer than 30 minutes for another. In addition, the last train out of downtown Mondays through Thursdays departs at 7:21pm, so forget about using the rail on a weeknight out or if you have to work a few hours overtime.

The next issue that makes the Red Line an impractical option is the location of stations. The route meanders through random parts of the city and makes stops in sparsely developed areas with little surrounding housing or places people would want to visit. Here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons of each station:

  • Downtown – Adjacent to the convention center and hotels, this station could serve tourists and visitors but is quite far from the city’s most popular attractions and even further from residential areas. It does connect to the bus network, which may be helpful to some.
  • Plaza Saltillo – This may be my favorite stop. It’s close to tons of great restaurants, medium-density housing, schools and parks. The station is integrated well with the surrounding area and isn’t marred by a giant parking lot. This is all thanks to a recent improvement project.
  • MLK – This station might be useful if it was a mile west. Thankfully, a few apartments popped up after the stop was built, but there is little else appealing about the surrounding area. You’ll need to hoof it in the heat to get anywhere interesting.
  • Highland – This station serves Austin Community College: Highland and a few apartments and fast food establishments. There is plenty of space for commercial development but it remains low to no-density for now.
  • Crestview – This station is adjacent to some New Urbanist-type developments and some shops and restaurants. This is the last stop northbound that has more pros than cons in my opinion.
  • Kramer – Possibly the worst station on the entire Red Line, this stop is located in an industrial area that feels deserted even in the middle of the day. Thankfully, there are plans to move the stop closer to Q2 Stadium, which can also serve The Domain, I guess.
  • Howard – This stop is basically a park and ride. To access the apartments and shops on the other side of Mopac, passengers need to cross 9 lanes of traffic and pass through a homeless encampment. Based on my casual observations, a few dozen commuters use the station daily.
  • Lakeline – The train at Lakeline station basically drops you off in the middle of the woods and expects you to walk at least a mile to get to the mall and big box stores to the west. Okay, maybe you can connect with the bus, which has a schedule that doesn’t coordinate at all with the train, so expect to wait 30 minutes or longer. It’s clearly intended only for park-and-ride commuters.
  • Leander – To get an idea of how often this park and ride in the exurbs is used, look at a satellite image. You’re lucky to find more than a few vehicles on a weekday in a parking lot designed for hundreds of vehicles.

Another issue affecting ridership on the Red Line is price. A one-way trip is $3.50 and a round-trip is $7 whether you’re going from Leander to Downtown or Crestview to Highland. For longer trips, this isn’t a big deal, but it’s certainly a consideration for riders who just want to make a quick trip. For regular riders, a commuter pass costs nearly $1,200 a year, which while cheaper than a car, comes with much greater restrictions. Considering the number of people living within walking distance of Red Line stations, a commuter pass is not a viable alternative to car ownership for most Austin residents.

The problems facing MetroRail come from a lack of investment and shortcuts. Existing freight lines were used to create the meandering route through random spots around town, and stations were built in many empty areas to avoid eminent domain conflicts. In time, development around stations may increase and improve route viability, but several stops are merely park-in-rides where dense development is either impractical or impossible.

While the current state of MetroRail is bleak, the city recently approved a plan for a new light rail line with nearly 10 miles of new track and 15 stations, including one at Austin Bergstrom International Airport. Locations for the new stops look promising; although, the route fails to reach low-income areas that the project originally aimed to include. In addition, the $4.5 billion plan, called Project Connect, has shrunk by nearly half in just a few years.

Austin Transit Partnership claims that ridership on the light rail system will increase 10-fold by 2040. If this goal is reached, Austin rail travel will be on par with current ridership figures in Kansas City and Trenton. In the meantime, funding is only approved for phase one of the project, which doesn’t include an airport station, and the conservative state legislature continues doing everything it can to kill any hope of a vibrant light rail network in the capital.

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A Useless Road in Austin

Double File Trail is a 1,000-foot road in the north end of Austin, Texas, and it may be one of the most useless stretches of pavement in the state’s capital. This two-lane road forms junctions with Wells Branch Parkway in the south and with Single Trace to the northeast. A wide, tree-lined median divides the lanes of traffic along most of the road’s length, except where two lanes become three at the junctions.

Double File Trail hugs 2800 Wells Branch Parkway, a vacant 83,000-square-foot office building with a large, wraparound parking lot that’s an ideal spot for student drivers or field hockey practice due to its wide open pavement and lack of vehicles. Double File Trail serves no other commercial, industrial or residential structures. It does not provide a viable shortcut for traffic between Single Trace and Wells Branch, and it does not practically relieve congestion in the area, which is already nonexistent. It is a useless slab of infrastructure taking up space in a medium-density residential area in desperate need of public parks and spaces.

Even if 2800 Wells Branch Parkway was a bustling office building with hundreds of cars entering and exiting the property daily, Double File Trail would offer little to the commuters. The northbound road may provide slightly easier entry to drivers coming west on Wells Branch Parkway, but access points along Single Trace and Wells Branch provide plenty of access for drivers coming from every other direction. The southbound lane is totally useless for anyone trying to access 2800 Wells Branch and offers a meager one or two-second shortcut for those passing by.

It’s difficult to discern the reason for constructing Double File Trail in the first place, but it’s clear now that this useless road is a blight on the community. Not only does the infrastructure look ugly and prevent more public green space, but it also costs the community a lot of money in upkeep. Winter storms in 2021, 2022 and 2023 caused significant damage to the road surface, resulting in extensive repairs that likely cost the city tens of thousands of dollars. Despite these problems, the community is unlikely to be aware or concerned. The road doesn’t have much effect on residential traffic and can mostly be ignored.

Despite the unobtrusive nature of Double Fine Trail, there is value in razing the asphalt and pavement and replacing it with natural space or a public park. The area could contain basketball and tennis courts, a dog park, a public playground, community facilities or other concepts brought forward by the public. Some kind of complement or extension to the public gardens across the street would also be beneficial. Families from the adjacent elementary school could find the space very appealing.

The first step in this process is to inform Wells Branch MUD and the City of Austin as well as the public at large. Potential excitement for the project is expected to be subdued at best, as the impact on daily quality of life may be perceived as limited. That’s why awareness efforts should be targeted at nearby apartment complexes, businesses and the elementary school. The owner of 2800 Wells Branch could be a very powerful ally, as beautifying the nearby space could attract lucrative tenants.

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