Easy Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Physicists frequently get laughed at for referring to problems as “trivial” when calculus is required to solve them. “Maybe it’s trivial for you, Einstein,” people will say, “but it looks pretty hard from here.”

It’s nice to see that other fields are prone to the same sort of thing. Take, for example, this list of recipes from the Guardian, which they claim is a list of the “all-time quickest and simplest summer dishes” submitted by foodies and noted chefs.

Some of them live up to that billing, like this entry from Mark Bittman:

69. Steamed asparagus wrapped in prosciutto

That’s the recipe.

Others, though…

22. Best crab cakes

In a frying pan, sweat a spoonful of a finely chopped shallot in a little butter. Add a minced jalapeño pepper until soft and add into 300g of carefully picked-through fresh lump crab meat. Add freshly chopped dill and enough of a well-beaten egg white so it holds together, then a little cornflour so it stiffens. Season with sea salt, form into a thick patty, roll in breadcrumbs, and fry in a little hot olive oil. (Serve with corn on the cob and green salad, above.)

(from Suzanne Pirret, a food writer I’ve never heard of)

That sounds pretty tasty, but “quick and easy”? Not so much. Just the carefully picking through of the crab meat is going to take longer than what I would consider “easy.”

But then, I’m just a physicist.


  1. #1 Janne
    July 25, 2009

    By pure chance I just posted my favourite summer dish recipe, chilled eggplant. That really is easy; it had better be as I’m not much of a cook. Find it here: http://janneinosaka.blogspot.com/2009/07/chilled-eggplant.html

  2. #2 Johan Larson
    July 25, 2009

    Note also that the crab cake recipe leaves out quite a bit. For example, it doesn’t spell out how much dill to add. A teaspoon? A tablespoon? Even more? Ditto for the salt. But getting either of those wrong would easily ruin the dish.

    They are assuming the reader already knows basic cooking technique and will therefore do something reasonable, or at worst will make appropriate adjustments the next time around.

    The same recipe written for complete neophytes would take pages and pages, since it would need to carefully describe how to tell whether the patty is too firm or too loose, how to fix either problem, how to tell when the patty is done in the frying pan, and other utterly fascinating things.

  3. #3 Peter
    July 25, 2009

    I think the assumption in the recipe is that of course you would already have the crab meat prepared. I mean, when it’s in season doesn’t everyone have a bit put by?
    The interestingly confusing bit of the recipe to me is the bit where after sweating the shallot and pepper, the rest of the recipe takes place in a mixing bowl before going back to the skillet at the end… But it appears like the whole thing is done in the frying pan…
    (as far as the measurements, in my experience dill is added as a “dusting,” and of course salt is always added as a “pinch.” (Williams & sonoma have calibrated spoons for this.))

  4. #4 Uncle Al
    July 25, 2009

    A real man wraps asparagus in bacon and fries it. Use a couple of wooden toothpics to secure the bacon. Prosciutto is magnificently dehydrated ham. Steamed prosciutto? Wuck.

  5. #5 Matt Springer
    July 25, 2009

    I have a family recipe for something similar to the first, except it’s green beans and bacon. And since it’s a southern family, there’s also large quantities of butter and brown sugar. It’s really good. It’s not quick though, and while not difficult it’s not completely easy either.

  6. #6 Chad
    July 25, 2009

    Al, the prosciutto isn’t steamed. You steam the asparagus then wrap it with the prosciutto and serve.

  7. #7 onymous
    July 25, 2009

    Steamed prosciutto? Wuck.

    This really beautifully illustrates the point of the post. I would have thought “steamed asparagus wrapped in prosciutto” to be as clear as it gets.

  8. #8 Lab Rat
    July 26, 2009

    It’s not just cookery and physics, *every* discipline is guilty of this. I was trying to explain BioBrinks (which I’m working with in synthetic biology at the moment) to a history-student friend and ended up having to explain what genes were and the basics of DNA expression.

  9. #9 milkshake
    July 26, 2009

    (steamed asparagus)wrapped in prosciutto > steamed(asparagus wrapped in prosciutto)

    yeah, non-abelian summer dishes are hardly trivial

  10. #10 MadGastronomer
    July 26, 2009

    If the prosciutto were to be steamed, it would be more likely to be titled “Steamed Prosciutto-wrapped Asparagus”. But I think it should be roasted, anyway, not steamed, in which case you can totally wrap it before cooking and crisp the prosciutto. Nom.

    And the crab-cake recipe is just badly written, not difficult.

  11. #11 Chad Orzel
    July 26, 2009

    And the crab-cake recipe is just badly written, not difficult.

    I don’t doubt that it’s easy as crab-cake recipes go. But my mental image of “quick and easy” is something that I could imagine whipping up after work some day, and it’s definitely not that.

  12. #12 CCPhysicist
    July 26, 2009

    My view of #22 is that it would make a much better winter recipe. But, of course, summer in Britain is a lot like winter in some other places.

    You see, even where I grew up in the upper midwest, summer dishes meant something that would not make you sweat in the kitchen when it was 90F outside and NO air conditioning. Cold cuts with Potato salad was OK because you could boil the potatoes in the cool of the morning and prepare the rest later. Steaming asparagus would be OK. Recipe #2 is even better. Cold and quick. And watermelon with feta cheese at #7? That sounds really good.

    But the cook would be sweating along with the shallots unless you had a servant to do all that chopping around a hot frying pan. Ditto for any recipe that requires slow roasting in an OVEN, like #2.

    And the recipe? That same food writer is not a recipe writer. Look at #14. You can even roast that ear of corn on a grill outside, but her recipe only calls for A ear of corn!

  13. #13 MadGastronomer
    July 26, 2009

    I don’t doubt that it’s easy as crab-cake recipes go. But my mental image of “quick and easy” is something that I could imagine whipping up after work some day, and it’s definitely not that.

    I dunno, it’s honestly only about 15 minutes worth of work. As someone noted, not something you want to do when it’s too hot to turn on the stove, but it’s not as time-consuming as it sounds, when you’ve got the knife skills (or a buffalo chopper). Even going through the crab is more like poking clean fingers into it and feeling around to check for shell than examining every piece. 1 minutes to dice shallot, 2 for the jalapeno, go through the crab while they’re softening, dump them in a bowl, whip up the egg white, and go. I might do it after work, as long as I haven’t been making crab cakes at work that day.

  14. #14 Kaleberg
    July 26, 2009

    When you know how to do something it is easy to regard it as trivial. One of the nice things about having dabbled in a number of fields it that one gets to see how things become trivial with experience and practice. I’ll never forget the sheer horror of my first TCAM call under OS/360 and a few weeks later throwing together an entire language subsystem. (If you’ve never programmed under OS/360 you have never experienced sheer programming horror.)

    Cooking is like that too. Experience makes a huge difference. As noted, picking over the crab meat for bits of shell is just like checking a bag of beans for small stones and of even less consequence, but the first time you dump out a batch of expensive crab meat it can seem daunting, and the sheer price tag adds to the anxiety. Did you wash it too little or too much? Should the meat shred like that when you mix it? How do you get egg white? Most eggs have both white and yolk, even white eggs. How important is it to separate the white and yolk? How can you tell if you’ve added enough white for cohesion? Once you’ve cooked it, you’ll know, but how can you tell beforehand? Let’s not even talk about corn starch. Corn starch is impossible to pour and while it looks like a powder, it doesn’t behave like a proper one. It forms cakes and cracks, then blows away like dust, and it has the strange ability to mix with water and then become impossible to dissolve.

    Try reading a sewing or auto mechanics blog to feel really incompetent. It will make you yearn for the simple comforts of advanced physics.

  15. #15 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 27, 2009

    “Proof left to the reader.”

  16. #16 Gray Gaffer
    July 27, 2009

    A pinch of this, a dash of that, season ‘to taste’. How many tsps in a pinch or a dash? what do I use to measure them with? Whose taste? Mine I destroyed with many years of smoking.

    From time to time I get called upon to educate somebody on some aspect of a program I wrote or am writing. Doing this kind of thing has proven invaluable every time in helping me structure my thoughts and validate – or otherwise – the trains of thought involved. Where some step is so easy to me I do not even notice it as I scream on by, they OTOH come to a screeching halt. Not that it is difficult per se, it is more that those little steps, or those easy processes, are easy only because they exist in a vast contextual awareness of the problem domain. And communication is inextricably entwined with context, it is how we can compress our exchanges so they take finitely manageable time to complete. There is a truism I learned whilst designing datacomm protocols, that there is an inverse relationship between how much context the listener already shares with the talker and how much data is required to communicate some quantum of information. Which seems to cross domains from data compression into the universe of human discourse quite well.

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