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Look between the lines of a recipe

Recommendations are risky propositions: so many variables between my likes and yours.

With that said, I absolutely love Old World Deli's potato salad here in Corvallis — both for what it is and what it isn't. On the surface, it's a humble preparation consisting of a mere eight ingredients: potato, celery, onion, hard-cooked egg, black olive, salt, pepper and mayonnaise. A classic all-American production — on the surface.

But after talking with chef-owner Ted Cox about his wife Veronica's creation, it's clear that each one of those ingredients — and the method in which they're assembled — was thoughtfully formulated to produce a subtle yet flavorful offering. The Coxes are talented cooks who understand the power of good food prepared mindfully.

This dish isn't an overstatement. It's the "little black dress" of potato salads. In fact, it was a brave and confident cook who put such an unassuming preparation on the deli's lineup instead of something more robust and, well, mustardy.

The ingredients are basic and few. Most potato salads call for "new" potatoes, which are a waxy variety that retain a firm texture after cooking. But this one is made with russets ("baking potatoes"), which have great potato flavor but fall apart if not handled properly.

When I talked with Ted about the salad, he admitted there's nothing fancy about it.

"It's all about salt management," he stressed. "Too little, and the flavor just won't develop. Too much, and you're screwed." His explanation underpins an essential culinary fact: Even the most simple recipe can derail a cook. Fabulous one time, completely flat the next — for no apparent reason, until you backtrack and examine your ingredients and execution.

On any given shopping excursion, you have to choose between good and lesser foods. Everyone knows that local, vine-ripened tomatoes are going to bring far more flavor and juicy texture to a salad than out-of-season imports; that real cheese and sour cream outshine their no-fat impersonators; and that if the fishmonger hems and haws when you ask if the salmon is wild or farmed, you should opt for lamb.

Sometimes using the lesser is perfectly OK. But the simpler a recipe, the more essential are good ingredients and thoughtful preparation. Death by a thousand cuts — that's basically what happens to a wonderful recipe when a cook begins to compromise on ingredients and execution.

One evening, I was reprising a chicken-stew recipe that I had created a few weeks prior. The first go-around had culminated in a delightful dish, something to be admired for its richness of flavor and ease of preparation.

But the second run-through wasn't hitting the mark. It lacked "something." Not until I remembered that the original version had simmered with a slice of fresh lemon was I able to put my finger on the missing layer of flavor. I easily remedied the situation by adding a bit of grated lemon zest and squeeze of fresh lemon. Different approach, same result.

And it drives home my belief that cooks need to develop an intuitive nature for what they're cooking. In the chicken-stew creation, for example, when I finalized the recipe, I had to pay careful attention to every ingredient. Even then, I wasn't sure it was a recipe that should end up in my column because even if I could fine-tune directions down to the very last teaspoon of shredded ginger, it was particularly fraught with variables capable of undermining another cook's chance for success: the quality of the chicken broth, the potency of the ginger root, the style of the chili-garlic paste, to name just a few.

In other words, the most critical ingredient in many dishes may well be the cook's intuition. Yet, armed with that and a little knowledge, one is able to look between the lines of a recipe, interpret what the creator was aiming for and even take it to another level.

Sort of like that humble, little salad at Old World Deli.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.