Recently the multi-talented musician and writer Kerry Politzer began a new blog called Cooking Whoops, dedicated to some of her less successful moments in the kitchen. Landing on this engaging blog, I began to reflect on some of my own now-long history of cooking challenges. I waffle back and forth about whether to call them “failures,” as in most cases I learned something significant that in turn. Sometimes I had to screw up repeatedly for a lesson to get through, while on other occasions the failures have been so spectacular as to inspire deep “I’m never doing that again” sorts of reflection. In most cases, therefore, I look back with some affection at these experiences, as they have helped to shape whatever kitchen competence I may now presume to have. In fact, I often view the kitchen as much as a laboratory as anything . . . though, as you’ll soon read, I’ve discovered that this view is only appropriate if I’ve properly assessed the needs of my test subjects.
As such, this entry begins a series of posts about different sorts of kitchen calamities and the corresponding lessons, a series that is presumably finite in that hopefully I will eventually run out of memories of compromised and/or inedible meals I have produced (so far, the memories keep coming). In honor of the forthcoming holiday season, this first entry focuses on two meals that helped me learn how not to cook for a special event.
On a night we were hosting a small potluck dinner party maybe 10 years ago, I decided to make a grain salad in the vein of tabouli. Using a different cooked grain seemed like a great idea, so why not millet? Millet is very nutritious and, in my opinion, very tasty – I eat it for breakfast several times a week. One of the reasons I eat it for breakfast, though, is because it’s so easy to turn it into porridge (lately I’ve been mixing it with grits or oats or other breakfasty cooked grains). The cooking instructions I now use for millet in non-breakfast contexts caution against using too much water, lamenting that most cookbooks (including, for the dramatic ironists among you, any cookbooks I owned at the time) instruct you in a manner that results in mush
So I dutifully mixed the cooked grain with herbs, lemon juice and vegetables, as I would with any grain salad, and put it in the fridge to chill . . . and then when guests arrived I unveiled the brick into which the millet had congealed. They were polite, and thank goodness a) it wasn’t it was a potluck so at least there was something satisfying to eat that evening.
Lesson: When cooking for a crowd, take caution before trying something new/experimental/unproven.
My wife Kate’s grandmother passed away this fall, finally liberated after a long and debilitating battle with senile dementia, and the occasion got me reminiscing, including the revisiting of an educational cooking night I had on an evening in 1999 when she was entrusted to my care.
I had the whole evening to spend with Jayne and feeding her dinner was part of the deal. I decided to make my first attempt at baking quiche, and I found a recipe from a reliable cookbook (Mollie Katzen’s Enchanted Broccoli Forest, a recipe that has since served us quite well for years) and came up with two different fillings. As I worked and Jayne sat nearby, we chatted about nothing in particular and I offered her updates about how the food preparation was going. She couldn’t really see or otherwise tell what was going on, so she was relying on these updates to be in the loop of the meal’s progress. Things were running a bit behind by the time I got the quiches in the oven, but it was still not too late to serve dinner at a reasonable hour. I gave her a snack and she continued to express her eagerness to taste this concoction into which I had put so much time and effort. The timer went off and I checked the quiches, and they were essentially still liquid. Hmm, I thought, putting them back in the oven for another ten minutes. And then another ten and so on. Eventually they reached the point where they were no longer liquefied, just way-too-jiggly-to-eat. By this point it was past 8:00 and before I began to cook, I had been expecting to feed Jayne at 6:30. At that point I realized that drastic and quick measures were called for, so I rifled through our freezer, finding a low-fat veggie burger (slogan: “It’s like rubber, but saltier!”) and sticking it in the microwave. At about 8:20 I served her this veggie burger, cut up and dabbed with ketchup. As she ate and the quiches continued to bake I apologized repeatedly for the fact that the meal had not turned out as planned and that she had to wait so long. Though her illness had taken much away, she had retained a concern for others that led her to continually reassure me that it was fine and that, in fact, the dinner was delicious. Or maybe she really did enjoy it and didn’t perceive that it wasn’t quiche. In any case, the quiche eventually baked to the point where it set, and it was quite tasty, but I was pretty humbled by the whole experience.
Lesson: Don’t try a new recipe when you have a strict dining time to adhere to.