It occurred to me the other night – as I frantically scoured out one of my favorite saucepans while flapping at the smoke alarm with a tea towel – that things in the kitchen don’t always go to plan.
What had gone wrong? Well, I had been making mashed potatoes for myself in my new favorite manner, which is to simmer them in a bit of milk, and then use that milk for the mashing liquid. It takes a bit longer for the potatoes to cook but you lose none of the potato flavor to water, and you’ve already got hot potato-rich milk for the mashing. Add butter, and it’s a great no-draining method for mash just so long as you don’t get distracted by the TV as they’re simmering.
Which, of course, I did.
It was a disaster. The milk boiled away, the potatoes caught, and instead of spending the evening happily shoveling bowlfuls of buttery carbs down my gullet, I spent the evening in a mournfully carb-free upper body workout. The pan may eventually have been rescued but my supper was not.
On the bright side, I wasn’t cooking for company.
Still, it did get me thinking about kitchen disasters and whether or not they befell only me. A quick survey of my friends, family, and fellow foodies confirmed (to my pleasure, I must confess) that I was far from being the only kitchen klutz or gastronomic goober in the world. People responded with a wide variety of epicurean errors and baking breakdowns.
- On the baking front, challah bread seemed to be particularly perilous. I have only ever assisted in the making of challah – last year when my beautiful friend Pamela came to visit. She produced a perfect, and perfectly delicious loaf, but I remain convinced to this day that the Old Testament (including the begats) can be read in the time it takes to make a challah.
- On the cooking side, chicken and turkey stocks and gravies proved to be near-constant sources of sadness.
So as the holiday season is falling fast upon us with the many dinner parties it brings, I thought I’d share my thoughts on kitchen disasters; how to hopefully prevent them, and failing that, how to cope when they do befall you. In most instances I speak from sad experience, so believe me when I tell you that the first rule is to never be far from a glass of wine. Or three.
So what are the main causes of preventable kitchen disasters?
First, last and almost always – preparation, or lack thereof. Not so long ago some jackass coined the phrase “To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail”. While I believe the smug git responsible for that little chestnut should be treated much as we treat chestnuts traditionally this time of year, he does have something of a point. If you know you have a dinner party coming up – particularly the Big T or C, then act like it. Get yourself ready prepped ahead in enough time so that on “game day”, all you have to do is cook.
Top Prep Tips
SHOPPING. Get your shopping done the day before (or whenever before, depending on what you’re shopping for), your cleaning done, EVERYTHING done, so you can march into that kitchen loaded for bear. (If you’re cooking bear- it ain’t illegal everywhere- get your hunting done the day before.) You don’t want to be running out to the shops in the middle of cooking something, even if it is a 3 hour turkey. You might get caught in a traffic jam, or a hostage situation. “Can we move it along? My bird’s getting dry” is probably not the best gambit when facing a member of ISIS.
RECIPES. Some are good, and some are bad. So read the recipe, then read the dang thing again before you start in. Why? Because recipes can be bad for a great many reasons, the worst of which is the booby-trap. The booby trap is that little all-important nugget in a recipe that catches you out, and even makes you believe the author may be setting you up for failure. Let me give you a classic example:
See? So read the recipe through carefully, then, if it calls for leeks that have been cleaned, julienned, and flambéed, cook something else.
Conversely, sometimes you need to trust the recipe. Do not, as I once did, blithely assume that in a recipe for stuffing one could replace cornbread with wholemeal bread. I don’t like to talk about it. Suffice to say that the end result looked and tasted like a by-product of fracking.
TIME. It’s been said over and over, but I’ll say it again. Take your time! Cook as much as you can in advance and take plenty of breaks. Bake the pie, have a glass of wine. Make the compote, have a snifter of port. Stuff the bird, sniff some snuff. It’s all about pacing yourself. Most importantly, make sure you have the time to take a nice long shower. Even if the dinner doesn’t smell good, you should.
CLEAN & DRY. By which I mean your kitchen floor. Make sure that floor is clean and dry before you start in with the cooking, and don’t let any guests with their outdoor shoes in. You never know what might hit that floor later. Trust me.
HOT. By which I mean your oven. A big dinner party is not the time to stop using your oven as a storage facility. Make sure it works and check how it’s working before you start cooking. This is important even if you used it only two months ago. Give it a test run. If it’s got crazy hot and cold spots, then maybe souffles should not be on the menu. Or if it’s anything like mine (as I recently discovered while cooking for a dinner party), and turns itself off as soon as it’s hit the requested heat, baking of any sort may also be off the table as you would have to be constantly pinging the dang thing back on. So before you find yourself frantically Googling “How To Spatchcock And Grill A 16lb Stuffed Turkey“, makes sure your oven is up to the job.
TASTE. I mean it. Taste almost everything as you go. It’s absolutely the only way to catch something going wrong before it’s too late. It’s also the only way you’ll enjoy the meal you’re preparing since as by the time it’s ready to serve up, you won’t be able to stand the sight of it. The only thing you shouldn’t taste is a roast potato as it comes out of the oven. Any hopes for delivering little bon mots along with the bon-bons will be instantly burnt away. Do, however, make sure you taste the wine. Early and often.
PUT A LID ON IT. Just like the Porsche, there is no substitute for your blender lid. So find it first. Especially if, like I once attempted, you’re making zucchini soup. Try to improvise, and you’ll wind up with a kitchen only HR Giger could love.
MENUS. Of course if you’ll be serving a three course menu with accompanying side dishes, you must make sure that all courses and accompanying side dishes balance and follow each other in a seamless culinary cataract of taste and texture. But for the love of God, DON’T print the menu up and leave copies at place settings. However fancy the dinner, this is a meal in your home, not Baked Alaska Night on the QEII. A printed menu is a written contract, and leaves you absolutely no wiggle room for substituting, say, green beans for petit pois as a side dish, or pizza from Domino’s for the beef bourguignon.
BACKUP. Always have backup. Your heart may be set on making your gravy from the stock you’ve had simmering on the stove, but should you accidentally pour that stock down the sink (which can happen), you’ll want some chicken stock cubes stashed discretely in your cupboard. Similarly, your Hollandaise may go wrong on you. Now I’ve long been a disciple of the “Pour It Through A Strainer And Call It Something Else” school of culinary cover-ups but some sauces simply cannot be rescued so having a jar of commercially produced stuff to hand is no bad idea. A squeeze of lemon juice, a bit more tarragon, and who’s to know?
If you happen to not be single, utilising your partner as host to keep guests entertained/merry/the hell away from you is an excellent and in fact crucial backup. If you are single, then invite one friend early to provide the same said service. Menus for good local takeaways are also a good Plan B if need be, as is keeping the back door unlocked and downloading the Uber app, ya get me?
So those are my thoughts on preventing kitchen disasters, or at least preparing for them. But what do you do when something does go horribly wrong? First, ask yourself this question: Were there any witnesses?
In this age of “open plan living”, you may be in something of a pickle (though by now, you should be at least mildly pickled yourself). But if not, then “plausible deniability” is the order of the day. If so – well, even if you are faced with a kitchen that faces everyone else, all may not be lost. After all, your spouse/accomplice should be keeping your guests’ attention well away from you. And anyway, it’s only a truly sadistic dinner guest who wants to watch you cook. (I know this to be true because I’m one of them.)
So what can go wrong? Well to my mind there are 4 major culinary catastrophes that can still befall you.
Culinary Catastrophe Categories
DROP IT LIKE IT’S HOT. Those last few minutes before serving up can really make you a butterfingers, especially if there’s actual butter involved. So should you find yourself accidentally dropping a pie/pork chop/ $200 standing rib roast on the kitchen floor, now is not the time to bellow “FIVE SECOND RULE!!” Instead, aim for a graceful plié to the floor to retrieve said comestible, best accompanied by a tinkly laugh as you swing back up again. (You should probably practice said tinkly laugh ahead of time, not to mention the plié.)
In a similar vein, should something on your stove top actually catch fire due to, say, a misplaced oven mitt or the like (I have lost many an oven mitt this way), do not panic. Simply toss the flaming object into the sink and douse it (presumably with that turkey stock), while merrily declaiming, “I’m just flambeing the leeks!” This also applies if it’s you that has caught fire, which would be another good time to utilise that tinkly laugh you’ve been rehearsing.
ALL CHOKED UP. Despite your most vigilant efforts, you may still produce a dish that is basically inedible. This usually happens for one of four reasons:
- Too much salt
- Too much chili
- You over cooked it
- It’s still alive
Whatever the reason, now is the time for your spouse/stooge to swing into action. Should they survive their first mouthful, they must instantly exclaim “Gee these ghost chili potatoes/kale/raw offal are to die for!” while grabbing the serving dish and shoveling its entire contents onto their own plate. You may wish to have a prearranged signal set up for this eventuality, such as a light cough, or spearing their hand with your fork.
THE BAD APPLE. This is by far the worst disaster that can befall you as a dinner party cook. And what is the Bad Apple? Quite simply, a guest. Not just any guest, but the guest who arrives, and while taking off their coat blithely mentions they’ve just turned vegan/Ayurvedic/kosher. The bad apple is
- the guest who will inquire as to whether or not the eggs in your nog are free range or your cumin seeds are organic
- the guest who will spend a roast beef dinner talking about all the wonderful work Temple Grandin did with industrial scale abattoirs
- the guest who will tell you that your sauce vierge is historically incorrect
- the guest who just flat-out says “Pass the water, that turkey is DRY.”
You can’t really prepare for a Bad Apple. You know your friends and most probably you know how they behave around food, so you either invite them or you don’t. The Bad Apple is almost always the previously un-met partner/cousin from out of town/unloved colleague that the vagaries of the holiday season land in your lap.
So what do you do? There’s no point addressing rudeness, even if they’re quite right and your aspic does taste like ass. So you have two options. You can either A) sail past each rude remark with that tinkly laugh of yours (you rehearsed it, so you might as well), and change the topic every time they open their mouths to speak, or you can B) slip them a Mickey Finn. Or your partner/ partner in crime could swing into action once more, and C) take them out back and bludgeon them. It’s unlikely they’ll be missed.
THE MORNING AFTER. This final kitchen catastrophe comes not before or even during dinner – but usually by phone the next day. That’s when you get calls or messages about how “We had a such a lovely time last night, but Enid and I are feeling just a tad off today. Enid would thank you herself but I can’t peel her off the toilet seat.”
Now you may be feeling equally unwell. You may in fact have been hospitalized. But by no means should you accept responsibility for what your friends may now be treating as an outbreak of Ebola. Now is the time to blame something – anything – you bought, rather than anything you cooked. Remark that you always thought there was something sinister about the manufacturing process of candy corn, but somebody had insisted. If necessary, brazen it out and declare yourself to be as fit as a fiddle. Be seen around town doing sporty things or eating out, daring to wear pale skirts or trousers. Yes, you may have to drive to another town under the cover of night to purchase enough Immodium to carry off this ruse – just make sure you know where every rest stop is on the way.
So there we have it. If things go wrong in the kitchen, and at some point in your culinary life they most certainly will, try to keep a level head. And if after your dinner party is over, and things really didn’t go to plan, ask yourself the following:
- Is Your house still standing?
- Was there a body count?
- Did it make the news?
- Were you/any of your guests secretly hoping to lose weight this holiday season?
Then finish off that wine and remember
- you are probably not Mary Mallon, the Irish cook who at the turn of the last century became celebrated (well, not exactly celebrated) as Typhoid Mary.
- Nor are you the proprietor of the Purity Distillery Company, whose improper storage of 2.3 million gallons of molasses lead directly to the Great Boston Molassacre of 1919, which killed 21 people and took six months to clean up.
I bet you got your kitchen looking good as new in far less time than that. I hope I’ve been of some help. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I smell something burning …