Fail, fail, fail: Make mistakes not apologies

Published on Wednesday, 21 May 2014 00:32 - Written by Christine Gardner,

“No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” — Julia Child

here are good meals, bad meals and sometimes we just need to eat. But when we do put effort into cooking we hope that the efforts will be worth the time, money and ,thought that goes into it.

Honestly, it’s a concern I have every week. When I write a recipe, are all of the ingredients listed correctly? Do the directions include all steps and make sen-se to all levels of cooks? Is this something people will want to eat and cook? Will spending money on ingredients, especially if it is something new, be worth it?

It’s a lot to notice and think about. And if every Wednesday wasn’t hard enough, when the “Favorite Flavor” cookbook was coming together the endless proofreading — by me, other editors, friends and designers — was a painstaking processes.

It had to be perfect and several sets of eyes, weeks of reading, rereading and correcting yielded a wonderfully clean, approachable, easy-to-follow cookbook.

But a funny thing happened last week. I cooked a couple of recipes from the book and also the recipe from last week’s FRESH Ideas segment and they did not work.

But it wasn’t because of flaws in the recipe, it was user error. I did not follow instructions and was in a hurry. It happens to all of us and each time is frustrating.

How in the world could you mistake salt for sugar? Why wouldn’t you cook the potatoes earlier in the day so the potato salad has enough time to chill? Shouldn’t puff pastry be baked before you spread cheese and ingredients over it? (Duh, otherwise it won’t puff.)

So the first thing happened to some newlyweds I know who are learning together how to navigate the kitchen. They were making a Chinese dish and added 1/2 cup of salt to the sauce instead of 1/2 cup of sugar. The resulting dish tasted like poison.

But the wife managed to salvage part of the meal by rinsing the meat and the next day she tried the recipe again, with the correct ingredients, and it was fantastic.

The other two things were my own mistakes. My Noonday Onion Tart had a deflated crust that was raw and mushy in the middle. And my potato salad was made in a hurry so the potatoes were too warm and the flavor from the other ingredients didn’t have time to soak into the potatoes.

When I make repeated mistakes in the kitchen I often revert back to what is safe. What can I cook that I know I won’t mess up?

So last night I made a salad, roasted chicken, and a dessert using a premade pound cake from the bakery.

Fail, fail, fail.

The salad dressing was too tart because I added a squeeze of lemon juice, the chicken juices were overflowing out of the pan and slopped over the table while trying to carve, and the blueberry sauce I made for the pound cake was too tart.

All of these issues could have been avoided, but I got in a hurry.

I should have tasted the salad dressing and added more oil to balance the lemon. For the chicken, I should have siphoned out some of the pan juices before bringing it to the table. For the sauce, if I had tasted it on the stove, adjustments could have been made.

Whatever you are making, while you are making it – taste, taste, taste. Is there too much salt, does it need more, do the flavors combine well?

Figure out the answer to these questions in the kitchen instead of fretting over them at the table in front of family and guests. Stop rushing to get dinner on the table and make a few adjustments in the kitchen to make sure the flavor is right.

The nature of the kitchen makes it full of unforeseen variables and in cooking as in life, we learn from mistakes. Perfection is rarely achieved, but a thoughtful process can make up for mistakes made.

It happens to the best of us. And we just have to keep trying. Julia Child started out as a terrible cook and didn’t begin to master anything – even chopping an onion – until she was almost 40 years old.

Tonight at the dinner table after the chicken juices had spilled out all over the table I tried very hard to remind myself of the WWJS (What Would Julia Say) quotes that often run across.

She actually had a lot to say on the subject and these are wise words for all of us.

My words will never be as wise as Julia, but I like to encourage people to keep trying, learn from mistakes, and change recipes to fit their individual taste.

A recipe is not the gospel. Try it as it’s written and then adapt it to a way that works best for you.

But really, listen to Julia. Her advice is timeless. Here are a few of my favorites.

“We ate the lunch with painful politeness and avoided discussing its taste. I made sure not to apologize for it. This was a rule of mine. I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make.”

“Usually one’s cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is vile then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile and learn from her mistakes.”

“I would far prefer to have things happen as they naturally do, such as the mousse refusing to leave the mold, the potatoes sticking to the skillet, the apple Charlotte slowly collapsing. One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if you can, and bear with it if you cannot,”

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”