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Cooking Blunders: Whatever Do You Mean?
by Marjorie Dorfman

What happens when your meatballs have lumps where there should only be meat? Eat them anyway and enjoy a change of attitude about cooking boo-boos!

Rodney Dangerfield once said that he could always locate his wife’s meatloaf because it "glowed in the dark." He claimed that her cooking was so bad that all the flies hanging around the house chipped in to buy a new screen. I know what you’re thinking. No one could really cook that badly, could they? Well, probably not, but mistakes can happen to anybody and it’s how they are handled that determine the successful outcome of any meal.

On the Cooking channel, I have often heard it said that one should never make excuses for the way any dish turns out. Pretend that casserole was supposed to have that hump in the middle or that strange looking appendage dangling over the side. Don’t apologize; just set the table, serve the disaster and dig in. The problem is that sometimes it’s difficult to cover up, especially when the mistake is obvious. For example, spaghetti must never turn out purple, no matter what. If Junior gets into the food coloring, serve the pasta to your guests along with sunglasses and prisms provided as part of each table setting. Improvise. Make a joke. Your child did with the food coloring. So can you. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

It is important, however, to re-trace your steps and understand the error of your ways so that you do not repeat the mistake. (Purple spaghetti might work once, but never twice.) Some errors are those of omission while others fall into the category of commission. Either can result in disaster, as my next example will illustrate. These days pressure cookers are safe and easy to use, but fifteen years ago I was convinced they were really secret weapons invented by the KGB to make Americans look stupid. One day I was making some peas and the rubber ring around the lid wasn’t secured as tightly as it should have been. I was in a hurry as I recall, but in the end that made no difference. As soon as the water began to boil the ring broke, the lid blew off and most of the peas ended up on my ceiling. (It took several days to scrape them all off and I’ve never felt the same way about green vegetables ever since.)

I can speak of yet another classic error of culinary commission that happened to an unfortunate young man who used to live in my building when I resided in New York City. He worked as a waiter in a very fancy French restaurant, but he had always been a rather clumsy fellow. In any event, one day I noticed him looking very dejected as he stood in the lobby of my building waiting for an elevator. I approached him and asked him what was wrong. He told me he had just gotten fired because while serving cherries flambé in the very fancy restaurant he had accidentally set fire to the very fancy drapes. Last I heard he was driving a taxicab. I still look for him whenever I come to New York to visit, but somehow I know that I will never see him again!

Errors of omission aren’t any less embarrassing. About a year ago I was making a batch of brownies and in the middle of the process was distracted by a phone call. It wasn’t until I checked on them a bit later that I noticed something wasn’t quite right. It took me a minute to realize it was their color. They were white! (And not white chocolate either!) I had forgotten to add the cocoa and so I ended up with white, tasteless and utterly forgettable brownies. I told no one and was so embarrassed that I threw them out. Still, the deed lingered in my culinary brain for a long time to come.

It was unfortunately not the first error of omission in my life of culinary crime, even though I sincerely hope it will be my last. (I doubt it, but one can dream, can’t one?) My first faux pas occurred about 10 years ago when I baked my first bread. If images of I Love Lucy trying to kill the giant bread that erupted from her oven because she used too much yeast burst into your brain, you are not that far off. I ended up quite innocently with the bread from 4,000 fathoms by expecting what I will call "the least from yeast." The package of yeast that I used had been in my pantry for a very long time, but it wasn’t until after I used it that I noticed the expiration date. It had been over the hill for quite a few months and so, to be on the safe side, I used an additional packet. The result was a huge quivering square (sort of) that seemed to have a personality and a voice all its own. Its message was clear and unlike the cookie that Alice found somewhere beyond the looking glass. It screamed: DO NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT EAT ME OR YOU WILL BE SORRY!

And so it goes, but the creative joy of cooking remains. If you can imagine a dish, make it. Be really brave and try it out on company (especially if you do not like who is coming for dinner.) Remember the basics; turn the oven on and don’t forget to turn it off when you are done. Think of food as a vast frontier to be explored, enjoyed and experimented upon. So what if your bread turns out square or obloid or your brownies are some new and different color? It’s the effort that counts. Stick it out or stick it in. What the hell? We only live once, right? Just remember that to err is human, but to sauté divine.

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Copyright 2004