I’ve been having one of those weeks where not many things have turned out the way I intended. My ambitions were thwarted in a variety of ways. The fruit I was drying somehow turned out both underdone and stubbornly fused to some waxed paper. My new food mill didn’t work as advertised, and I had to do some scrambling to figure out how to give cauliflower a roughly puréed texture without turning it into a liquid slush. And despite the liberal use of onions, garlic and seasonings, some bean soup came out incredibly bland.
It’s a terrible thing to waste food, so even while it might be a tad dramatic to call these experiences “disasters,” I was challenged to improvise, or the results of my efforts in the kitchen might have ended up in the compost heap. Fortunately, food is adaptable and flexible; if one thing doesn’t work out, it often can be adapted into another.
“If you burn rice to a pot, you’ll have made the specialty of a lot of cuisines. The crust formed where it sticks is called tah dig in Persian, koge in Japanese, pegao in Puerto Rican food, and nooleung ji in Korean, and in those countries’ cooking, it’s the sign of a properly cooked batch of rice.”
There is some good reading out there about how to turn a mistake into an innovation. Tamar Adler devotes a whole chapter and an appendix of “An Everlasting Meal” to the subject, and each is rich with suggestions. Burned eggplant? Make baba ghanoush. Mushy beans? Purée or “refry” them. Does it have too much spice, oil, or flavor? Mush it up and call it a condiment. And so on.
The Internet is also filled with great ideas for turning mishaps into meals. Dilute an overly salty dish with supplemental ingredients, or balance the flavor with something sweet, spicy or acid. Turn old bread into delicious crostini. Shred overcooked or dry meat and use it to fill impromptu tacos. There’s no need to throw that food away if you’re a bit creative.
Your chances of recovering after a mistake in the kitchen are higher both if you have a well-stocked pantry, and if you have been working with good raw materials. There’s no saving the mac & cheese if what you ruined came in a box with bright orange powdered “cheese” (but then again, you’re only out a buck). But if you set out to cook some spaghetti carbonara and suddenly realize that you’re out of eggs, you can quickly shift to making Cacio e Pepe instead, because quality ingredients-like a nice olive oil or interesting cheese-can hold their own even in a simple dish.
I was able to salvage some of my fruit after letting it sweat in the refrigerator overnight; it seemed rather jam-like, so I used it as a spread. My bean soup was brightened with a big glug of vinegar and a splash of hot sauce at the table. I ran the cauliflower through a cheese grater, and even though the texture wasn’t ideal (my fake “tortilla” broke when flipped), the egg-and-cauliflower quesadilla ended up being pretty tasty (and was rehabilitated further when served alongside some of the most beautiful kale I have ever seen, courtesy of Tant Hill Farm). It all eventually worked out.
How have you recovered when things didn’t go as planned?
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.