Let’s face it, in the words of celebrity chef Alton Brown, “All cooks have bad days.” Doesn’t matter if you are a professional or a home cook, it does happen.We aren’t The Food Network and don’t have the magic of television and editing when it comes to cooking at home. It is frustrating, annoying, and well, can be down right disappointing. Tonight was one of those nights for me. I had a good plan for what I wanted, but it didn’t come together as I anticipated.
Before I get into what went wrong, I want to say that it all turned out well. I am a firm believer that some basic techniques and understanding of the ingredients allowed me to recover from what seemed like a series of unfortunate events.
It all began as I was testing a gluten free pasta recipe. I found a recipe that seemed doable and I had to test it out to see if I could make the pasta work. It turned out that my very first batch was a success. I managed to get a small portion of gluten free fettuccine out of what I made and it was really good! By the way, this wasn’t like weird tasting cardboard like, gritty pasta. It was everything you would expect out of fresh pasta. I was so excited the pasta worked that I decided to work it into dinner. So, I planned to make grilled chicken thighs, sauteed baby carrots, and gluten free fettuccine with my lemon cream sauce.
I started with the chicken thighs, seasoned them up, and got them on the grill. While I was working on some other ingredients for my lemon cream sauce, I saw my barbecue was looking more like I had a bonfire going instead of cooking chicken. Channeling my inner Superman, I raced to check the chicken and it was totally okay. Let’s just say I made numerous trips to the barbecue with the same urgency hoping I wouldn’t end up with charcoal chicken. It seemed no matter how carefully I attended the grill, I couldn’t get the chicken skin crispy and it just seemed underwhelming.
After I had the chicken bonfire under control, it was time to tackle the pasta. However, it seemed at every turn disaster was not far away. Turns out that I should have rolled and cut the pasta first before I worked on anything else. I was so pumped up with the success of my first batch that I rushed and didn’t take my time to make sure the recipe was right. Keep in mind, I had made one, small single portion of the pasta less an hour before. I had some of the dough left from the first batch and was certain I could just whip the pasta out and would be on to my next venture. It wasn’t going to happen, not this time. I had the dough and I was ready to put it the through the rollers on my pasta maker. The pasta cracked, split, and separated as I ran the dough through the roller. This is typically a sign of the dough being wet and it needing more flour, so I added more flour. This went on for a while when I realized that the dough was falling apart from now being too dry. Luckily I had only used about half of the dough at this point. It was clear that maybe it was a bad idea for me to take this pasta on after all. Honestly, I was getting frustrated. I was perplexed but not willing to give up on the pasta. So, I grabbed another chunk of dough and tried to roll it again. Long story short, the rest of the dough suffered the same fate and I wasn’t able to save any of it. Rest in peace, pasta dough. You will be missed. I knew I needed to go back to the drawing board and figure out what I did to make the dough work the first time. So, I opted to use some of my dried fresh pasta that was hanging around the house. The pasta crisis was averted even though I was bummed and super frustrated it wouldn’t be fresh pasta.
I turned my attention to the one thing that I couldn’t mess up, the pasta sauce. I sauteed the mushrooms, added the roasted garlic, lemon zest, and gave it a stir. Finally, I thought. I am back in control of this dinner and everything is back on track. So, with that I added the wine and began to let it reduce. After a few minutes the pasta was ready, the chicken was rested, carrots were done, and I just had to finish the sauce. With a swift motion, I deployed the half and half into the pan, stirred the sauce a few times, and suddenly my beautiful sauce started to look like something out of a horror film. I had separated the sauce! Ugh! I stirred intently hoping that the sauce would come back together, but to no avail. Instead I was left with a gloppy, unappealing pasta sauce.
My mind raced with what to do and I was about to scrap the sauce altogether when I realized I could salvage the sauce. I added the mushrooms to a fresh pan, a little olive oil, some freshly grated parmesan cheese, and some of the pasta water that my pasta had been cooking in. Why did I use the pasta water? Well, it has two very useful properties that can be a lifesaver when it comes to pasta sauce.
First, the pasta water should be seasoned with salt, so it will provide another level of flavor and seasoning. I always add three very healthy pinches of salt to my pasta water. Some chefs say your pasta water should taste like the ocean. I don’t think you need that much salt, but you should be able to taste the salt clearly in your pasta water before you cook any pasta. Yes, I taste my pasta water for seasoning. Remember to season everything!
Second, while the pasta cooks, starch is released into the water and this can be very advantageous. You can use this starchy water to help thin a sauce if gets too thick before you serve it or you can use it to thicken a sauce. For example, as the water evaporates from the starch, the starch tightens and thickens whatever liquid the starch is suspended in. You may have seen a recipe where flour or corn starch is incorporated into water and it is used as a thickening agent. Typically you see this in gravies, sauces, or Asian noodle dishes or recipes. As an added bonus, the starch provides that creamy, rich sensation on your palate. After applying these two little two little tricks and some sanity, I had saved the sauce.
Although the carrots were the least troublesome of the bunch, I was constantly turning the heat up and down to keep them from overcooking. Luckily I managed to get it done. However, I certainly could have done without the carrots trying to be unruly.
Here is how the final plate came together.
Not too bad, right? See, it turned out well and was very good!
What’s the final takeaway? You can fix most cooking mistakes with some basic knowledge. If nothing else, I hope that you are able to take something away from this blog even if it isn’t from this post. If you are able to use something you have learned from this blog to improve or grow your own skills, then mission accomplished.
When I was thinking about how to end this post, I was flooded with quotes from the immortal Julia Child that sum up this post theme. “No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” “One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed.”
As it turns out, I am very guilty of feeling bad when I don’t cook something properly or I get derailed from my dinner plan, such as the pasta. As much as I don’t like to admit this, I hold onto that frustrated feeling even after the meal has long since ended. For me, this is one place where I always look to improve my own time in the kitchen. This last quote resonates with me at a very personal level. Again, from the great Julia Child about being in the kitchen, “Never apologize.”
So remember, “Never Apologize.”