A Good Appetite: If the dish you've prepared looks funny but tastes fine, don't say you're sorry. There's another solution: rename it. Recipes: Rescue the Vegetables Souffle, Save the Day Roesti and Oops Trifle Parfaits
Many years ago, I saw a photo of braised Provençal duck in a food magazine. It was stunning, with bronzed pieces of meat nestled in sauce studded with olives and potatoes.
I made it for a dinner party. Instead of a culinary masterpiece, I was left with a soupy pot of pale duck bobbing under a slick of its own liquefied fat.
Had the same thing happened to me today, I would have simply changed the name of the dish to “duck confit with potatoes and olives.” If people were expecting that layer of fat, it wouldn’t have bothered them. Or if I wanted to get fancy, I could translate the whole thing into French.
But for years, I didn’t realize that was an option. And when I served the duck, which was tasty despite its appearance, I spent a good chunk of the evening explaining, apologizing and generally agonizing over the homely thing.
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I know I’m not the only one who’s done that. Inundated by food porn in cookbooks and magazines, online and on food TV, a whole generation of home cooks has become caught up in the Cult of Foodie Perfectionism.
It’s the desire for perfection, however unconscious, that causes many otherwise-practical cooks to think they must recreate entire meals — amuse-bouches to petits fours — from, say, the Alinea cookbook, when one dish would have sufficed. And perfectionism can breed performance anxiety, a cloud hovering over the kitchen counter. Sometimes I wonder if cooks put so much pressure on themselves they become reluctant to have friends over at all.
Will my souffle rise as high as Thomas Keller’s? Will my terrine be as jewellike as Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s, my cakes as luscious as Nancy Silverton’s?
That anxiety can harden into a sense of failure even if you didn’t shoot for the culinary heavens, as you fret over the fact that the cupcakes you made for your preschooler’s birthday weren’t as pretty as Martha Stewart’s, or your pie filling bubbled over, destroying the look of your lattice top.
If this sounds familiar, then you know that the urge to apologize runs deep.
After all, you’ve just invited your friends into your home and cooked them dinner. They are happy to be there, and they don’t care if the roast is a tad dry, or if the vegetables are a bit soggy, or if your duck looks as if it waded into a coastal oil spill.
Instead, pour yourself a glass of wine and re-evaluate the situation.
If the dish looks funny but tastes fine, the solution is easy: rename it.
Over the years, I’ve served my guests “blackened carrot salad” (I added pomegranate molasses too early when roasting the roots), “melting, garlicky green beans” (I forgot about them on the stove and they almost dissolved), “molten fudge brownies” (underbaked, that is). Butterscotch pudding that never quite solidified in the fridge was re-christened butterscotch crème Anglaise, and poured over fruit.
I served all of this without apology. Since everything still tasted good (often better than intended), my guests thought that’s what I had been planning all along.
How do you think chocolate mud cake got its name? Probably from some cocoa experiment gone awry, but in a good way. And those Italian cookies called brutti ma buoni? It means ugly but good, a perfect way to manage expectations because the name says it all.
Of course, if the dish has truly failed in that you oversalted or overspiced, or if you’ve overcooked the meat, or if the cake stuck to the bottom of the pan, you need to do a little more than just rename the thing. But it, too, can be saved.
Overcooked meat or fish is rejuvenated when it is chopped into small pieces and fried in a crisp potato pancake. Call it roesti for maximum elegance.
Overseasoned or overcooked vegetables gain new life from being folded into eggs to make a frittata, quiche filling or souffle.
And pretty much any sweet pastry recipe that didn’t quite work out is born anew when it is made into crumbs and layered with cream into trifle.
(You can make these recipes even if you don’t have a wreck of a dish on your hands. They work equally well with leftovers.)
All of these techniques can help take the pressure off the cook who wants to relax and enjoy the party. Just refrain from sending your guests the menu in advance.
RESCUE THE VEGETABLES SOUFFLE
Time: 50 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cup whole milk, warmed
4 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
5 large egg whites
Kosher salt, as needed
1 cup overseasoned cooked vegetables, chopped (like sauteed spinach, green bean salad, sauteed mushrooms, roasted eggplant, etc.)
1. In a small saucepan, melt 2 ½ tablespoons butter over medium heat. Whisk in flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and whisk in warm milk. Return to heat and cook, whisking constantly, until thickened, 2 to 3 minutes.
2. In a small bowl, whisk yolks. Whisking constantly, dribble yolks into the saucepan until they are completely incorporated. Scrape mixture into a large bowl and cool to room temperature.
3. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 1 ½-quart souffle dish with remaining ½ tablespoon butter and sprinkle the bottom and sides evenly with cheese.
4. In a clean mixing bowl, beat egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks but are not dry. Fold a third of the whites into yolk mixture to lighten it, then fold in remaining whites. Gently fold in vegetables.
5. Immediately scrape mixture into prepared dish. Transfer to oven and bake until puffed, golden and slightly firm to the touch, about 30 minutes. Do not open the oven door during baking. Serve immediately.
SAVE THE DAY ROESTI
Time: 35 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
2 large russet potatoes, peeled and grated (about 3 cups)
1 onion, peeled and grated
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
2 cups finely chopped overcooked meat or fish
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
1. Combine potato and onion in a colander set over a bowl. Squeeze out excess liquid. Transfer to another bowl and toss with pepper, thyme and meat or fish.
2. Melt 1 tablespoon each of the butter and oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet until foam subsides. Add potato mixture, forming one big pancake, and flatten with the back of a spatula. Cook, without moving, over medium-low heat until underside is deep golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Carefully slide pancake onto a plate, cooked side down. Put another plate over it and invert pancake onto second plate. Melt remaining butter and oil in pan. Add pancake, uncooked side down. Cook until golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes.
3. Slide onto a plate and sprinkle generously with salt. Serve immediately.
OOPS TRIFLE PARFAITS
Time: 15 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 cup creme fraiche
½ cup heavy cream
4 cups crumbled cake or cookies
1/3 cup dark rum or bourbon
Fresh berries, optional
Chocolate shavings, for garnish
Flaky sea salt, for garnish
1. Whip together creme fraiche and heavy cream until light and fluffy.
2. Divide half the cake or cookie crumbs among 6 wine or parfait glasses, and sprinkle with half the liquor. Top with a dollop of cream, and a few berries and small dollops of jam if using. Add more crumbs, liquor, cream, berries and jam, then end with a final layer of cream. Top with chocolate shavings and a pinch of sea salt if desired.