I’m more afraid to skydive than I am to purposefully implant spider-larvae in my face. Seriously. The prospect of throwing myself out of a plane at 30 000ft seems to rank up there with the great human follies like the Bedazzler, SABC International and sending Lance Bass to the Moon (actually scratch that, Lance Bass is probably more useful on the moon than he is here…). And there’s a very simple reason for this fear: I don’t trust human beings. We’re monumentally crap at a lot of things, and even the stuff we are sort of good at gets a little iffy from time to time, and so there’s no freakin’ way I’m going to put my life in the hands of a parachute that was packed by a guy who may or may not have been simultaneously watching a very exciting Currie Cup final and not really paying attention to how many times the rabbit goes round the tree before disappearing down the hole.
And so, it’s no surprise that despite the enormous amount of time I spend cooking, thinking about cooking and practicing the things that are needed to become a decent cook, I fuck things up in the kitchen all the time. And usually in front of a large audience of people who’ve come to dinner hoping to be fed rather than have hazardous biowaste lobbed at them on a plate. And this weekend was one of those occasions. What was meant to be a lovely fish poached in a tomato broth with roasted butternut and new potatoes, ended up being something that probably wouldn’t have been chosen by 9 out of 10 cats. The thing is that at the time, it was almost impossible to tell where things started to go wrong. But then obviously when I was sobbing amongst the wreckage of what should have been lunch, it all became glaringly obvious.
1) The fish wasn’t right: huge hunks of Hake that were a lot more frozen than I originally thought. I wanted some lovely fresh-cut fish fillets, but took a shortcut because I didn’t want to drive to a proper fishmonger.
2) The basting sauce for the butternut was horrifically overpowering rather than distinctive and sharp (always too much with the cinnamon – it’s like I’ve got some genetic disorder that makes me sprinkle the stuff like I’m Santa distributing toys to all the kids on the Nice list).
3) The poaching liquid looked fucking fantastic, which means I ended up not tasting or seasoning it properly – which is always the biggest fuckup ever. Because if I had, I would have realized that it tasted like something that had been marinating in my shoe for a day or two instead of something I actually wanted to serve to real live people that I’d like to keep in the ‘breathing’ column.
4) I used the excess basting liquid from the butternut to coat the roast potatoes, which meant that everything just ended up tasting the same flavour of ‘not nice’.
The problem with these sorts of things is that a lot of the time nothing really looks wrong: it all seems to be getting along just fine. And that’s usually where all the problems start. It might seem like a horrifically obvious thing to say, but a lot of the time, we (by this I mean ‘I’) don’t taste things enough while they’re being cooked (I make this mistake all the fucking time). The more you taste as it’s going along, the more you can adjust the flavours before it’s too late. It’s all very well to say that you’re doing it by ‘feel’ and whatever, but then taste it and then you’ll know for sure if what you’re doing is actually nice. I’ve always said that a really good sign is when whoever’s cooking can’t actually eat anything of what he or she has made once it’s served, because they’ve stuffed themselves tasting while they were cooking. The other thing is taking shortcuts. A shortcut will always taste like a shortcut. And that comes down to things like making sure that meat has been properly defrosted before you use it (rather than “Oh the last bit will thaw out in the pan” – and then it’s a complete mystery as to why the chicken has more bounce than a badly-supported boob and the mince tastes of grey). Also, don’t rush. Cook it for as long as it supposed to be cooked: cut a slice of that potato, squash or whatever vegetable you’re serving – if it’s glassy, put it back in the oven. Trust me people would rather wait a few extra minutes for something that’s actually edible than eat now and lose the will to live.
I’m not one for Morals At The End Of The Story (unless it’s ‘always accept the free marijuana’), but I guess this may call for something that vaguely feels like one, and so here it is: Kitchen fuck-ups are inevitable, so accept them when they happen. Just try and make sure that the same one never happens twice.
Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ll be at the top of the tallest mountain dispensing iffy homilies to Greek mythological figures.