Confident home cooking
Failure, Musings, Salad, Seafood

When Recipes Go Wrong

by Nick

If you’ve ever experimented in the kitchen (with food), you’ve probably had that moment. You know the one I’m talking about. The moment where you look down at something on a plate or in a bowl and say, “WHERE DID I GO WRONG?!”

To anyone watching from outside the kitchen your cooking, on that day, looks like the food version of Double Dare. Your poor dinner guests are saying things under their breath like, “Did he just put sake and peanut butter in the salad dressing?”

And you did. Because you were flying by the seat of your freakin’ pants.

I lived this a few nights ago and, as expected, it resulted in a big time fail.


This all started when an overwhelming majority of you lovely readers voted for me to try and fix the Drunken Prawn Salad Disaster that Robin made on Top Chef last week. I knew I had some things stacked against me right away: 1) I wasn’t able to find prawns. Large shrimp would have to work. 2) I don’t have a grill. A grill pan would have to work.

Turns out neither of those things worked.

One of the problems I had with Robin’s dish on the show was that it seemed like it was all over the place. There was sausage and Romaine lettuce and crazy prawns. I thought I would simplify it (yea right) by marinating the shrimps in a sake marinade (which wasn’t too bad after all), and then serving them over some “grilled” bok choy and red peppers with a peanut sauce.

It was horrible.

Maybe the worst thing I’ve ever cooked. The shrimp were chewy and I should have de-shelled them. The veggies were soggy. The peanut sauce was awful. The best thing about the whole dish was the crispy baked wonton strips that I made as a garnish.

Looking back after the fallout, I decided that there were some clear signs of failure that I should have seen. So instead of posting some version of this recipe, I thought I would spell out some of these signs so maybe you can avoid them!

Signs that the meal you are making might suck

1) You’re using ingredients that you aren’t familiar with AND you have no recipe to follow. If either of these things is true you might be okay. If both are true, you are probably reaching a bit. For the above meal, my dressing wasn’t very good because I tried to use too many ingredients that I wasn’t familiar with and I had no recipe to guide me.

2) You’re kitchen exploded. By that I mean you’re disorganized. You have ten different bowls with stuff in them and strange bottles of weird ingredients all over the place.

I do my best cooking when I have everything laid out. For this meal, I was pulling stuff out on the fly and adding it to the dish. There was no plan.

3) You’re rushed! Sometimes it’s okay to be rushed in the kitchen. I have a number of meals that I’ve made so many times, I could probably make them blindfolded in a few minutes. But if you’re making something for the first time, add 15 or 30 minutes onto the prep time.

4) You’re over-confident. Don’t try to fake yourself into thinking you know what you don’t know. There is nothing more humbling than serving inedible food.

5) Your cat doesn’t want it. Ok. Maybe that’s just me. But my cat wants to at least smell everything I cook. It’s normally a constant battle to keep her out of the dish. On the above occasion, she stayed well on the other side of the room.

Ok. But what if it’s too late? What if you’re meal has already derailed and crashed into the mountain?

The best thing you can do is notice that the recipe is sucking before its done. That means that you might be able to salvage some of it. The best way to ensure this is to:

1) Taste as you go. This sounds simple but I fail to do it all the time. If you taste each individual piece of your dinner and everything tastes great by itself, it will most likely taste great together. If I would have done this, I would have been left with shrimp and wontons. That would have been better than what I served.

2) Be honest with yourself. If you taste it and it tastes bad, don’t convince yourself that it will taste better later. It probably won’t. There might be some exceptions to this rule, but not many. Don’t be afraid to start over on part of the dish.

But what if you’ve finished the dish?! What if you’ve served the whole thing and you take that first bite and realize all of your failures. What if your fiancée is giving you a look that says, “Honey, I love you, but if you and I were on Top Chef, and we were the last two competitors, I would win. And all I made was two glasses of water.”

What then?

First, admit defeat. Don’t try to pretend its good. That just makes it worse.

Second, do the dishes. If you made a bad meal, don’t make someone else clean up your stinky pots of FAIL.

Third, order pizza.

Seriously though, how do you deal with or prevent recipe failure?