On Wasting Not and Wanting Not

For as many hits as I have in the kitchen, I have more than my fair share of misses.  Sometimes things don’t work, for many reasons.  The recipe might not be the best, the ingredients might not be right, the stars aligned wrong that day, or *horror of horrors* I could have actually made a mistake in the preparation of food.  Regardless of where the blame lies, sometimes a dish fails.  But, as a matter of both economy and principle, it’s important to always try to salvage what you can.  Just because a dish didn’t turn out like what you expected does not mean that it is destined for the trash.  This was a lesson that was pounded into my head constantly when I was in culinary school and again in professional kitchens.  I remember once time in school one of my classmates baked several trays of jalapeno cornbread, forgetting to put the baking soda in all of it.  Instead of light, fluffy bread, he had sheets of flat, thick dough.  One of the instructors looked at it, got a large round cookie cutter from the drawer, and set to work.  He explained that he was catering an event that evening and suddenly one of his dishes was being replaced with individual “Mexican pizzas.”  He topped the disks of unleavened dough with cheese, peppers, and chorizo.  Nobody was any the wiser that the hors d’oeurve that was the rave of the party was actually a massive (and somewhat expensive) mistake a few hours earlier.

This lesson continued in my kitchen experience as I saw chefs time and again turn mistakes and errors into good food that pleased customers.  At one restaurant, the other pastry chef and I had a running joke of crying out “it’s still good!  It’s still good!” as we desperately tried to salvage whatever we had just managed to ruin.  Cakes that fell apart, burned, or were the wrong size were mixed with chocolate and rum to make rum balls.  Scraps of puff pastry were pressed together and covered with apples to become galettes.  Did you know you can put just about anything into a bread pudding?  Cinnamon rolls, dinner rolls, whatever.  It all works.  The point is that as long as food is still safe to eat and you haven’t absolutely ruined its flavor by, say, substituting baking soda for baking powder (a mistake you will only make ONCE), it is important to find a new use for the food.  Good food should not be wasted because it wasn’t the good food you intended it to be.  To wit:

A couple of weeks ago I decided I wanted to try making some amazing meatballs.  I’ve never made meatballs, but it seemed like the next step in my plan to cook like an Italian grandmother.  But they take a long time and a lot of work, so I found a recipe for slow cooker eggplant meatballs.  Great – lots of eggplant to use, slow cooker will do the work, and at the end of the day I will serve my family some delicious meatballs in a succulent tomato sauce.  What could go wrong?  After the chickadee was in bed, I set to work chopping and grinding and mixing my sausage and eggplant and all the other stuff to make meatballs in a homemade tomato sauce.  The next morning I put everything in the slow cooker and went about my day.  A few hours later, the smell of deliciousness permeating my house, I decided to check them.  I dipped a spoon in to test the doneness of a meatball only to watch it fall apart into a mushy pile of nothingness.  I tried several others, and they all disintegrated.  Complete meatball failure.  I don’t know what I did – they hadn’t cooked long enough to be overdone.  I must have forgotten an ingredient or something.  I sighed, frustrated at my ruined dinner.  Then, in my head, I heard the voice of the other pastry chef I worked with long ago.  “It’s still good!  It’s still good!”  It wasn’t meatballs, it was now an eggplant and sausage marinara sauce…of sorts.  We were eating this food.

The pictures you see were how we ate it.  I dug out some frozen cheese and lasagna noodles and made part of it into an eggplant lasagna type thing.  Then a few nights later I cooked sauteed some summer squash, added the rest of the marinara, and served it over polenta with a fried egg and some stale bread that I coated with a ton of butter and broiled until it was also edible again.  Two great meals out of one meal failure.  You may have to dive a little deeper into your creative well to fix your mistakes, but it’s usually possible.  No matter what, it’s still good, it’s still good!

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