Knowing how to recover when things don’t go to plan is a useful skill in the kitchen, as it is in life. Sometimes it’s a matter of routine: slowing down the vegetables because the meat needs longer, correcting the balance of a dressing or sauce, covering up cracks in a roulade — those minor adjustments are part of everyday cooking. But sometimes we are called upon to exercise more ingenuity when things go awry. Knowing how to recover saves money and meltdowns.
I had a minor kitchen mishap today when the apple dumplings I had spent the afternoon making shed their pastry and collapsed in the oven: I had buttered and sugared the skins, so the pastry slipped off – and of course it would. It was one of those situations where you know something’s not going to work but you do it anyway. They tasted good, though. Sometimes recovery means being resourceful — turning the jellied fruit terrine into a bowl of fruit salad when the gelatin hasn’t set; transforming the over-baked sponge to a trifle; diluting the killer hot chilli with another tin (or three) of beans — and sometimes it means adopting the philosophy of je ne regrette rien.
I learned a lot about recovery from the magnificently intelligent and original French chef, Madeleine Kamman, in a series of classes I took with her in New York City back in the early 1980s. The first such lesson involved an elaborate “biscuit glace d’Alsacienne”, a fantastical frozen mousse construction of tangerine, chocolate and hazelnut encased by two meringue layers. She demonstrated the techniques of whisking the meringue to perfection, spreading it in thin circles and baking them until crisp, then skilfully trimming them to fit the bottomless mould. She took us through the steps of making the filling and gently spooning it over the bottom meringue; and finally, as she was putting the top meringue in place, it slipped from her hands onto the counter and broke into three spectacular shards.
There were gasps from the class who saw only ruin; but without missing a beat, she shook her finger and admonished, “Wait”..., threw the pieces into the food processor and pulverized them to a fine powder, then sprinkled the meringue dust over the mousse just as if that had been the plan all along. “There”, she said. “NEVER throw away good food”. The pulverised version of meringue worked just as well as it would have done intact, and was in fact easier to serve. Nothing was lost, and we learned a valuable lesson. I’ve continued to pulverise my meringue layers for that recipe deliberately ever since because it is easier and just as beautiful, just as delicious.
Later that week, after the grand dame of the kitchen had shared generously of her knowledge and experience, including terrible stories of food in wartime, when people of Paris had been forced to eat rice sausages with insects or starve, there was another lesson in the importance of kitchen recovery. She was making a salad of expensive Gulf shrimp, mango, papaya and avocado, stressing how important it is not to overcook the shrimp, to stop the cooking when they are translucent and just pink, not tightly coiled and tough. She gave us the antidote, too, for correcting if they did go over — slice them in half lengthways so they are easier to eat, less tough than a whole one would feel in the mouth. One member of the audience, dressed more for the opera than the kitchen, who had already volunteered more of her personal opinions than the class found tolerable, quipped, “I would just throw them to the dog”. The change in our instructor’s demeanour was immediate and dramatic: “Leave this room! I will have no one here who is so stupid!” The classroom was shocked into silence. The unfortunate woman rose with more dignity than she’d exhibited throughout the week and quietly left. I adjusted my views of Madeleine Kamman, who until then I had considered the epitome of calm, and determined never to overcook a shrimp, waste anything, or get a dog.
Madeleine Kamman’s final lesson on the subject, delivered in the aftermath of the shrimp incident, was the story of how she had failed a student who had spent a (very expensive) year at her cookery school in New Hampshire. The girl had made a dish for her final exam from the oysters of a dozen chickens – “oysters” being those delicacies of tender dark meat that nestle either side of the bird’s backbone. Madeleine Kamman didn’t even taste the dish, she told us. “Have you learned nothing?” she reported saying to the girl. “You have used enough food for 50 people to cook one dish. I cannot see such waste in my kitchen”. I’ve thought of that girl occasionally, wondering what happened to her after she failed her grand diplôme, whether she went on to great things in the kitchen, became a lawyer (and took Madeleine Kamman to court), or slit her wrists. I hope she recovered.
A chicken carcass that does not go into the stockpot still makes me cringe with guilt. My freezer is full of them, of the ends of leeks, and carrots too limp to eat. Whenever I bring them out for a stock-making session, it is Madeleine Kamman’s passionate, admirable and tyrannical voice I hear.
(See “Reading” for more on Madeleine Kamman’s cookbooks)