January 03, 2005

Dinnertime Disasters

by peterb

From a culinary standpoint, I was having a good weekend. I had a guest who had some dietary restrictions; to wit, no saturated fats at all, minimal unsaturated fats, low cholesterol foods only. Since I, typically, am someone who starts nearly every recipe with "Take a cup of heavy cream and..." I had to do a little more planning to get the weekend's meals ready.

I settled on primarily Japanese cuisine, on the theory that I could get the needed ingredients, and had a variety of dishes that met the low-fat requirements. Making dashi is always fun and easy, and miso soup is always appreciated. I also took the opportunity to try some things I hadn't done before. Every time I go to Chaya, they are out of kimpira, so I made it myself to find out what it was like (it was yummy).

I also picked a recipe out of Tokiko Suzuki's book Japanese Homestyle Cooking for Pomfret broiled in Saikyo-way, a miso and sake mixture. Knowing how Suzuki is a stickler for procedure, I was careful to follow her instructions religiously, to the letter. I was somewhat suspcious of her instructions to salt the fish (and later, clean off the salt) before sandwiching the fish between saikyo-wai covered cheesecloth and preserving it for two days, but I trusted her. I admit I departed from her brief in one way: I decided to skip the "place the filet on a chysanthemum leaf" presentation.

The dish turned out bad. Not "unpleasant," not "unfortunate," but a complete and utter culinary calamity, salty to the point of being inedible. Amusingly, I had bought a nice filet of bacalhao a few days earlier as well, and I'm pretty sure I would have ended up with something more edible had I just soaked that filet for a couple of hours and then broiled it. ("But don't you have to soak bacalhao for 2 days before enough salt is leached out so that it's actually edible?" I hear you ask. Yes. That's my point.) I forced myself to choke it down as punishment for serving my guests something I hadn't tried successfully first. I was fairly mortified.

So either Suzuki-san's recipe leaves something to be desired or more likely I, being illiterate and stupid, misread something and made some critical mistake. My sister relies on a variant of this dish as a staple, so I can certainly believe I did something wrong, and I should try it again. That's not what I'm getting at here.

My question is: what do you do when this happens in front of guests? Am I simply naive for trying something new when someone else's meal is at stake? Or is there some graceful way to recover from this situation? Beg for forgiveness? Order a pizza? At our table we had made many other dishes so people didn't go hungry, but it was still a humbling experience.

If you've ever wondered what crow tastes like, I can assure you it tastes like very, very salty fish.

Posted by peterb at January 3, 2005 10:48 AM | Bookmark This

If I try something new for dinner guests, I generally lean towards dishes that don't have unusual or arcane instructions, have been postitively reviewed by many people (e.g., epicurious.com), or can exist as a minor offering that would not be missed. This is not failproof, however. This Thanksgiving I was rather disappointed with the quality of a pumpkin pecan pie that was highly reviewed on epicurious and had a simple method. I do often make many new dishes for parties, but then again, I'm usually making 8 or more recipes in which case it's easy to throw one away unnoticed (case in point: a spicy spanish fried potato dish in which the potatoes positively *refused* to get crispy [a reason to invest in a deep fryer for sure]). Admitting to culinary failure is not especially graceful no matter how it goes, but so long as the cook doesn't take herself too seriously, I should think the guests would be spared feeling embarassed or uncomfortable on her behalf. I usually either avoid mentioning the faux pas at all (in a case where the dish never makes it to the table), or if there are other cooks there, use it as an opportunity to discuss solutions. In the case of the dish that is not exactly inedible but one I'm not proud of either, I try to warn the eater so they're able to make an informed decision, as well as offer an alternative. I think the bottom line is to regard new dishes like children: irresponsible parents (recipe authors) piss off everyone; only the reasonably well-behaved should be seen when trying to appear impressive; it's more fun to show them off once they begin to develop a mind of their own. Then, on a stormy night, they turn rebellious and usurp all power you once had over them...

Posted by a. at January 3, 2005 10:34 PM

Check out: Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji. It's beautifully written and I make stuff described there frequently. One thing I love about that book is that it gives suggestions for substitutions for ingredients that are hard to find outside of Japan.

Posted by Dan at January 4, 2005 08:29 AM

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