Culinary Catastrophes

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My church group came for dinner last Friday. It’s called “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and it is put together by a couple of very dedicated volunteers who sort through the applications and find people who live near each other and are in the same age range. I don’t know why it’s called what it’s called, because you always  know who’s coming to dinner. They are the people in your assigned group.

At our first get-together, I had foolishly rattled on about the fact that I’ve taken umpteen cooking courses, including a couple in Italy. Therefore the expectations were high for what I would provide now that it was my turn to be hostess and create the entree. Well,  it was pretty warm last week and since my place isn’t air-conditioned, I decided it wouldn’t be a good idea to have the oven on for hours prior to the arrival of the guests. I went to two of my favorite sources, The Food Network website and my crock pot cook-book. I figured that I would find something that could be put all together in the morning, freeing up my time to set the table, hide all the junk hanging around my house and clean the powder room.

I found what looked to be a wonderful recipe for Tuscan Chicken. Simple fixings, flavorful spices, lovely color photo of the end result. The only problem was that there are eight in the group and the recipe was only for four. Simple, right? Just double everything. Well, for all my knowledge of the culinary arts (which you could probably fit into a small box despite the thousands of dollars spent on trying to become “Maria” Batali) this turned out to not be one of those that would be twice as good with twice the ingredients.

Boy, it smelled great! There was rosemary, fennel, roasted peppers…my salivary glands were working overtime the whole day every time I walked into the kitchen. Everyone arrived on time, we had wine and some delicious appetizers provided by another member (including one of Giada’s recipes for fried mini-ravioli) and then it came time to serve the main course.

Fortunately, the kitchen is not visible from the dining room. I opened the pot and there was just a mass of something that looked nothing like what I’d put in and certainly not at all like the picture on the recipe. I dug around trying to find everything I’d put in there but the cannelini beans had melted into oblivion, the fennel and the red onion were now a pasty grey and the roasted peppers apparently had made a run for it to the bottom of the pot and were nowhere to be seen. The chicken had had what could only be described as a “bonding experience”…there were eight chicken breasts that decided there was safety in numbers and just cooked themselves into one pile of poultry in the middle of the pot. For one quick moment I eyed the side of the refrigerator where I have all the coupons for the pizza/pasta delivery places, but I couldn’t pull that off. The dining room is right by the front door.  I could hear laughter in the other room (the wine was kicking in, thankfully) and  since I hadn’t really told anyone what was in the dish, it was now “Peasant Chicken Stew” from the Tuscany region of Italy. I took out every utensil I could find to rescue the remnants from the pot, cut it up, shred it, diced and decided there was a lot to be said in plating as opposed to palate pleasing at this point and made my best effort to get it all onto they big white platter and throw a lot of arugula on top for color. Arugula works wonders on anything, I’ve decided. It’s the miracle green. It can even cure acne.

No one seemed to mind the mess that was dinner. Everyone ate it (thanks to the arugula) and I didn’t hear sirens later on so it doesn’t seem to have done any serious damage to anyone. Of course, I was the excellent hostess, topping off everyone’s wine glass every chance I got, because the more relaxed they were, the less awful it would all seem.

I wish I could tell you this was my first disaster in the kitchen, but it’s only the last in a long line of cooking catastrophes.

When I was younger and even more foolish, I decided as a newlywed to invite my father-in-law the professional chef for Thanksgiving dinner, my very first attempt at cooking the big bird. There was no internet in those days and no Butterball hotline. I got out one of the two cookbooks I owned at the time, followed the instructions, but failed to find the bag of gizzards, etc., that I was told would be in there. I felt around, up and down, peered in the various orifices of the poor creature, ran water through it like it was a mountain stream, but there was nothing. I even thought about calling the grocery store and complaining that I had been shorted gizzards, but couldn’t even imagine how that conversation would go.

I proceeded to cook it. It looked absoloutely perfect when it came out: right off the cover of Good Housekeeping! I opted to have my father-in-law do the carving and with much fanfare and flourish he sharpened the knife and expertly began to slice away.

I’m not sure at which point the smouldering bag of gizzards fell out of the bird. But there it was. To this day, I don’t know where it came from; it certainly wasn’t anywhere I looked. The only thing more amazing than its sudden appearance was the look of total shock on Pop’s face. I decided that this particular poultry farmer had devised a way to camouflage the extra parts included in the purchase in an attempt to solely embarrass me. We ate it anyway. Really wasn’t any choice. This was Thanksgiving and this was the turkey.

Perhaps my very favorite story of my cooking attempts was the first time I made lasagna. I called my Mom and asked her what I needed to do. She  went over the recipe with me and kept emphasizing that I should only put one noodle in the pot at a time because otherwise they would break when added to the boiling water. (No fresh pasta in those days, either.)

Well, I stood there for 8.5 hours, boiling one single noodle at a time. After awhile, I got out every pot I had and cooked three or four at a time…alone…in each of the other pots. The whole time I kept saying to myself “No wonder no one ever makes this. It takes forever!” I can’t even comment further on that. And yes, I am a college graduate, but as I like to say, it is obvious that I graduated “summa cum lucky.”

What culinary catastrophes have befallen you over the years?

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