It may come as a mild surprise, but building and fixing and landscaping and DIYing are not my favorite activities. Hard to believe, I know. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be crawling around on their hands and knees all day pounding nails into a sub-floor or cleaning out a shed in the cruel August heat or toiling away in a dank basement while the world frolics above? But it’s true. If I had my way (and a few million dollars in my pocket), I’d leave that work to those who enjoy it, and I’d focus on the things I really enjoy, like cooking.
You are by now well aware of my tendency to wing it and jump right into big DIY projects with little more than an idea or a crude sketch on a notepad. You may be tempted to think that since I love to cook, I’d approach that activity in a more thoughtful and considered manner. You’d be wrong. The reason I love to cook so much (besides better-than-restaurant-quality food at a fraction of the price) is that I can approach it haphazardly, and the results are usually awesome.Baking always seemed too rigid - the bailiwick of straight-lipped engineers and humorless schoolmarms.
I used to fear baking. I avoided it at all costs. Desserts came from the store or from someone who had the gift. Baking always seemed too rigid – the bailiwick of straight-lipped engineers and humorless schoolmarms. I was daunted by all those strict proportions. I once read the journal of a skilled baker who claimed that not only could imprecise measurements ruin a cake, but the weather played a role (which I could understand), and also the mood of the baker! It’s bad enough having to slavishly adhere to a recipe, but now I have to be in a good mood, to boot? Or what? My cake will be bitter? Bah! Too many rules. So I did what I do best: I ignored the rules and started baking like I cook. Thus far, it’s worked out pretty good.
Before The Navage Patch, I would develop recipes in my head all the time, but I never wrote anything down. I doubt I could ever recreate something exactly the same way twice. Now that I post the occasional recipe, I’m forced to codify my thoughts into something repeatable. It’s hard for me, especially if I’ve created something on-the-fly and only later decided it was good enough to post.
My ideas don’t always work out, and in the past year or so, I’ve had the opportunity to capture some of the failures on film. Today, I’ll share four misfires and one mystery. I’m not presenting them in recipe format. This is just a look at some could-have-beens that fell off the culinary rails on their journey from my brain to the dinner plate.
Mac and Cheese Supreme
Who doesn’t love mac and cheese? Really, who? I want to know, so I can mail you a photograph of my hand, which you can use to slap your face. Sometime last year I had the brilliant idea to make a fully-loaded mac and cheese. I used four kinds of cheese – Cheddar, Swiss, Gruyere and Fontina – a creamy quartet of gustatory pleasure.
It would even be healthy! (Because it would have spinach and kale – they make everything healthy, right?)
I started with bacon, of course. It is the foundation upon which all things “supreme” are built.
One animal is good, but two are even better. I cooked up some ground beef…in the bacon grease, of course.
Do you know what smells better than beef and onions sauteing in bacon fat?
Next I made a Béchamel sauce, to which I added the glorious cheese.
When the cheese had melted, I added the beef, the kale and some elbow macaroni. Oh, this was looking and smelling so good!
After mixing it all up, I poured it into a casserole and sprinkled the bacon and the cooked spinach on top.
Holy crap, I’m a genius!
I covered the casserole with a layer of olive-oil-soaked bread crumbs.
Epic. Time for the oven.
When the top was brown, I could hardly wait to get it out of the oven and into my stomach. But first, I had to take some pictures. Now, this was back when I wasn’t a very good photographer, especially with food. I slapped some on a plate and put the plate on a blue tablecloth. And just look at this beauty! Errr….
Wait. That doesn’t look very appetizing, does it? It kinda looks like vomit. And it’s really dry!
I considered my failure. No matter how many pictures I took, I couldn’t make it look appetizing. I gave up and served it to my family. It tasted good, but it was just way too dry. I hadn’t make nearly enough sauce. Mac and cheese should be runny and creamy, not hard and clumpy. This was a good idea that probably deserves a second chance. Anybody up for the challenge? Send pics!
“Bad Pork Loin and Bad Stuffed Pork”
That’s how I named the folders containing the photos of the next two recipes. I’m surprised at how bland both of these recipes turned out. Pork is usually an easy home run. I can understand Bad Pork Loin, though. I decided to try cooking it in a slow cooker – never a good idea with a cut of meat as lean as pork loin. The ingredients were good, and I even got a nice “before” pic, something I used to do all the time when cooking.
Apples, onions, brown sugar, chicken stock, apple cider vinegar and a blend of spices. This was basically a deconstructed version of my pork chops with homemade apple sauce. I should have stuck with the chops.
First, I gave the meat a good sear.
Then everything went into the slow cooker.
As often happens when hunger gets the better of me, I totally forgot to take pics of the finished meal. It’s just as well. The meat was drier than British humor, and no amount of sauce could moisten it.
Not long after the arid roast, I again tried a riff on the same theme. Using similar ingredients, I decided to make a stuffed pork loin roast. I started with the same roast.
I prepared a stuffing of apples, onions, bread, butter, sage and seasonings. It smelled heavenly.
I cut the pork open to accept the simmering bounty.
I spread it on. Oh, this would be a winner, for sure!
I rolled it back up and tied it with cooking twine.
Into the oven it went until it was golden brown all over. It looked amazing. I whisked it off to my office where I had my photo lights ready and my newly-made black background for food photos. I’d learned a lot since the mac and cheese supreme. I must admit, the photos of this stuffed roast are pretty awesome. I’m getting hungry just looking at them as I write this.
But as beautiful as that roast looked, there were two big problems:
- It had no flavor! I couldn’t conceive of it! I had it all worked out!
- It had no sauce. What a dummy I am.
My family ate it without complaint. They even tried to reassure me as I cursed it with each bit.
“It’s fine, my babes. It’s good.”
“Fine” and “good” – the one-two punch that chefs fear most.
This beautiful failure ended up in the garbage along with my hopes and dreams of being a food blogger.
Okay, these next two are related. In fact, I think the second was a refinement of the first. It is also the mystery among the recipes, because I have no after pics, and I don’t remember how it turned out. But first, let’s look at number one.
I went through a phase last year where I was obsessed with Beef Wellington. In my opinion, it is the ultimate fancy beef dish. It is made by coating a whole beef tenderloin (that’s the part that filet mignon comes from) with pâté de fois gras (basically mashed goose liver) and duxelles (finely chopped mushrooms, shallots and herbs sauteed in butter and reduced to a paste). The tenderloin is then covered with a puff pastry and baked until the pastry is golden brown and the beef is just cooked rare or medium-rare. It is a decadent treat.
It is also a pain in the butt to prepare at home. So last year, I set out on a quest to develop alternate versions of the famous dish. I settled on using ground beef instead of tenderloin and using Yorkshire pudding instead of a pastry shell. My thought was to make meatballs, put them in a searing-hot casserole and pour the Yorkshire pudding batter over the top. I would call it Beef Wellingshire.
My first attempt was on the night the idea popped into my head. I had no fresh mushrooms on hand – only dried.
I reconstituted them and then sauteed them with butter, shallots, salt and pepper.
I made meatballs. This was back before I really understood the concept of meatballs – I hadn’t ever made them before, except for some Turkish ones. You may notice some ingredients missing when you look at the picture below.
Those aren’t meatballs – they’re small hamburgers! It’s just meat and salt! Man, I know so much more now. Anyway, I friend them up a bit, then added their grease and some butter to a casserole.
While the casserole heated up to the smoke point, I covered each “meatball” with the mushroom paste.
When the oil was smoking, I quickly took out the casserole dish, arranged the meatballs and poured over my Yorkshire batter. Here’s what I pulled out of the oven.
It kinda looks like a V-8 engine block. I plated it and had another go with the camera.
Hmmmm…it looked like a house that had been smashed by a boulder. I wasn’t happy with the photos, but if the dish was excellent, then I’d go with it.
The Beef Wellingshire was good, but not great. The meat needed more flavor – lots more flavor. This one had promise, so I told myself that I’d try it again soon.
And I did, which leads us to the mystery.
This next recipe started off right, but it was derailed (as far as I can tell from the photos) by the same flaw that the first attempt suffered from. Here’s what I started with.
Looks like I added some pureed onions, Dijon mustard (sometimes used in the original recipe), salt, pepper, and that’s my Vietnamese fish sauce, but I don’t remember if I used it or not. It’s a great idea. Fish sauce is one of my secret weapons for beef.
But then I took this next photo showing that I added some bacon to the mix. Gone is the bottle of fish sauce. Bacon makes sense, though, since some Beef Wellington recipes call for the meat to be wrapped in prosciutto.
That barfy-looking blob is a dollop of duxelles – real duxelles this time, made from fresh mushrooms. I don’t see any fish sauce in there, though.
I mixed it all up, and once again made enormous “meatballs.”
I can see it so clearly now! Why didn’t I add eggs and breadcrumbs? That would have been the key! The photo above is the last photo I took. I have a vague memory of trying to cook the meatballs. They fell apart in the pan because they didn’t have egg and bread as binders. I have no idea what happened next, but now that I’ve become a competent meatball maker (at least of the Italian and Turkish sort), I really need to try this recipe again. I also need to find a way to cook each Beef Wellingshire individually. I think that will make for a much better presentation.
Well, this post now has me craving Beef Wellington again, so maybe you’ll be seeing that recipe soon. I have a few other good recipes made, photographed and ready to post, and a few more knocking around in my head, too. This summer, I’ll get them all posted, and I hope you’ll give them a try. I promise you, I’m way better at cooking than I am at building things. So if you’ve ever followed my advice for DiY, I hope you’ll follow it for cooking, too!
I’ll see you by the skillet.
Do you have any recipe disasters or unintentional victories? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!