Kitchen Disaster? We Have Simple Fixes for Seemingly Burnt or Destroyed Dishes
With Cal Peternell’s simple tips and tricks to keep you organized in the kitchen, consider serving crowds and at-home-entertaining a breeze.
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Cooking is undeniably a skill, and as with any skill comes a learning curve before anyone can declare themselves a master in the kitchen. That being said, on the road to glory and mastery, a few burnt dishes, overcooked pasta, and dry roasts are to be expected. Don’t let a mishap in the kitchen get you down—it even happens to the pros on a bad day.
To help troubleshoot these kitchen nightmares, we chatted with Cal Peternell, who worked as the chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, for more than 20 years and is now the host of the podcast Cooking by Ear. He recently published his third cookbook, Burnt Toast, and Other Disasters: A Book of Heroic Hacks, Fabulous Fixes, and Secret Sauces, where he outlines simple hacks, tips, and tricks to make the most of kitchen mishaps and mistakes.
“I started to write it because when I would leave my little bubble of amazing food to go on vacation or visit family I would struggle to cook the way I usually did,” Peternell says.
I can relate. I remember the first time I made an angel food cake and got nervous about inverting it because I was using someone else’s pans; I ended up dropping the whole thing on the ground before making it to the table. Or when I thought I had mastered slow cooking short ribs and over-confidently took a quick trip to the beach to see the sunset while it simmered on low for two of the six hours it needed on the stove. I came home to a thick black layer on the bottom of a Dutch oven that could not be salvaged. But in the end, I still love angel food cake, and I often make short ribs when I’m expecting company on a cold winter day—because mistakes are normal!
In his new book, Peternell shares tips and recipes as well as personal anecdotes to help us all gain the gusto needed to serve a crowd or entertain at home with confidence. His first tip: Pay attention to timing. “Timing is really important: what things can be prepared ahead and what needs to be done at the last minute,” he tells us. “One thing that I try to do is visualize the menu and how it’s going to play out with a little bit of mental planning.” That planning can be entirely in your head, or if you are a note-taker, try writing out your menu on a notepad that stays in the kitchen so you can reference it as you start to prepare.
“The more you can do ahead the better,” Peternell says. “I’m finding more and more that you can actually do a lot in advance, which gives you time to actually be at the party when the time comes.”
Peternell shared a recipe with us from his book for mushroom meatballs (find it here) that can be made completely in advance. “Meatballs are a good one for a group of people because they’re generally inexpensive,” he says. “The recipe I have uses a lot of mushrooms, which you can get fancy with or just use button mushrooms.” Leftover meatballs can be made into a sauce-smothered sub or frozen for future use in spaghetti and meatballs. If you’re looking for a simple appetizer to serve at your next cocktail party, make mini versions of these meatballs and serve them with a trio of sauces and toothpicks for easy eating.
Dishes like these help minimize the amount of time spent hovering over a hot stove as your guests start to trickle in. If you have a few things on your list to prepare just before serving, Peternell shares a trick he swears by: “I have a timer that I always keep set in my kitchen. It’s not set to the time that something will be done or ready to come out of the oven, it’s just a reminder to check things,” he says. “This little timer allows me to do everything, like have people in the kitchen and drink some wine while three things are cooking at once. Without the timer, it could easily all slip into chaos but with the timer going I can forget about it for a minute, and when it rings it brings me back.”
I have a timer in my kitchen that’s shaped like a toaster and two slices of bread pop out when time is up. Peternell suggests a simple wind-up timer—though a phone timer will do!
Peternell stresses in his cookbook that even if a dish seems far gone, it can still be salvageable. “Keep in mind that sometimes the dish is just done, it’s gone, and you need to let it go and start over—but most of the time that’s not the case,” Peternell says. If your timer goes off but you’re carried away in a good conversation and so forget to check the oven, and now your still-roasting vegetables have a little char to them, don’t consider it a dud just yet.
Peternell shared a recipe with us for vegetables that might have been left a little too long in the oven. In his recipe for a roasted vegetable salad with lime, ginger, and cream (find it here) vegetables with a little dark char on the edges serve as the base. “Taste whatever it is first and make sure it doesn’t taste burnt and bitter. Often they are at that point where they have some caramelization and sweetness and can be salvaged and turned into something less pretty but still really good,” he says. The recipe is layered with vegetables tossed in a bright vinaigrette with crème fraîche that has been slightly thinned with water to reach a pourable consistency to drizzle on top just before serving. “Cream adds this layer of fat that helps mitigate the possibly burnt flavors of a dish,” Peternell says.
Whether you’re dealing with bland boiled vegetables, a slightly overcooked roast or casserole, or just looking to add an extra punch of flavor to a simple dish, Peternell swears by sauces. “If you slather on a pesto-type sauce, a compound butter, or a yogurt sauce, it can really come to the rescue for about anything,” he says. To help inspire your sauces, he shared three recipes for nut- and herb-based salsas (find them here) that can be served alongside a simple roasted chicken or tossed with boiled potatoes or roasted cauliflower.
For more tips on making the most out of your kitchen disasters, pick up a copy of his book, Burnt Toast and Other Disasters: A Book of Heroic Hacks, Fabulous Fixes, and Secret Sauces.