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Rebounding from kitchen disasters

I blew it.

Several times.

My confidence was shaken.

It’s bound to happen: you mess something up, you make a mistake, demolish a dish, ruin a recipe, maul a meal.

Even if you’re obsessed with detail, it’s inevitable: there will be failures in the kitchen.

Since I am about as far from anal retentive as one can get, I occasionally suffer setbacks when I cook. I had a couple recently; they were devastating and I needed to do something spectacular, quick, in order to restore my bravado. I’ve set a date with a slab of Wagyu, and I have to be in top form.

My career as a serial failure began Saturday, a week ago. I was still working on my scallop and shrimp terrine recipe, determined to smooth it out, rarify the blend. I produced the terrines, putting them to bake in a bain marie and I set to work on the sauce.

I put a major mess of shrimp shells, a few black peppercorns, a bit of bay leaf, some tarragon and a spritz of commercial Cajun seasoning in water, then simmered the mix.

I figured 30 minutes would give me a decent base and I was right. So far, so good.

I strained the mixture and put the stock back on medium heat to reduce, intending to adjust the seasonings once the liquid was concentrated, then add a touch of heavy cream and a huge amount of butter.

While the brew simmered, I left the kitchen to check my e-mail. I had several messages, including an ominous missive from my dear friend, Starling. He is teaching high school in Florida instead of exercising his God-given talent as a movie reviewer and he is suffering the inevitable psychic consequences of a silly choice.

I read and reread the e-mail and began to craft a sarcastic response,

That’s when I smelled it: scorched crustacean.

I leaped from my chair and hustled to the kitchen. Too late.

The liquid was gone; an ugly brown scum was rapidly drying on the bottom of the pan. I tried to revive the leavings with a bit of water. It tasted like it looked: nasty, dark brown, salty, burnt.

Aaargh.

I searched for clam juice, something to build a palatable stock, pronto.

Nuthin’.

I located a batch of freezer-burned shrimps tucked behind a tray of Dean and De Lucca lamb sausages. I did a quick-fix job, emulsifying a weak shrimp stock with six tablespoons of butter. I floated the terrines in the insipid brew and …

I drank enough white Bordeaux to allow me the illusion that nothing was wrong, that I hadn’t lost my touch.

Next up: the gougere disaster.

I should have known better.

Here’s the scene: I’m getting together with my friends to watch a sporting event on TV. Everyone is bringing food.

I decide to up the ante and whip up gougeres —  nifty little cheesy-good tidbits that go oh so well with a drink or two. Or three.

Why I decided to do this, I don’t know. My friends are hapless louts, spasmos better suited to fried pork skins than a classic French tidbit. Even something simple, like gougeres, are pearls before swine.

I set to work on the pate a choux. Easy, huh? Milk, flour, salt, eggs, cheese. Standard cream puff paste. My Aunt Hazel could make it in her sleep, sweet or savory.

I got fancy and I got careless: I added paprika, some New Mexico red chile powder, a bit of cumin. I made the dough, first in a pan on the stove, then pulsed it in the processor while adding the eggs — not enough, as it turned out. I mixed in grated Swiss and Parmesan cheeses, tasting and adjusting the seasoning, fearless in the face of the dread salmonella.

I cut parchment and lined baking sheets then plopped the dough on the sheets using a measuring spoon to ensure uniform balls.

They went into the oven where they promptly collapsed. I produced flat gougeres, where puffy round mounds were supposed to be.

Fortunately, my dear friends don’t know a gougere from a non-box wine, so I had only my own disappointment to deal with.

I’d hit bottom. Two bombs in a row. I needed to make a comeback.

I made my move, with help: a neat little package from a friend. He had been in Chicago and brought me an ounce and a half package of bliss— a small tin of glace de viand. This is concentrated veal stock, a protein punch powerful enough to bring a full-grown lad like myself to his knees.

And what did I have in the fridge?

Miracle of miracles, in Siberia With a View —two veal shanks, ripping ready to go.

Yahoo. I had the materials, if only I could summon the confidence and the skill.

I winged it, and I succeeded, crawling from the inky depths to stand again in pure, white light.

I browned the shanks, removed them from the ovenproof pan and threw in a chunky mix of onion, celery, carrot leek and garlic. I sauteed the vegetables for a few minutes softening and caramelizing them, deglazed the pan with half a bottle of syrah, threw in some beef stock, a can of diced tomato and the juice, thyme, bay leaf, salt, pepper and nested the shanks on the veggies. Into the oven it all went, covered, at 350, for four hours.

I removed the meat, strained the stock and reduced the remaining stock by three quarters, seasoning to bring up the flavor. Then I threw half of the glace de viand into the stock and melted the gelatinous miracle. After putting the meat back in for a brief trip to Heatville, I turned off the burner and plopped in some butter for sheen and silkiness.

Oh, mommy.

As a side, some peppery greens with a citrus vinaigrette.

To cement the comeback, I whipped up a gratin dauphinoise. I departed from the norm for the recipe and succeeded brilliantly.

Hats off to Jeffery Steingarten, one of my favorite food writers. I’d been rereading his book, “It Must Have Been Something I Ate,” and he goes on in detail about the best way to cook a gratin.

He is right: thin, uniform slices of spud slightly overlapped in rows in one layer in a buttered casserole. Milk containing a couple cloves of bruised garlic, salt, pepper and a smattering of nutmeg is brought to a boil then, with cloves removed, is poured over the spuds. The mix is baked, covered with foil, until the milk is nearly gone then cream, brought to the boil, is poured into the casserole and the whole mess is dotted with nuggets of butter. The gratin is baked, uncovered, until the cream is reduced to its essential butter-curdy essence and the tops of the potatoes are dappled, golden brown.

Mercy. A slab of the gratin with a wash of the sauce from the veal. How to describe it?

I can’t.

I felt better, revitalized, my confidence shored, my kitchen courage refueled.

I’m going to need it.

The other day I made a momentous decision.

I’m on the table, face down, getting a massage from Becky — the World’s Greatest and Bravest Massage Therapist. Becky is kneading me, stretching me. She is a dynamo.  My flab is moving in six different directions at once and, between groans, a thought comes into my mind.

The most logical thought possible, given my circumstance at the time.

Wagyu.

Premier beef. The breed behind Japan’s fabled Kobe beef — the cow pampered, fed the richest diet, massaged (at least according to myth) by its handlers, until its incredibly marbled flesh is soft as a baby’s bottom, melt-in-the-mouth perfect.

As soon as I returned home from my session with Becky, I went to the Web. I located a couple of American Wagyu producers. One, from Texas, will mail me a pound of his AAA Private Stock filets for a sum well over $170. He’ll send me four small ribeyes for slightly less.

Another retailer will freight four, 14-ounce bone-in ribeyes to my door for a mere $250.

This is a monumental expense and the process will require immense care.

It has to be done.

I’ve got to do it.

Wagyu ribeyes, pan seared and finished in the oven, with a cabernet reduction using the remainder of the glace. A reprise of the gratin. An incidental green thing on the side for Kathy.

A carnivore carnival.

I’m excited again, moving forward foodwise, without trepidation.

I feel like a hitter who’s finally broken a major slump.

I’m back. I’m ready.

Bring on the beef.

This story was posted on May 30, 2013.