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When kitchen experiments go wrong

Nick Baines, guardian.co.uk, Modified: April 19, 2013 13:10 IST

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When kitchen experiments go wrong When dads hit the kitchen with the zeal of the newly converted, experimentation can spell disaster. Can you top the tale of the chocolate digestive curry?

At the time of year when enthusiasm for the Christmas meal runs high and the preemptive appetite seems almost insatiable, pressure in the kitchen inevitably begins to build. The cook (let's not just assume it's going to be mum) will deal with a volume of food that neither they, nor their kitchen are used to. It's when we tend to make the most effort in feeding our loved ones, and beyond the perils of the still-frozen turkey or the Christmas pudding that explodes in the microwave, there is the added danger of just trying too damn hard.

"When I first started cooking at a restaurant in Covent Garden, we cooked in these big orange pots," explains Fergus Henderson, of St. John. "We made things like pot-au-feu and choucroute, every weekend practising. We took it very seriously, getting things prepared in advance, but on the opening day the beans had fermented in the cassoulet, it was a disaster, all bubbling with bits floating in it."

Beyond the misfortune of under- or overcooking it's often the desire to impress that leads to things going wrong. "I'd recently been to Lyon and had this classic pike mousse," says Glynn Purnell, chef and owner of Purnell's restaurant in Birmingham. "So for a dish I presented in The Great British Menu I decided to make a pike noodle with a cafetiere of herb and miso stock. I tried to think outside of the box, but it blew up in my face. It looked like an anaemic dog turd."

In the home, there are those of us who cook with meticulous precision, following recipes to the letter and finely measuring out each millilitre, gram and tablespoon. However, many more take matters into our own hands, using up whatever the fridge or kitchen cupboard have to offer. We go beyond the carefully advised substitutions of Nigel and Delia, and instead roll the dice of kitchen improvisation, spelling masterful triumph or gruesome disaster.

"'Why on earth have you done that?' is a very good phrase for the kitchen," says Jeremy Lee of London's Quo Vadis. "My mother was a fine cook and she made very good fish and chips - breadcrumbed fish fried in butter. She decided once to use up some Phileas Fogg Mignons Morceaux garlic breads. She ground them up and added them to the breadcrumbs. It was dreadful and the whole house stunk of this horrible garlic thing for about a week."

My own father retired in 2011 and over the past year has grown incredibly enthusiastic about cooking. Recently, when I popped over to visit my parents, Dad decided to reheat the leftover curries from the night before. In a spirit of thrift he decided to toss in the cooked bacon that wasn't eaten at breakfast, and the black pudding, and the fried egg. Not content with this masochistic approach to clearing out the fridge, he finished off his creation with three crumbled chocolate digestives that had been hanging out in the biscuit barrel for longer than he deemed appropriate. I've never missed my mother's cooking so much.

"Restraint is a good thing. It stops you going crazy. It's always sad when you go off the rails slightly and this thing you are making tastes yuck," says Henderson. "However, you have to have an open mind to taste something, whatever it is. I would always encourage experimenting, it's part of the learning curve."

While Glynn Purnell still gets chided by colleagues for the dog turd, and I try to remove the memory of the chocolate digestive curry, culinary horror stories like these will no doubt continue to unfold. Have you created a Frankenstein's monster in the kitchen or have you fallen victim of someone else's ill-conceived experiments?

There's a right time and a wrong time to experiment in the kitchen. Photograph: Matthew Farrant for the Guardian


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