No-Salt Cookery, or How to Suavely Cover Up Mistakes in the Kitchen

Posted June 05, 2008

In one of my first most painful days as a line cook many moons ago, when the slightest error on my part provoked near nervous breakdowns, my head chef discovered I was about to serve perfectly fried crabcakes that were frozen within. The refrigerator had run too cold the night before, and in my over-reliance on tongs I hadn't noticed my cakes were all ice. She turned to me in my panicked state and said, "Emily, I can't have a blabbering line cook. Watch me." As she deftly, subtly split the frozen thing in half to blitz it a moment under the broiler, she continued, "99% of being a good cook is knowing what to do when you screw up, because you're going to screw up all the time."

Advice for living, indeed. Fast forward 10 years: earlier this week I invited friends over for dinner, got stuck at the office and had only 20 minutes before they showed up to make them the roast chicken I'd promised them – mistake number one. I sallied forth, cutting up my chicken into quicker-cooking parts and switching from roasted baby yukons to faster mashed potatoes, when I discovered mistake number two: I'd somehow managed to run clean out of salt, and forgotten to get any more. I gave myself 2 long minutes to really savor my idiot status before I decided to get resourceful. I reached for my saltiest pantry items - soy sauce and fish sauce – and sprinkled a little of both on my chicken parts as they steam-sautéed in my skillet. A tablespoonful of each, and my caramelizing chicken skins turned that much darker and sweeter. As I gloried in my tasty triumph, I heard the doorbell ringing as I discovered goof number 3: no milk for the mash. Yogurt worked even better – somehow the tang made up for the salt-free status (as did loads of freshly ground pepper). My friends arrived and we sat down to a delicious meal, where I managed to avoid mistake number 4: confessing to them the extent to which I'd nearly screwed the whole thing up.

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