Monday, July 8, 2013

Going Down With the Ship

I’m starting to believe my life is really just a series of projects, some successful, some not so amazing. Not sure why that is. Perhaps I’m a challenge junkie. Probably. But it’s always surprising at how easily a particular challenge gets away from us and becomes a frightful mess. It happens in my kitchen on a regular basis. I like cooking. I like the magic of chemistry paired with technique and sometimes sheer luck. When it works it’s incredibly satisfying and a source of joy. But when it goes horribly wrong it becomes a nightmare of epic proportions until I take a breath, walk away and find some desperately needed perspective.

Moving to Australia has presented an entire universe of fresh challenges for me. Cooking methods, measurements and ingredients vary widely. The things I have become accustomed to using in the past often don’t exist here or are called something completely different. And that means mistakes and having to find approximate substitutions that may or may not work. But I’ve been feeling a little more confident in this kitchen of late. I’ve got bread working properly now, and have been steadily adding more items to the repertoire, so I assumed (foolishly) that I could certainly prepare an old trusted standby for dinner guests last week. To celebrate Canada Day belatedly with some fellow Canadians I decided it would be fun to recreate a typical Canada Day family bbq menu – beef on a bun, potato salad, coleslaw, baked beans. Easy. HA! Instead it became a comedy of errors. I went shopping for an inexpensive roast to use for the beef. Good old outside round, right? Nope. After hunting through the meat department I found something that looked right. A silverside roast. Looked like the same cut. But then out of the corner of my eye I spotted a bargain. A corned silverside roast. Looked about the same. Just pre-marinated and about 1/3 cheaper. So I fired off a text to Trevor to get some input. Nada. So I thought I would just have to trust myself this time and save $5. I already had potatoes for the salad, and once I found a coleslaw mix I thought it would be plain sailing. Nope.

I took the roast out of the packaging the night before to put on the spice rub I normally use. It was strangely sticky, but I figured that was probably normal. I would just tone down the amount of salt and sugar in my normal dry rub. (yes, I really am this dopey. At no point did I look at the sodium levels on the packaging. Just read the ingredients and figured it would be fine.) The roast went back into a glass bowl in the fridge to absorb the flavours overnight. The next day I pulled it out and it looked fine, so it went into a roaster and then into the oven to sear and then slow roast. I started the potatoes in the meantime and did my usual method – bring them to boil and cook about 15 minutes then directly into cold water to keep them from going mushy. Then pull off the skins and cube them once cool. Except they weren’t quite cooked enough. So back into a glass bowl and into the microwave to finish them off. No problem. Of course I didn’t figure this out until later in the day and then salad usually needs a good 3-4 hours to sit in the fridge to taste right. Back in the microwave. Twice. Then I let them sit covered on the counter in the hopes they would finish their cooking and be good to go while I rushed off to the store to get something I had completely forgotten. The roast smelled pretty good by this point and I figured everything was on schedule. Tossed the potatoes into the other ingredients when I got back and assumed it would be fine. Beans were good to go. Just enough time for a quick tidy of the house.

About an hour and a half before our guests were to arrive I took the roast out to slice it in preparation to make the bbq sauce. At this point I tasted the abundant juices in the pan to discover this particular cut of meat had been brined to seaworthiness. Absolute panic. This was a big chunk of meat. So we decided to put the now sliced roast through a series of rinses in water to pull the salt from the beef, and set about creating a new sauce from scratch that might counteract the disaster. Another trip to the store. I also checked the potato salad at this point beginning to fear this was just going to be one of those meals of titanic tendency that every cook fears and yet knows is inevitable sometimes. Crunchy potatoes. Not all of them. Just enough to make it obvious that it wasn’t quite right. The meat was luckily tasting palatable at this point so into the jiffy sauce and the real juices went into a jar and out with the trash.

Now, I’m already somewhat flustered by the looming disaster. I should have suspected the potential. The night before my husband noted that the rolls I had made to accompany the meal were somewhat small. So I had purchased a few large rolls at the store to make up for the inadequacy. My culinary confidence is pretty fragile at this point in time. I have invited people into my home to feed them and the food has failed me. So I’m going to be starting the evening in apology mode. And I remember just how many times in the past this has happened to me. A nightmare of a zucchini quiche, fallen bread, a cake that refuses to cook in the middle, dry cookies, leaden muffins, crumbly pastry, glutinous rice in the slow cooker, the list could go on forever. When I screw up in the kitchen, I do it with great efficiency, and usually in quantity. So what is the real problem here? How do I keep doing this, because it doesn’t always happen. Most of the time I’m pretty good, but when it’s bad, it’s beyond awful. I have a theory.

Mistake #1 – misunderstanding/overlooking key elements of the recipe/ingredients: this is what happened this time with the roast. Somewhere in my brain a tiny voice of warning said, “Corned? What does that mean? Is it meant to be like a corned beef? Maybe that’s not a good idea.” In my rush to get everything done I completely disregarded the voice and replied,”Naw. It’ll be fine. It’s just a roast. And it’s so much cheaper. I’m sure it will be okay.”
Mistake #2 – Rushing the preparation: the potatoes. I should have made absolutely sure they were cooked enough at first instead of assuming that it would work like it always has in the past. Five more minutes would have been enough before I took them off the stove. It would have saved me so much rescue effort.
Mistake #3 – Going down with the ship. I do this all the time. Not just with cooking. I have a tendency to designate a seeming failure as part of my due punishment. I have a hard time walking away from the wreckage and starting over. I often think that I can somehow save it and still smile. And because sometimes it works, I usually try even when CPR is fruitless and I really should just call it. But that would be wasteful, and irresponsible, so I keep pounding away at it.

It really wasn’t that bad. Not my best effort, truthfully, but the beef actually tasted pretty good for having been rinsed to death, and the crunchy potatoes were okay. And each time I go through this kind of thing I learn a little bit about my weaknesses. I don’t like to admit defeat, I don’t always approach the kitchen with caution, and I tend to do these things when someone is coming over or it’s an important occasion. I’m a self-destructive cook. Better just admit it. But I probably won’t quit, because when I succeed it’s worth every failure. And next time will be so much better. Really.

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