Saturday, February 6, 2010

0 Ex Malo Bonum: The Positive Side Of Culinary Disasters

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Ex malo bonum is a Latin phrase meaning "from bad comes good."  While this can apply to life general -- making lemonade out of lemons, etc., etc. -- I'd like to discuss how this concept applies to the kitchen.

Longtime readers might recall previous posts in which I rattle on about how even the best cooks have culinary bombs, & how these experiences are a valuable opportunity for growth. :-D  Well, not surprising, I'm not ashamed to admit that this knowledge was gained via personal experience. :)

It's... it's... ALIVE!!!!!!

On more than one occasion, what initially had appeared to be fanciful flights of culinary ecstasy somehow had morphed into kitchen disasters of epic proportion. :-D  Yes, I  like to get creative & experiment with some pretty "outlandish" combinations -- often with varying levels of success -- & sometimes living on the culinary edge has its hazards/costs.  But of course that is how we learn.  By making mistakes.

And then there is the humor to be found in it all. :) My family & I have laughed at a few of these bombs.  A couple of months ago, I attempted an original root vegetable soup recipe - consisting of pumpkin, turnip, & sweet potato -- which was created on the fly, out of a need to use up the root vegetables languishing away in my mother's wicker baskets. I got a little too fancy with the spices & also went a bit overboard on the amounts. Needless to say, THAT was a big mistake. In fact, the whole idea of it all -- the spice/ingredient combinations, my overzealous attempts to tap into the creative culinary zone that clearly just weren't happening, etc. -- was a serious mistake.  I should've just stopped when I knew things were turning south, but instead tried a last ditch attempt to save the recipe by trying to dilute it with soy milk.  Er, it didn't help one bit. :) There was nothing I could do to save it, or my parents from the experience of tasting it, except if I'd have thrown it out before serving it. :)

At dinner, my dad was a good sport about it & made an attempt to somehow force it down his gullet. Amazingly, even after I tasted it & made a face in his direction, he kept eating & told me that it wasn't that bad. Of course, when my mother & I tasted the soup, we both just looked at each other & laughed, & then looked at my father, who'd incredibly eaten about half of the soup in his bowl (while my mother & I had barely touched ours!), & laughed again. I think I might've exclaimed an emphatic "UGH!" after the initial tasting or something of that nature, & promptly told my dad, "Really, you don't have to eat it on my account. You won't hurt my feelings. Honestly. I don't even like it, & I'm the cook!"  We all had a good laugh about it, & then proceeded to the next course, which was thankfully a heck of a lot better; at that point, I hopefully had redeemed my cooking skills in light of the major bomb that'd immediately preceded it. :)

THIS, my friends, is why I have a test kitchen. :)  I don't usually subject others to these sorts of disasters, but since I was in charge of making dinner that night & was looking to make something new, I thought that it would be OK to experiment on the fly in front of a "live audience" without a backup menu plan, should things turn scary. Oops. :)

I have no difficulty calling myself out when I make a mistake or admitting my own kitchen disasters in front of my family.  I know that I, like many others, am not immune to "striking out."  I am very honest about these sorts of things with myself, my family, & friends.  And likewise, my family waste no time giving me their honest opinion of whether or not they like something I make. :-D

Thankfully, these kitchen disasters don't happen with regularity, or my very understanding family might not let me cook for them anymore. LOL.

But it does happen. Not just to me, but also to most other creative cooks who are constantly looking to expand their culinary horizons.

Then there was the incident of the blow-your-head-off hot & spicy chili that I made for my parents. That chili had just one too many chili peppers in it. :-D  As you may recall from earlier posts, the members of my family have a low-tolerance for 'pepper piquancy' whereas I have a rather high tolerance for it, & furthermore happen to like hot & spicy foods a great deal.  Don't ask me how that little bit of genetic freakdom happened. Maybe I am really the milkman's daughter. Who knows.  LOL.

The funny thing is that I'd made this very same recipe (minus a few chilis!) only days before & had fed it to some friends who really enjoyed it.  I sat down & ate it with them, so I know that they weren't just pretending for my benefit. ;)  It was a big success.

Somehow, when I repeated it, I got careless with the spices & added a bit too much cayenne pepper & red chili flakes.  Yes, one of those ingredients probably would've been sufficient!  Of course, it was off-the-charts hot.  Even for me. You had me at uno chili pepper. ;) Really.

Anyhow, through these experiences, I've learned some valuable lessons: (1) Don't create new recipes when you're under pressure to "use up" ingredients; (2) don't cook when you've had too little sleep; & (3) make sure that you are in the proper mind-frame to create before you actually do so (!!!).

Conversely, there are some tell-tale signs to indicate when person is in their "culinary zone." :-D  First of all, one's mood is pleasant & there's an air of anticipation.  There is no forced creativity.  It just flows & often happens spontaneously, as if out of nowhere. When it strikes, it's time to go for it.  Don't wait.  You need to get into that kitchen & start cooking NOW before you lose all creative inspiration.  Write down your recipes if you don't have the time to cook them; you don't want the moment to fade away without capturing it.

Also, when a kitchen adventure is spurred on by an inspirational cooking show or a visit to an open-air market,  organic garden, or farm, that's also usually a green light to go for it.

And lastly, I've found that the best moments for creation are when the mind is calm, with thoughts of cooking dancing in one's head. :) Those are usually also the times when your senses are well-attuned, & you just know that something good is going to come of it.

Even when things turn ugly, remember, there is always hope the next wonderful recipe creation is just around the corner.

Happy Creating & Bon Appétit,

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