Thursday, 30 May 2024

Foodie Freak: My mistakes

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I don’t want people to think that I am some sort of cooking savant. Every exhilarating recipe I create is the culmination of 10 or more trials that my family chokes down which are edible at best, but sometimes are just horrid to look at.

My love of cooking originated in the garden and my attempts to create the best tasting ingredients that developed into a love of cooking those things. So I have no formal culinary training to my credit, just years of trial and error and error and error.

Recently, for instance, I saw a covey of quail running around and they stuck in the back of my mind. I’m sure that most of us have seen quail running around our neighborhoods here in the county. But something that most people wouldn’t know is that most of what you are seeing is feathers. Once they are plucked clean the body is quite tiny and you get only a couple of bites of meat off of each bird, so you have to give a person several quail on their plate in order to have a meaningful meal.

I picked up some quail at the Nylander’s Red and White that I found in their frozen meats freezer. I love the taste of quail and knew I could have some fun fixing it. I noticed that there were several more packages of them so if I came up with something I really liked I could come back for more and repeat the recipe.

My train of thought was straight and fast, but as it turned out it was a little too straight and fast; my mind completely missed several pitfalls in my planning. Just keep reading and don’t drink any coffee right now or it may end up on your monitor.

I thought, “Deep fried quail!” This seemed logical since the quail are so small and the hollow of the body cavity will allow the oil to cook from the inside as well. I thought “How quick and easy can you get?”

So I dredged the quail in rice flour in order to make the skin crispy and then dropped two of the whole quail into hot corn oil. As the quail cooked the legs rose up high and spread out wide into a downright pornographic appearance.

I also didn’t take into account that while rice flour does get crispy it doesn’t brown like wheat flour does. The quail cooking so quickly didn’t give the rice flour any time to get any color. So now not only have my quail distorted into unfortunate positions but they are pasty gray in appearance, further making an unpalatable picture.

As two of the quail finished cooking I put them on a plate in the oven to stay warm and I proceeded to cook the next two. As those two finish I quickly toss them on the plate with the first pair and start the final two.

This method was working out very well and I was fairly pleased, until I threw the final two quail on the plate and removed it from the oven and see to my horror that I have created a Lilliputian orgy scene that would have easily graced one of Caligula’s banquets with honor.

I have several more explanations of what this plate looked like but they would never make it past any of my editors. It’s pretty bad when Caligula is part of the family friendly description!

As I look at this plate of entwined ashen gray birds, I’m at a loss for words. I can’t serve this ... I can barely look at this! All of a sudden I feel like I’m on some sort of reality cooking show and the people at home are watching and laughing at my misfortune, just waiting to see what I do next.

I quickly race to the spice rack and proclaim in victory, “Paprika!” Not only will it hide the pasty color of the quail, but it is smoked paprika and will add a great new layer of flavor. I start pulling the quail apart from their tangle and start shaking the paprika everywhere, praying nobody can actually see this x-rated comedy scene. Meanwhile, I’m steaming the broccoli and mashing the potatoes, knowing full well that those two things are going to be the mainstay of everyone’s meals. In the back of my mind there is this little Han Solo quote repeating over and over in my head, “It’s not my fault!”

My family is now assembled for dinner, and I admit my misfortunes up front and asked for a measure of kindness and please, nobody comment on them. My petting-zoo-vegetarian daughter says quietly, “Don’t serve me any quail please,” and I experience a silent sigh of relief that I don’t have to put the quail on her plate and have them accidentally intertwine into any version of what I just saw.

The quail were actually delicious, despite their peculiar appearance. They were perfectly cooked, but they were just too much work for my family. My daughter wouldn’t eat something that she can empathize with, and my wife can’t get past the amount of labor needed for such a small amount of food.

So this first attempt at quail was a failure, but one I learned a LOT from. I plan to make it again but next time, instead of hitting the ground running with an idea before thinking it through, I’ve already started planning my next attempt. Although I probably want to deep fry them again, next time they will definitely be de-boned first. This was my most recent and dramatic food mistake.  

Then there was my idea of grilling bacon. Come on, think about it: the flavor of bacon and the grill? How can this not already be on every street corner? Well, it turns out that even if you grill the bacon over indirect heat to avoid letting the drippings hit the coals and causing flare-ups, the amount of drippings will eventually become so large and get hot enough that they spontaneously ignite into a fireball and smoke cloud that could make China accuse us of an unauthorized missile launch they witnessed by satellite.

Stuffed squid? Never again. Not only did I spend time making the stuffing and then piping into the tiny opening of the squid body but I tried the new technique that the “TV chef” recommended, consisting of turning every tube inside out before filling in order to keep the bodies from shrinking too much.

This of course added another half an hour to the labor of gutting and cleaning each individual squid, but it turns out that it doesn’t keep the tubes from shrinking at all. They shrink just as much and you have wasted all of this time doing it. The squid shrinks down to bite-size appetizers, so when it comes time to serve I end up presenting what appears to be a plate full of bullets.

I try to purchase a variety of foods for my family but unfortunately the only thing that my wife and daughter both like to eat is chocolate, so no matter what I cook someone isn’t going to like dinner.

In my efforts to find things that everybody will eat I’ve tried cooking some more exotic things. This has only led us to the to the point where my family doesn’t trust me not to sneak freakish things like alligator meat into a soup, so when I am serving dinner I must now announce every item used in preparation of the meal as if I am in the confessional: “Bless me Father for I have sinned, there are anchovies in the sauce.”

Julie Hoskins of Chic Le Chef in Hidden Valley Lake can confirm that I am not the next Gordon Ramsay or Thomas Keller. Every month at her “Chef’s Table” night we have a cooking competition, and I never win. I’m OK with that (sort of) and actually hope I don’t win (so I tell myself). I’m more interested in the competition aspect and surprising people – sometimes a little too much – with the dishes that I create.

My lamb chops with watermelon sauce and my dessert made from bacon were meant to catch people off guard in the spirit of experimentation, more than to win the competition (yeah, that’s it). I mean, if she wants me to make a soup out of dill pickles I’ll try it ... it’s not like I have to eat it.

Hey! I just thought of another thing I could make to shock the judges: I’ll call it my “Roman Passion Party Quail.” It won’t win (again), but it will astonish the judges. Besides, I think the other contestants cheat anyway.

I’ve made many mistakes in my kitchen, but it’s all part of the development process. I’ve got some recipes that are still in the development stage, like the lime and tequila chili and the barbecue ribs in chocolate sauce. Hopefully I’ll have more successes in the future and you won’t hear about too many of the failures of nuclear proportion.

Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.

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