Entertaining Mistakes

It's your worst nightmare: intimate dinner or big splashy event, and something goes horribly wrong. The causes can be legion. The only known antidote: humor & quick thinking.

Oops! Entertaining Mistakes

Oops! Entertaining Mistakes

A house full of guests and the oven is afire? How about a table of hungry diners and not enough food to feed a bird? First thing: Don't panic! Take a cue from a few of our favorite tales of entertaining faux pas and stay on your toes. A dash of quick thinking and a splash of humor will pull you through. And, you never know, your mistake may turn into a dinner party hit.

Pig on fire!

Photo: Yasu & Junko

Pig on fire!

Who: Michael Chiarello, chef/owner of Bottega Restaurant in California’s Napa Valley

Result: Flame throwing oven.

As a young chef, I was asked to do a series of dinners in a program called Great Chefs in Great Homes. This one was a 10,000-square-foot home overlooking San Francisco Bay. I was cooking a slow-roasted suckling pig that didn’t quite fit in the roasting pan—its nose was sticking over the edge.

Many hours into the cooking, just prior to serving, we looked through the oven window and saw fat dripping off the nose onto the floor of the oven and flaming up. When we opened the oven door, oxygen rushed in and hit the fire, and a 4-foot flame came ripping out of the oven! (continued on next slide)

Pig on Fire! (Part 2)

Illustration: Barry Blitt

Pig on fire! (Part 2)

I shut the oven door and whispered to the owner, “If you could, announce a toast to your guests with really loud applause. Before you do that, please show me where the fire extinguisher is.” I directed my sous chef to run to the bedroom and pull a sheet off the bed and drench it with water.

What now? The host gave the toast, the guests began to clap, and we opened the oven, threw a sheet over the pig, and wrestled the pan safely out. Then we sprayed the oven with the extinguisher. We saved the pig and the dinner, but my crew and I worked until sunrise cleaning all of the extinguisher soot off the walls of this brand-new home.

Fresh flowers bring unexpected guests to the party

Photo: Yasu & Junko

Fresh flowers bring unexpected guests to the party

Who: Joanne Singleton, Cooking Light reader, via Facebook

Result: Creepy crawlies on the cake

Someone made a cake with white frosting and thought to decorate it with flowers from their garden. Once the candles were lit, we watched the inchworms that had been on the flowers stand up and dance because of the heat from the candles!

What now? Perhaps fresher isn’t always better. When in doubt, stick with decorations not found in the garden.

Good fortune begins with dumb mistake

Illustration: Barry Blitt

Good fortune begins with dumb mistake

Who: Daniel Humm, executive chef, Eleven Madison Park, New York, New York

Result: Burnt chicken and years of laughs.

When my wife and I were first dating, I invited her over to my apartment to cook dinner for her for the first time. I had planned a very simple dinner, but I was still very nervous. The chicken was nearly done roasting when she arrived, so we sat down and started to drink wine… and later, I smelled the chicken’s burning skin.

What now? Needless to say, we ended up going out for Chinese food instead.

Big bird, wee pan

Photo: Yasu & Junko

Big bird, wee pan

Who: Jennifer Drawbridge, nurse, midwife, and Cooking Light Stress Bunny columnist, Lincolnville, Maine

Result: Big kitchen, thick smoke, poor visibility.

The first year I hosted Thanksgiving in our first house, my mom and dad insisted on bringing a turkey. I’d celebrated the holiday with them for 30 years by then, but I had forgotten about my mom’s rule of turkey-to-person ratio: The turkey should always be twice the size of the largest child. That year, feeding six, they showed up with a turkey that weighed more than 21 pounds. I didn’t own a big roasting pan. We’d bought one of those ordinary flimsy tin pans from the grocery store, but this turkey was so huge that when we put it in the pan, it looked like an SUV parked on a coaster. (continued on next slide)

Big bird, wee pan (part 2)

Big bird, wee pan (part 2)

Despite our best efforts, the turkey drumsticks and neck still hung over the edges. I jammed the behemoth into the oven, and in no time the kitchen was filled with oily turkey smoke.

What now? Fat was dripping onto the floor of the oven. So, my husband took the thing out and wrestled the very heavy, very slippery, and now very hot turkey up high enough so that my sister and I could insert a collar made of tin foil around the edge of the pan. I’m happy to say it worked like a charm.

Deborah Madison’s sticky situation

Illustration: Barry Blitt

Deborah Madison’s sticky situation

Who: Deborah Madison, author of Seasonal Fruit Desserts from Orchard, Farm, and Market and advisor and former board member to The Seed Savers Exchange, Sante Fe, New Mexico

I was testing recipes for my book, working out the Winter Squash and Date Cake, which is a big, moist cake that I had planned to serve that night for company. I used a new pan, and the cake stuck to it. I had no choice but to pry it out.

What now? I broke up the pieces and made a “bread” pudding with it. It was delicious that way—soft and succulent with bits of dates here and there. It was, in the end, a very successful dessert. But I’d never make that cake in order to make that dish.

 

Dog reconsiders

Photo: Yasu & Junko

Dog reconsiders

Who: Ann Taylor Pittman, executive editor, Cooking Light

Result: Ice cream gets the cold shoulder

One summer evening during my graduate school years, I threw an impromptu dinner party.  My guests included a couple of professors I wanted to impress. When it was time to move on to dessert, I invited everyone into the kitchen to scoop and assemble bowls of blueberry crisp and ice cream. My beloved dog, Feck, who had been on his best behavior all night, trotted into the kitchen with us. He settled away from the action. What a good boy! I was on scoop duty but missed an outstretched bowl and dropped a perfectly round ball of ice cream on the floor. Feck swooped in and vacuumed that ice cream ball right up. (continued on next slide)

Dog reconsiders (part 2)

Dog reconsiders (part 2)

Everyone laughed, until the ice cream re-emerged from the dog and out onto the kitchen floor: a still-frigid ball of vanilla ice cream. Most of my guests ended up skipping dessert.

What now? To this day, when food is being served, the pups are out of the house.

Ming Tsai smashes a thousand dumplings

Illustration: Barry Blitt

Ming Tsai smashes a thousand dumplings

Who: Ming Tsai, chef/owner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Emmy Award-winning host of Public Television’s Simply Ming. His Latest cookbook is Simply Ming One-Pot Meals.

Result: Gobs of unservable dumplings.

At the Aspen Food & Wine festival in 2009, I was the chef picked to do an hors d’oeuvres party for about 150 at a gigantic mansion up in the hills. One of my seven recipes was a shrimp shumai, which is a foolproof dish of steamed dumplings stuffed with shrimp mousse and served with a citrus truffle oil. I had cooked in Aspen many times, but I had never steamed something at that altitude before. Well, I saw that the water wasn’t boiling hot enough. It came to a simmer, but not a rolling boil—a disaster for shumai. (continued on next slide)

Ming Tsai smashes a thousand dumplings (part 2)

Ming Tsai smashes a thousand dumplings (part 2)

By the time the guests started showing up, each of these shumai had turned into a completely unserveable globular mess. I was in a pickle.

What now? I saw this huge paella pan on the wall and thought, “We have this big grill here inside …” I cleaned off the pan, coated it with oil, added a bunch of minced scallions and ginger, and started heating it on the grill. I took my hundreds of shumai, and with two wet hands, smashed them thin. I covered the whole paella pan with them, and they crisped up beautifully. Then I flipped them and crisped them on the other side. I garnished with scallions, put the citrus truffle vinaigrette on the whole pan, and set it up on bricks at the buffet. I now serve “smashed shumai” in my restaurant.

2 turkeys + 1 oven = uh oh

2 turkeys + 1 oven = uh oh

Who: Susan Aronson, creator, mypheme.com, Westport, Connecticut

Result: Two undercooked birds.

Dark meat has always been a premium at my house. There never seems to be enough. So last year, I decided to roast two smaller turkeys instead of one big one. What I didn’t think about was what happens to the cooking time with two birds crowded into one oven. The buzzer went off, I pulled them out, and they were a delicious looking golden brown. Four slices into the first bird, though, I noticed that it wasn’t cooked.

What now? About 55 minutes later, both birds finally were done to perfection, but I couldn’t help noticing that everyone kept checking their meat.

 

A great big pasta disasta

Photo: Yasu & Junko

A great big pasta disasta

Who: Carla Frank, creative director, Cooking Light

Result: Exploding ravioli

My contribution to a double birthday party for my now ex-husband and a friend’s husband was going to be a pumpkin Parmesan ravioli appetizer with handmade pasta. I wanted to do something over-the-top and really spectacular. I had never made the dish before and I knew you weren’t supposed to guinea pig people, but I had tried new recipes other times, and those had turned out fine. (continued on next slide)

A great big pasta disasta (part 2)

A great big pasta disasta (part 2)

Pasta for 20 people is a lot of pasta! Eventually I got the pasta rolled out and managed to fill and seal it, which was a very long process because my counter wasn’t big enough. Each ravioli looked fine, so I took them to the house where we were cooking. But there weren’t enough pots—or stovetops. We had to make do with two or three pots, and they were all boiling at different times, and some of the ravioli exploded. So then I had to hand wash the intact ravioli so the sauce would adhere.

What now? I had to recruit friends to pat the ravioli down in an assembly line and toss them in butter sauce. In the end, the flavors were good, but the texture was gooey.

Man of a billion omelet combos

Photo: Yasu & Junko

Man of a billion omelet combos

Who: Ben Baron, owner, Baron Education and Drivesafe Driving Schools, Evergreen, Colorado

Result: Omelet madness

After claiming for years that I wanted a second career as a short-order breakfast cook, I finally had a chance to showcase my mad skills on my daughter’s bat mitzvah weekend. Me cranking out omelets for 25 at Sunday brunch. How hard could it be? Years earlier, my mother had bought me an omelet pan with hinges in the middle to facilitate risk-free flipping. The pan was, in fact, nearly foolproof, so I figured four of these pans would be four times as foolproof. (continued on next slide)

Man of a billion omelet combos (part 2)

Photo: Yasu & Junko

Man of a billion omelet combos (part 2)

The first couple of omelets came off the pans fine. Then the orders started coming in faster. Picture the omelet equivalent of the I Love Lucy conveyor-belt-at-the-chocolate-factory episode. Burnt omelets, half-cooked omelets, raw omelets: If you were lucky enough to get served at all, that’s what you got.

What now? Still, to my knowledge, my pride and culinary dreams were the only real casualties of the day.

 

250 shrimp do a disappearing act

Photo: Yasu & Junko

250 shrimp do a disappearing act

Who: Molly O’Neill, former New York Times Magazine food columnist and host of PBS’s Great Food. Her most recent cookbook is One Big Table: A Portrait of Modern American Cooking.

Result: Shells—sans shrimp.

I was cooking a dinner party for very much an A-list group of about 20 people in my New York City loft. I had 25 pounds of fabulous fresh shrimp, and I was doing a recipe that I was going to run in The Times. I juiced a little pineapple with some chiles and lime for a hot-and-sour marinade. Then, I grilled the marinated shrimp in their shells. As they were grilling, the shrimp themselves disappeared. They just shriveled away to nothing. All I had left were empty shells! (continued on next slide)

250 shrimp do a disappearing act (part 2)

Illustration: Barry Blitt

250 shrimp do a disappearing act (part 2)

Turns out I had underestimated the power of bromelain, the pineapple enzyme that’s so powerful it can digest protein. (It’s often used as a meat tenderizer.) But here’s the worst part: I was writing about the power of the pineapple enzyme at the time!

What now? On a dime, I had to replan the entire meal. But I dined out on the story for years.

Trisha Yearwood's clunker of a pie

Photo: Yasu & Junko

Trisha Yearwood's clunker of a pie

Who: Trisha Yearwood, Grammy Award winner and author of Home Cooking with Trisha Yearwood

Result: Candy coated chaos

One of my best friends is an actor named Karri Turner. She and I worked together on the set of JAG, and she’s a good old Southern gal like me. Living in L.A., she craves comfort food, so every year on her birthday, she comes through Oklahoma and I make her favorite dinner: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, and pecan pie instead of birthday cake. I usually make the pies the night before, but one year I didn’t have time, so I did it all in one day. I’m used to a hectic kitchen, but when you have that much stuff going on, sometimes things go awry. (continued on next slide)

Trisha Yearwood's clunker of a pie (part 2)

Illustration: Barry Blitt

Trisha Yearwood's clunker of a pie (part 2)

When I pulled the pie out of the oven, I thought, “Wow! This is the most beautiful pecan pie I’ve ever made.” That should have been ominous, but I didn’t think anything more of it until it came time for dessert. The pie was very hard to cut. The topping had almost a praline candy quality. Suddenly it hit me … I had put the butter in the microwave to melt it and forgotten to take it out to add to the filling. I opened the microwave door, and there sat a huge bowl of butter.

What now? We still laugh about that pie.

Um, where's the rest of my feast?

Photo: Yasu & Junko

Um, where's the rest of my feast?

Who: Ana Tenzer, law partner, Denver, Colorado

Result: A miniature-sized meal

This year’s Passover dinner was one of many that we’ve had in our home over the 18 years I’ve been with my husband, who understands that I grew up in a Spanish/Cuban family where it’s mandatory to serve more than is ever possible to consume in a sitting–mandatory! And to have tons of leftovers.

I was closing a deal at work, so we agreed that he would do the dinner: brisket and asparagus. We didn’t talk about the amounts, or about the other sides. I’m a micromanager, but I left it up to him. That night I walked in to dinner at the same time that the guests arrived, and he pulls out the brisket. There was maybe enough meat for the Olsen twins: It was one-fourth of what we needed to serve eight people! Then he put out like 24 pieces of asparagus. No roasted potatoes, no salad.

What now? At that point we were counting off the asparagus. I’ve never in my life had a dinner where the plate in front of you is empty before the meal!

All that’s white isn’t sugar. Or salt.

All that’s white isn’t sugar. Or salt.

Who: Marcella Simon Vander Eems, Cooking Light reader, via Facebook

Result: A not so sweet ending

How about the New Year’s Eve I made this awesome new punch recipe that called for powdered sugar? I could not figure out why the sugar kept settling on the bottom of the punch bowl. Turns out I had put in cornstarch instead of powdered sugar.

What now? Check the labels next time!

Young cook, eager to impress

Illustration: Barry Blitt

Young cook, eager to impress

Who: Allison Fishman, Cooking Light contributor and author of You Can Trust a Skinny Cook 

Result: Food comas, all around

This was before I went to culinary school and before I realized I had no idea what I was doing in the kitchen. I invited a couple of friends to join me and my boyfriend for dinner. I was in the nesting phase, when you’re kind of just figuring stuff out. I was like, “I’m going to make osso buco! And I will make a saffron risotto! And I will have a cheese board!” I’m not sure if I finished with a flourless chocolate cake or some sort of dense custard. Dinner was an endless parade of all this heavy, hypercaloric food. I don’t remember when we all passed out—I just remember waking up on the couch. We were all in food comas. I had absolutely no sense of how to put a meal together.

What now? Take inspiration from our entertaining menus.

Case of the untested Craig Claiborne recipe

Photo: Yasu & Junko

Case of the untested Craig Claiborne recipe

Who: Linda Wells, editor in chief, Allure

Result: Stuck between a rock and a chocolate cake.

When I was the food editor of The New York Times Magazine many moons ago, I was invited to a dinner where I knew the hosts but none of the other guests. I volunteered to bring dessert: I was eager to make a recipe Craig Claiborne gave me for a lemon tart with a sheet of chocolate between the lemon and the pastry. Craig was peerless, but the recipe hadn’t been tested. That didn’t stop me for a second, but when I made the tart, the proportions seemed off: I thought there was too much chocolate. (continued on next slide)

Case of the untested Craig Claiborne recipe (part 2)

Illustration: Barry Blitt

Case of the untested Craig Claiborne recipe (part 2)

After the host served the tart with a preamble about my cooking CV, everyone tried to cut into it. A beefy man finally bored through the chocolate layer, his plate nearly shattering from the force.

What now? I ended up dishing out ice cream—and apologies.

Clean eating before there was such a thing

Clean eating before there was such a thing

Who: Susie McMillan Cearley, Cooking Light reader, via Facebook

Result: Pine-fresh cookies.

I wanted to impress the family with my homemade sugar cookies at our regular Sunday dinner. When my brother-in-law said, “Susie, these cookies taste like soap,” I thought he was teasing me. But I had wiped the kitchen counter with a pine cleaner and then put down a tea towel to lay out the cookies to decorate them.

What now? Next time, choose decorating surfaces carefully.

Bragg sets bar low, then fails to get over it

Photo: Yasu & Junko

Bragg sets bar low, then fails to get over it

Who: Rick Bragg, author, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and University of Alabama writing professor. His most recent book is The Prince of Frogtown.

Result: Spitting peas

I invited company over once for Hamburger Helper. That might not seem like the kind of thing you’d feed company, but setting the bar low has been my culinary strategy for a very long time. I had a skillet. I had a spoon. I had hamburger, and I had Hamburger Helper. Everything was going right until I decided I needed a green vegetable. So I went and got a can of Le Sueur peas and got to thinking, “If you just opened the can and set it on the stove, would the peas not heat?” Bad things happen when you do that. First, the paper label caught on fire. I’m not altogether clear on what happened next—whether the seam opened or the peas just boiled out. But peas and pea juice ran down into the electric eye and began to spit at me.

What now: To turn the burner off on the stove, I had to reach over spitting peas. I didn’t impress anybody that day.

A Google search could have helped a Google exec

A Google search could have helped a Google exec

Who: Craig Nevill-Manning, engineering director, Google, New York, New York

When my wife and I lived in San Francisco, we were good friends with neighbors in the apartment upstairs. Bill was a fantastic cook, and we ended up at their place most Sunday evenings for his amazing chateaubriand. We wanted to return the favor, and all was going well as we cooked Mark Bittman’s salmon with pinot noir sauce. Then everything unraveled when we got to dessert—poached pears with Marsala. A pint of Marsala seemed like a lot because when we went to the supermarket, all of the packages were very small. But we rechecked the recipe and forged ahead. When it came time to serve dessert, our friends looked at the dish, a little surprised, and asked what we’d cooked. We explained the recipe, and the difficulty we had had finding enough garam masala in the spice aisle. As we explained our attempts to make the dish a bit less dry, Bill, with some amusement, explained what the recipe had actually called for. Neither of us had heard of Marsala wine before that night.

What now? Google.com

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