This past year, I improved a lot as a cook. I have spent hours in my home kitchen honing skills and fortifying techniques. I finally spent money to expand the machinery in my kitchen and the spices in my cabinet. I’ve purchased much needed tools, gadgets, books, and dishware. I committed to cooking something every day, no matter how small. I got better at cooking in the last 12 months than I ever did in the 3 years that preceded them. I gained confidence, knowledge, and skills. Most importantly, I fucked a bunch of things up.
Fucking things up is important to your personal growth. To completely fail at something small and menial is reassurance that nothing is ever really the end of the world. A quick anecdote: Around 2017, I started to become very unhappy. I had a lot of anxiety, anger, and disappointment. I had experienced multiple shortcomings in both my professional and personal life, and I started to take myself too seriously. I was uptight. Life wasn’t very fun. I also associate this period with not being very active in my home kitchen. When I finally did start to cook again, it was frustrating. I was suddenly opening myself up to the idea that failing is okay—and it hurt. After all, when you’re learning to cook, you’re usually failing. You’ll have broken sauces, overcooked meat, runny textures, and ripped dough, and you’ll have to deal with that underachievement with aplomb. Screwing up a béchamel is an affordable lesson, after all, but a lesson nonetheless. All of life is progress until the day that it’s not.
One of the biggest things I started doing was keeping a food journal. In it, I write down everything I cook and eat, what worked, what didn’t, any revelations I might have. It’s a way to document the journey, but it also reminds me that this is all a process. Have fun with it. Show your mistakes. Laugh at them. Look in the mirror and say, “You silly idiot, Danny,” or whatever your name is. I love it when people share their failures, so I’m sharing my most recent ones. I hereby present the worst things I’ve cooked lately.
You ever fuck up something twice and think, “okay, I shouldn’t be allowed to step foot in my own kitchen again”? It started with a success: I made a delicious consommé, which was clear and rich and beautiful. I had so much of the stuff on hand that I decided to try making a few batches of egg drop soup. Egg drop soup is, on paper, fairly simple to make. You take chicken broth, flavor it with some additional aromatics, add slurry, then slowly whisk in beaten eggs so that they form the iconic egg ribbons that we all know and love. Things started off as planned; I flavored the broth with some green onion and ginger, added the slurry, but when it came time to whisk in the eggs the broth just wasn’t hot enough. The egg strands didn’t cook, and I was left with a homogeneous, eggy, ruined consommé instead of lovely, wispy strands of egg.
The second time I tried to make the egg drop soup, I whisked in the eggs on too high of heat, and instead of beautiful egg ribbons I got a gloppy mess of cooked egg. Not what I was looking for. J. Kenji López-Alt’s chopstick method seems to be preferred (as is everything that man does). I walked into this task with brazen confidence, and I left a broken man. I’ll try again in a few months when my heart has healed. Didn’t even take a picture of the soup because I was so mad.
This may look good, but trust me, it tasted like shit. One of my favorite, economical, don’t-think-too-hard pasta dishes is spaghetti with lemon cream sauce. It’s rich, bright, and endlessly satisfying. I was about to make that, and then I came across some limoncello sitting in my parents’ liquor cabinet. I said, “ah, what the hell,” and decided to reduce some of the liqueur in a pan before adding the cream. The result? A disgusting, sugary, bitter mess. The limoncello wasn’t of the highest quality, and I think I used a heavy hand to pour. White wine would have been much, much better. Also, most liqueurs aren’t very good. I can’t stand sugar in my alcohol. This was a brain lapse I’ll never recover from. But I learned a lesson I’ll carry forever: Limoncello does not need to be added to a pasta dish. Ever.
This probably looks just fine, and it tasted fine, too, but the consistency was its undoing. It wasn’t a total failure; I decided to put toasted pine nuts in the graham cracker crust, a great move that I’m proud of. I love the earthy, nutty tones of pine nuts, and it complemented everything else in the dish so well. When I made my banana pudding, however, I didn’t add enough gelatin, and so it didn’t really set the way it should have. As soon as I tried to slice it, the whole thing fell apart. I’ve just received Erin McDowell’s The Book on Pie in the mail, so hopefully this will be the start of me overcoming my dessert fears.
I’ve written before about homemade pierogi being flour + egg + sour cream, but recently I got the idea that I could omit the sour cream. Pierogi dough can be rather delicate with the addition of sour cream, and I was looking to achieve something a little stronger. So instead, I used a combination of butter, flour, eggs, and water. The dough came out resembling pasta dough, which wasn’t ideal. It just didn’t achieve the tender, soft, doughy pierogi essence that we all know and love. For as nice as these look, just know that they were a huge disappointment. You want a soft dough so that when you boil these things, you can sear them in a pan afterwards to get a nice, golden brown exterior that results in both a tender and textured pierogi. Without the sour cream in the mixture, though, you’re basically just searing pasta dough. I will never stray from adding sour cream to the dough again.
On a positive note, I did experiment with some good pierogi condiments. Pierogi usually come with buttered onions or mushrooms on the side, which never really made much sense to me given that’s usually what’s inside the pierogi in the first place. Pierogi can too often be a one-note dish, so instead I made a quick red onion agrodolce and dill crème fraîche to accompany mine. Excellent flavors. The piquant, herbaceous flavors of those two condiments paired well with the rich, homely flavors of the pierogi. If you use store-bought pierogi, I implore you to cook some onions + vinegar however you like. The tartness makes a world of difference.
I hate using somebody else’s oven. My parents have an electric, and sometime over the holidays I decided to roast a chicken. I did everything right: air dry, salt brine in the fridge for 24 hours. I roasted it and, at the end, decided to glaze, then use the broiler to get a nice, dark, crispy skin. The broiler setting was on low, and it didn’t feel like it was doing anything, so I jacked it up to high. Big mistake. In mere moments the thing started smoking. Apparently, this broiler has 2 settings: Is This Thing On? and Actually, Fuck You. No in-between. In my opinion, all electric ovens should be shipped to Alcatraz.