Recipes can sometimes come off as authoritarian. Measure this and do this. Here are your instructions that you must follow exactly. Quite frankly, the relationship between a recipe author and home cook is tyranny. That’s why I like Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio so much: he invites you to tinker. The underlying message of his book is, here are your tools and your ratios, now go create. You know you need fat for vinaigrette, right? Okay, now get out there and go have fun with fat.
The problem is, great innovators are few and far between. Most people’s imaginations are like, “I’ve got a special sauce!” and then they’re the fiftieth person this year to tell you they like to mix ketchup and mayonnaise together.
I’m an okay cook, and I know how to season things properly. Chefs don’t put up with your problem drinking and pill abuse if you aren’t consistent with salt and pepper. But the only way to truly learn something is to fail repeatedly. Cooking is a learned skill like anything else. I’ve gotten good at creating, and I’ve also gotten used to failing. If you have a 100% success rate, you’re not being different enough. Take some chances. Put yourself out there. Bomb once in a while. It’s good for you. Every so often it’s important to look like an idiot.
I get a lot of bad ideas. Sometimes I get an idea so bad, I think, “I lost it. God, did I ever really even have it?” Usually, the culprit is a strong edible. But this sounded so good in my mind! Yeah, no kidding. You were high as a drone and thought you were going to reinvent the open-face sandwich. THE BREAD HAS TO GO ON THE BOTTOM OTHERWISE IT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE.
I love to study what makes something bad. My personal philosophy is that the only way we can understand what’s good is to first understand what sucks. So, I’m going to be sharing my mistakes here, and please, make me pay for it. I love to talk shit, so it’s only fair to accept it when it comes back my way. In fact, I invite you to roast the hell out of me in the comments. It’ll make me feel good. One time a chef tasted something I made (I don’t remember what it was now) and said, “Jesus, Palumbo, where did you learn how to cook? Prison?” Delightful. Cook, fail, and have a sense of humor about it. Here are the worst things I’ve cooked so far this year. Consider it growth.
Fried Bologna Croque Madame
You’ll notice a theme with the bad ideas here, and that’s novelty. Here, I had bologna, and I thought, Why not do a poor man’s croque madame? Instead of a white bechamel I whipped up a cheddar cheese sauce. The sandwich was prepared like a croque, layered with Dijon, ketchup (gross), and then fried bologna and American cheese. I cooked it in a cast iron skillet with a little butter, then topped it with the cheddar cheese sauce and a fried egg. It seemed innocent enough, but it turned out to be a disaster. I think the main problem was the ketchup: it didn’t meld well with the cheddar cheese sauce or the egg. The combined flavor of eggs and ketchup makes me cringe, and here it was just too prevalent. It missed the point of a good croque, which is all about simple decadence. I wish I could get this meal back, but I can’t.
French Onion Poutine
I made French onion soup recently and killed it. Few things are as gratifying as French onion on a cold day, but there was a lot left over and eating the same thing three days in a row is maddening. I knew I had some fries in the freezer, and I got the horrible idea to turn the soup into poutine. The plan was simple: thicken the soup with a little more roux, then add “curds” of gruyere on top and blast it in the oven. What happened was a grey mass of contrived nonsense. Poutine is all about using good stock to make gravy, but the addition of cognac to the soup was a little too bold to work with fries. Although the texture of soft, caramelized onions is great with a nice crusty bread, it didn’t work with the fries and their soft centers. Not my best work.
For some reason I was laughing at the idea of going to a diner and saying, “I would like to substitute ravioli for my toast, please.” So I decided to make that idea come to life. A classic American breakfast: eggs, hash browns, bacon... and ravioli. I tossed the ravioli in butter, Parmesan cheese, and parsley. It was delicious. Does ravioli belong on a breakfast plate? Probably not, but to me it’s no sillier than eating ricotta pancakes for breakfast. I’m going to do this again and you can’t stop me.