Thoughts on food being “forgiving”

Often when I talk about cooking this or that I’ll mention that it’s “forgiving”. As in, it doesn’t much matter how long you bake your potatoes; they’re forgiving. What do I mean?

Some things are NOT forgiving. Omelettes aren’t particularly forgiving. You can do them wrong and still eat them – but they’ll be a Heap o’ Egg, or Scrambled Eggs, or something that isn’t really an omelette. There’s a bunch of things you can do wrong with an omelette and not a lot of ways to recover once something goes awry. That’s what I mean by food that isn’t forgiving.

Once you get used to cooking you’ll realize that most of your food is forgiving. Some things you have to watch and some things you don’t, but most food can be rescued if you know what you’re doing, and there’s no way to develop that skill except with practice. Baked potatoes can be cooked almost as long as you want at almost any temperature you want – as long as you want the outside really crunchy!

Try not cooking a new dish just once. Try cooking it three or four times before you give up on it, if you do. There’s probably a dozen little details that no recipe, or even video, ever tell you, and most of them don’t matter, but maybe some of them do. When you find a way to cook it that gives you the result you want, you’ll be able to repeat your results. Don’t give up on the first try.

Want your hamburgers to cook all the way through? Make them thinner next time. Rice too dry? Add a couple extra tablespoons of water next time. Eggs burn? Lower heat next time. Potatoes didn’t brown? Higher heat next time. If you post a question I promise to give you an idea of how to address the issue. But you will also figure it out if you don’t give up.

That may seem harsh if you’re on a food budget and you’re afraid of making the food you just spent your precious $$ on inedible. Most things don’t turn out inedible; they just might not be exactly what you want. Don’t panic. Try again.

If at all in doubt, try to go slow. If pasta or potatoes look like they’re boiling REALLY HARD, you can turn the heat down – just make sure you’re still seeing lots of fast bubbles. When you only see a few bubbles here and there, that’s a simmer, not a boil, and your pasta will be gluey and undercooked that way. You’ll figure out if you go over the edge into “not rescuable” territory soon enough – just change by small degrees until you get it right. Don’t turn the heat WAY up next time – just a couple notches may do it.

I’m much more inclined to make a quiche or a pie since I discovered how forgiving pie crust can be. Here’s one I whipped up today, just for the hell of it, for lunch. The basics never change. You cut the fat into the flour and salt till it’s mealy, add a little vinegar and egg for strength, then ice cold water, just enough to make a paste. But you know what happens if you add too much water? Not much. You’ll have something that looks like wet paste, not dry pastry dough. Who cares? Rolling it out was always such a hassle anyway. Now I just press it into my pie plate, squish it flat and up the sides with my fingers, fill it up and bake it. And you know what? It’s delicious. If I’d have known I could get away without rolling it out I’d have been making a lot more pies and quiches all these years.

And you know how I figured that out? By trying it. I got the dough too wet one time and instead of throwing it out and starting over (all that expensive butter!), I just pressed it into the pie pan and used it. And it was fine. If it’s too wet to even press into place, let it sit for a few minutes in the fridge – it’ll get cold and the flour will absorb some of the liquid. Let me tell you, it’s just fine.

I’ve been trying to roast beef for almost twenty years. I don’t care how easy it’s supposed to be, I could never get the knack of it. Many a beef roast in my past has wound up hacked into bits and used for steak or stew – two cooking methods I HAD mastered. I found the whole thing depressing and not yummy. But I kept trying. How finicky could a roast hunk of beast BE? Everyone kept telling me it was easy, from my grandmother right down to the butcher I asked for advice.

It wasn’t till this past Christmas (I often tackle the roast beef issue again on Christmas, in a fit of optimism,) that I got a beef roast almost right. I bought a fantastic cut of beef and I let it sit on the counter for an hour and come to room temperature before I cooked it. Voila. Awesomely delicious beef. It didn’t have the flavor of a browned outside because I hadn’t browned it first – I’ve had disasters with that before. I’ll be trying again. I’m forgiving myself for not quite getting it right and the beef is getting more forgiving each time.

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