True confession: I may cook good food but technically, I am not a good cook. There was a time when I owned one pot and didn’t know how to boil water in it. I was, however, very adept with the phone and a take-out menu. Over the years I have learned how to cook, mostly out of necessity. When I became vegan, there were no veg-friendly eateries in my neighborhood so my choices were learn to cook or starve. Now I love to get busy in the kitchen, but I have some personality quirks that can get in the way of me being a great cook. I’m a very impatient cook; I’ve been known to not make pasta just so I don’t have to wait for the water to boil.
I rarely measure anything, even when I’m baking (I know, I know) and my knife skills are not so precise – I’m very much a “chop and drop” kind of cook. It’s because of my impatience and other shortcomings that I make a lot of mistakes when I’m cooking. That’s ok, even the best chefs have blunders and snafus in the kitchen. The bright side about making mistakes, however, is that you learn how to fix them and hopefully, to prevent them next time. So join me in reliving a few of my cooking faux pas due to my impatience, and maybe you can learn from my mistakes.
1. I Didn’t Read the Recipe BEFORE I Started Cooking
This mistake I have experience with from the perspective of the cook as well as from that of the recipe writer. It took me a bit of time to learn how to write a recipe properly. I only need to look at one of my earliest recipes to see how much I didn’t know. Thankfully, I have readers and followers who politely point out in the comments that I never said what to do with that 2nd tablespoon of oil or when to add that flax “egg” I instructed them to make in the first step of my Tempeh “Crab Cake” recipe. Mistakes happen, things get left out. When you have a new recipe you want to try, read through it first. Make sure you have all the ingredients necessary to make the dish and if you don’t, determine whether you have a substitute for what you are missing or that it won’t blow the whole recipe by just leaving it out.
Read through the instructions and see where and how each ingredient gets used. Take note if you need to reserve the marinade or some starchy cooking water for later use. I can’t tell you how many times I have drained the pasta only to then remember I needed some of the cooking water. Now I put a measuring cup in the colander so I can’t forget. Set out all the equipment you will need to make the recipe in advance so your food doesn’t burn while you are searching through your drawers for the right spatula. If there are long cooking or waiting times in the recipe, see if there are things for future steps you can get ready in the “down” time so your cooking is more efficient. Reading the recipe before it’s time to cook can save you a lot of time, frustration and wasted ingredients.
2. I Didn’t Preheat My Pan Properly
Whenever I have to make something in the oven, I set it to the temperature I need, press the button and go do something else while I wait for the beep that tells me the oven is preheated to my desired temperature. Alas, the stovetop has no such beep to let me know my pan is preheated and ready to go. The impatient cook can make a mistake here in one of two directions (and yes, I have done both): sometimes I put the food into the pan before it’s heated enough or I turn the burner as high as it goes to get the pan hot as quickly as I can (only to have my husband sneak in and turn it down to medium whereupon I turn it back to high and so the dance continues).
Either direction is wrong. Not waiting for the pan to get properly heated can lead to soggy, sticky food that doesn’t cook well. Trying to heat the pan too quickly with too high heat will lead to uneven hot spots in the pan with the center being hotter than the edges. The proper way to heat a pan is to place it over a low to medium flame and let it warm up for several minutes while you get your ingredients ready for it. By the time you pat the tofu dry and rub it with the spice rub, the pan will be ready to make perfectly seared Tofu Scallops.
3. I Couldn’t Wait for the Oil to Get Hot
How long does it take the oil in a pan to get hot? The answer is: as long as it takes, so wait. Whether you are deep-frying food in a vat of oil or pan-frying or sautéing in a few spoonfuls of oil, the oil has to reach the right temperature or your food will be soggy rather than crispy. Cold oil gets absorbed into food and no one wants oily, spongy food. If you are deep-frying something like my Puttanesca Panzarottis, the oil should reach between 300 and 400 degrees (it depends on the recipe). If you don’t have a thermometer, you can toss some batter or bread crumbs into the oil and see if it sizzles. Another trick is to stick the end of a wooden spoon into the oil and if the oil is hot, you will see little bubbles form around the spoon.
Oil in a pan will take on a distinct shimmer when it is hot; if it’s smoking, it’s too hot and you need to turn the heat down or start over. Like the oven and the pan on the stovetop, you can’t rush the oil to reach the right temperature. It should heat up slowly. Trying to heat the oil too fast will lead to burned, blackened oil and scorched, bitter food. Treat the oil right and you will be munching on well-seared and crispy food like my Fried Green Tomatoes with Red Pepper Aioli.
4. I Overcrowded the Pan
Once the oil is at the right temperature for cooking, keep it that way by not overcrowding the pan or the fryer. We hear it all the time; heck, I write it in my recipes all the time: “Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to cook in batches.” Sadly, I don’t always practice what I preach. Usually, it’s because I’m in a hurry or just being impatient that I put way too much food in the pan. Just because my pan can hold all the cubes for my General Tso’s Tofu or all the tempeh slices for my Tempeh Reuben doesn’t mean I should cook them all at once.
Crowding the pan results in food steaming rather than caramelizing, searing or getting crisp. Plus, when you add food into the oil, it drops the temperature of the oil, so even if you have a large pot of oil for making Banana Beignets, only fry 3 or 4 at a time. I know the pot can hold many more, but the temperature of the oil will plummet and your beignets will be soggy. Oh, and be patient and let the oil come back up to temperature between batches of cooking (as my husband scolded me yesterday when we were frying latkes).
5. I Skipped the Step Where I’m Supposed to Shock the Vegetables
When I blanch vegetables, I figure I have already gone through all of the trouble of boiling the pot of water, I can’t be expected to make an ice bath too. Right? On TV cooking shows, chefs always have that giant bowl of ice water sitting there waiting for them next to their giant pot of already-boiled water. Since I have no one getting my props ready for me, I often skip the step where I am supposed to shock the veggies – and then I have mushy veggies. After cooking vegetables in boiling water or steaming them, they will continue to cook even after you remove them from the heat.
If you don’t “shock” them by tossing them in ice water to stop the cooking process, the vegetables will become mushy and lose their beautiful vibrant color. Remove the vegetables from the heat, plunge them in an ice bath for just a moment or two and then let them dry. They will retain their crispness and their verdant colors like my Snap Pea Salad with Almonds in an Herbed Vinaigrette. And as long as we are being totally honest here: I often place the vegetables in a colander and just let cold water run over them to stop the cooking process. It works and I don’t keep expecting a giant ice bath to materialize on the counter.
It may sound like I don’t enjoy the process of cooking, but that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Being in the kitchen is therapeutic and relaxing for me…well, as much as I am able to relax. Every day I am learning to become more patient so that I have less cooking fiascos due to my inability to wait. A great trick I use is finding something else to do during the waiting time so it goes by faster, like writing this article. In fact, I think my pasta water is rapidly boiling, so I’ll share more of my cooking faux pas with you later. Gotta go!
Image source: Fried Green Tomatoes with Red Pepper Aioli