when recipe testing fails…

Oh hi, mirepoix. #recipetesting

Last night while recipe testing, I had an unmitigated recipe fail on two of the recipes I was working on, which made me scrap the third one and just call it a night. Instead, we went out for burgers and hot dogs and beer. But I couldn’t help feeling frustrated – shouldn’t I have whipped up something quickly for dinner to make up for the fail? Cabbage with hot sauce and a fried egg? Roasted butternut squash with red onion (and tahini and za’atar)? And when all else fails, there’s always pasta, right?

But here we were, out in a first cold, drizzly October night on our way out to dinner. I left the kitchen as it was – planning to clean it up upon getting back.

While I can’t tell you exactly what I was testing, I can tell you that the first experiment was grainy instead of being perfectly smooth. And since it was the first time I’d ever tested anything like it, I had no foresight on what to anticipate or how to correct it.

About the second recipe, I’d like to share this nugget of wisdom with you: do not attempt, unless you’re an expert butcher, to debone a turkey drumstick. It’s not the same a chicken drumstick – it is much harder. Turkey drumstick, as I learned last night, is full of cartilage that runs up and down the length of the drumstick, all over the drumstick, making it pretty difficult to debone and wind up with meat that doesn’t look like it went through the shredder. I wish I could tell you I saved it for stock, but given the intense recipe testing taking place in this kitchen, the entire freezer is full of chicken stock, lobster stock, veal stock, extra meat scraps, frozen soups and sauces, and an occasional pint of ice cream. I felt pretty terrible wasting food.

In my next attempt, I will just ask my butcher to debone these drumsticks for me. Or, if they let me stand behind the counter with them, watch how to do it going forward.

As we sat in our booth last night eating our dinner, I said to Andrew that I couldn’t have felt like more of a failure in the kitchen that night, and that I should’ve been more resourceful and McGuyvered that dinner into submission. Eating at home, after all, is much cheaper than eating out, and this seemed like not the best use of our money.

Andrew looked at me, “You know we went out to dinner because I was working from home all day and felt cooped up? I needed to get outside – that’s why we’re here.”

Hearing that made me feel a little better. But it also made me feel a guilty pang of relief, because, honestly, I didn’t even want to cook dinner after wrestling with the turkey (and losing). It wasn’t so much not cooking that made me feel badly, it was that I felt zero desire to do so – that I felt tired and wanted someone else to make my food, and more importantly, clean it up. I felt spoiled and un-resourceful — and somewhat lazy.

My reasonable self tells me this is a wrong mentality to adapt – that we all need a break, that it’s okay to throw up your hands and say we’re eating dinner out. But my type-A self tells me otherwise. What would my grandmother have done in Russia, I think to myself, she wouldn’t have had the eating out option?

And chances are, with my grandmother, when all else failed in her expert culinary hands, she made us pancakes. There were always ingredients for pancakes.

Pancakes these were not, it’s nice to have options. It’s nice to eat something for dinner other than a hastily made peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And while it’s one my favorite things to eat, my type-A self would find that a sandwich made as a result of kitchen failures tastes a little bitter.

Maybe I should just tell my type-A self to pipe down and cut herself some slack.


  • Lea

    All true, but our grandmothers often did these things because they had no choice. And I’m not sure they’d wish that kind of life on any of us.

  • Casey

    What timing! Yesterday I had not one but TWO pie crusts fail on me – first time I’ve ever had a pie crust issue in my life. I took to the couch with a cat and an episode of Scandal.

  • olga

    Lea – a great point! And agreed.

    Lori – thank you – today is kitchen free day (too many appts) but hopefully by tomorrow, my mojo will return!

    Casey – ugh, pie crust fail is the worst! I wonder what happened. Also, Scandal is a guilty pleasure in this household.

  • Kristen

    Thanks for this post, it’s definitely grounding.

    I’m not an experienced cook (I’ve only taken control of making everything from scratch within the last year), but I always get upset when I fail. This feeling is amplified when it involves feeding loved ones. Actually, just last night I served my boyfriend chili that was far too spicy for him (the cap of my chipotle powder decided to dive into the pot) and caused his tummy to churn. Ugh. :(

  • Brian

    Relax! As someone who spends a great deal of time working at home, there are times even when things are going right, where you just have to go out to set your mind right! Trust me, your grandmother had an escape mechanism in Russia when things weren’t going right.
    Good Luck!

  • olga

    Kristen – everyone, even seasoned cooks, have kitchen failures. It happens to all of us, but that’s the best way to learn is through mistakes. It allows us to really understand what is going on with the dish in question.

    Brian – trust me when I say this, my grandmothers didn’t have an escape mechanism :) It was communist russia after all. But you are right, sometimes things go according to plan, and sometimes – not so much.

  • Mardi (eat. live. travel. write.)

    I have ALL sorts of failures in the kitchen all the time. I can’t stress enough how much they help me learn – I just read a great piece over on Stella (Brave Tart)’s blog about failure being an option (http://bravetart.com/blog/Failure) and it seems the universe is giving me a sign this morning as I gear up for a big weekend in the kitchen too. It’s heartening to know that people like you experience what “regular” cooks and bakers do as well. I just need to cut myself some more slack ;)

  • Sarah

    I feel your pain on those turkey drumsticks! I made smoked turkey leg soup once and getting around all those long, thin lengths of cartilage was a huge pain! It took forever. Luckily, it was going into soup, so it didn’t matter so much that the meat got shredded. And at least it tasted good when it was done.

    As for recipe failures? Going out to eat is perfectly fine! Sometimes I get home from a long day at work and I just really don’t feel like cooking – haven’t thought about what to make, didn’t stop by the grocery store on the way home, and totally uninspired for some creative cupboard cooking. You need a break every once in a while, especially when you’re immersed in food all the time.

    Artists don’t coop themselves up all day looking at only their own art – they look at the art of masters and other artists and go outside to look at nature and people for inspiration. Being too much inside with yourself can only lead to stagnation. So stop feeling guilty about something that is not only totally normal, it’s also probably good for you (not to mention Andrew!).

  • olga

    Sarah – thank you for writing that. The looking at other people’s work – I hadn’t considered it in that way, but you’re absolutely right. I’m so burned out on recipe testing for a book that I’m a little exhausted of thinking of ideas for the blog. And I don’t want to just post whatever, so there are gaps in between recipes. As for those turkey legs – I got new ones from the butcher this morning and so hopefully tonight, take 2 of the turkey leg experiment will go as planned :)

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