I recenly finished Michael Ruhlman's Making of a Chef and have made it about half-way through part I in Soul of a Chef. One point Ruhlman returns to over and over is a cook's ability to fix something ruined (all the way until it's burnt, from which there is no return)--on the fly, under pressure. According to many instructors at the Culinary Institute of America, according to Ruhlman, it is this ability that is crucial to a professional cook's success.
I am not a professional cook, not by any stretch of the imagination. This is probably why it took me over 12 hours to figure out how to rescue some abysmal mashed potatoes, but rescue them I did. I fixed it and came away with a dish not just edible, but delicious, hearty and something I would be proud to feed my family. And all you need to start with is ruined mashed potatoes.
I ruined my mashed potatoes before I even began the cooking process. After peeling the potatoes, I failed to cut them into even pieces, so they didn't cook evenly when I boiled them. Some were perfectly done (the small ones), but several were woefully undercooked. I probably could have found the undercooked pieces, microwaved them briefly and then continued mashing, but I was being stubborn, and dinner had to be served. Unfortunately, the potatoes were heavy--gluey--and were contaminated with small pebbles of undercooked potato. However, those same undercooked bits become a wonderful texture enhancer when the mashed potatoes are flattened to cakes and baked. And the preparation couldn't be easier:
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
- While the over heats, form the mashed potatoes into disks about a quarter-inch thick (using golf-ball-sized rounds)
- Sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese on top of each round
- Dust a sheet pan with corn meal (mashed potatoes can be surprisingly sticky!) and place the discs on the sheet pan
- Bake for 15 - 20 minutes, then switch on the broiler
- Move the discs to the top oven rack and broil for about 2 - 3 minutes or until they get nice and golden brown on top
- Plate and sprinkle with parsley flakes. You can also garnish with a dollop of fresh sour cream (which is an awesome touch, by the way)
So what saved me? Critical thinking and a passing familiarity with some cooking fundamentals. I knew I had to figure out a way to finish cooking the undercooked potato bits without ruining or overcooking the remaining bits. I also knew I had to change the texture of the mashed potatoes. The easiest way to do this was by crisping them. I probably could have pan fried the cakes and come away with something that tasted good, and might have gone that route if I was in the restaurant business. It certainly would have been faster and might have made for a more savory cake. But I wanted to try for a healthier outcome usual. For once, at least. So I had to go the baking route. The problem? Baking to golden brown meant a terrible inside--heated to mush. That's why I finished up in the broiler.
Cooking isn't rocket science. Organic chemistry, sure. Thermodynamics....all right. Yes. But it's not difficult organic chemistry, and you can do wonders when you begin to understand and internalize some basic cooking principles and allow yourself to think critically about the things you put on plates.