Cooking Disasters and Ugly Soup

What Not to Do When Cooking

Opportunities for humility are never in short supply.  In a recent class, a participant brought up the perennial problem of cooking failures.  My response began with the reassurance that cooking disasters don’t really happen that often, so don’t let them scare you from the kitchen.   Of course the very next day I enjoyed a full-scale cooking disaster–and got a good reminder of how de-motivating failure can be.

Ugly Soup

It wasn’t that my Ugly Soup tasted so bad, but more that is was so profoundly taste-less–which is about as bad!

My vegetable soup started out the right way:  Making a broth with chicken bones, then using it to cook some leftover broccoli stalks which got pureed in the blender.  But then I decided to throw in a handful of rice to see how it cooks up in a lots of liquid instead of a carefully measured amount.  Next came some of last autumn’s kale from the freezer.  Things were looking very green, so I sautéed and added some onion and then a few marinated sun-dried tomatoes.  Finally, worried that the flavor was on the bland side, I dumped in Herbes de Provence.

For once, I had to force myself to eat the resulting conglomeration.  Despite integrating a little color, it was still an unappetizing shade of green.  The taste was completely uneventful.  Plus, the rice didn’t have time to cook through so it was raw-tasting.  And then there was the far more serious crunch of chicken bones.  Seems I did a halfway job straining my chicken broth and a few got into the blender (which explained the funny noise the blender had been making!)  No surprise that I yearned for something more after forcing my way through a bowl of my Ugly Soup.  Needless to say, the recipe doesn’t follow.

So even after 40 years in the kitchen, disasters still happen.  But as they say in the positive thinking business, mistakes are less important than the response.  After a disaster, do you retreat into the welcoming arms of the processed foods industry (which thrives on making us feel incapable of feeding ourselves)?  Or do you filter out the chicken bones and try again?

If you are interested in transitioning to a healthy eating lifestyle, the second option is the only option.  The reason is simple:  We cannot maintain a healthy eating lifestyle without cooking our own meals from real foods.  A diet of packaged and processed foods cannot yield good health unless chosen with extreme care and eaten with extreme discipline–something that is practically unattainable.

Given that disasters cannot excuse us from the kitchen, what can we learn to help us get back in the saddle again?

  • For starters, always strain your chicken broth.
  • Avoid the last minute approach.  Dashing flavors together in a hurry may be something TV chefs can do, but most of us benefit from a little time for deliberation.  Or stick with a recipe created by someone who took time to figure out good flavorings.
  • Instead, think ahead.  The think-ahead approach always delivers the best results–and takes the stress out of cooking.  Had I thought ahead, I would have cooked the rice the night before when there was plenty of time for it to soften into a nice, fluffy thickener.
  • Herbs and spices, in particular, benefit from forethought.  Dumping spices into a dish at the very end stunts their flavor potential miserably.
  • Mind the colors in a dish  We really do eat with our eyes as well as our stomachs.  So even though I was full after eating my soup, my eyes were still hungry–and they are very close to the brain that sends me foraging for more food!
  • Finally:  Join one of our cooking classes!  We love to share all the confidence-building tricks and tips, new recipes, new flavors and cooking basics that take the overwhelm out of healthful, everyday meal preparation.  See how simple, easy cooking can be fun and engaging.  Check out our schedule.

Scrubbing Vegetables: “Veggie Scrub” Makes It Easier

Check out this great new 2-for-1 find:  A vegetable scrubber + fresh herb colander for just $3.50


Clever (and easy) gadget for vegetable scrubbing. Especially good for cleaning small produce. The Veggie Scrubber(

Although I’m a still big fan of my $2.50 nail scrubber from the cleaning supply store, I put the “Veggie Scrub” to the test on Jerusalem artichokes (also known as sunchokes.)  These gnarly and knobby vegetables are the toughest vegetable I’ve ever scrubbed, but the Veggie Scrub did a great job with them.  I am always reluctant to buy sunchokes just because they are so hard to wash, but now that’s not the case.

The packaging instructs to either wear it like a mitt to scrub vegetables with your hand, or to pop the vegetable inside the pouch and rub under flowing water.  The first method worked best with large vegetables, while the second worked best for small things like baby turnips and potatoes.

Either way, you get a decent and inexpensive vegetable scrubber.  But wait, there’s more:  The Veggie Scrub doubles as a fresh herb “colander.”  Washing herbs is always problematic, not only because they’re small and hard to manage, but also because they get soaked and become difficult to chop.  The Veggie Scrub contains them handily while washing.  Then take the pouch outside, fling it up and down vigorously and the herbs are quickly dried enough for a decent chopping job.

Green Kitchen Tip: See tomorrow’s post, about reusing the mesh bags from lemons and limes as an herb washer/spinner

Herb and Spice Resources—A Beginning List

Over the week of this posting, a couple of resources have come to my attention that might be helpful for an herb and spice adventure. In particular, these sites have recipes that are indexed by spice, making it easy to find new uses for those herbs and spices on your experimentation list.

For Information and Recipes:

Born in Australia to a Lebanese family and now relocated to San Fransisco, Ursula Ayrout has created a site to help rescue your meals from the land of bland. “Don’t just make food. Make taste,” as Ursula (a/k/a Jane Spice) says. Her website is new and doesn’t have a full line-up of recipes yet, but there are still quite a number of interesting options, especially those for cumin. Plus, she’s busy adding more recipes and a FAQ section, so keep checking back.

For Information, Recipes and To Buy On-Line:

The Spice House has been in business for over 50 years, with stores in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas and now a complete online selection. I have no doubt that, with a 50-year history, they are “merchants of the highest quality, hand-selected and hand-prepared spices and herbs.” I’ve ordered several herbs just to see.

However, in addition to quality, I’m looking for no flavor enhancers, colorings, etc. in spice blends and this appears to be largely the case with Spice House products. There are a few blends that contain MSG, but every description includes a complete list of ingredients so you can check for yourself.

Here is what the owners say about MSG: “As the country’s concern for MSG became apparent we made a concerted effort to remove MSG from almost all of our blends. However, MSG is a flavor enhancer that does make things taste better. What we found is our old-time customers complained about the taste difference when we took out the MSG. These are also people who knew they did not have MSG allergies. Only an extremely small percentage of our blends still have MSG for these particular people. We try to be very upfront with our customers about ingredients in our blends. Even though the government requires us to identify only salt, sugar, MSG, garlic, onion and “spices”, we give you every spice ingredient in a blend at the bottom of the seasonings description in our catalogue.

Using Fresh Herbs:  Food Reflections Newsletter, April, 2003

Informative article by the experts at the University of Nebraska’s Cooperative Extension Service.  Filled with useful tips on using fresh herbs, I especially liked the instructions for freezing them, which is particularly apt advice right now.  If any herbs have survived the weather to date, freeze. them soon  In the dead of winter, they compare pretty nicely to fresh.

Others. . . .

Do you have any other good spice resources to share? The next rainy day we have, I’m going to take an outing to the newly opened Boulder Spice Shop and will report back. Could be a nice winter-type outing. . . .

Using Herbs and Spices: Continue the Adventure

Previous posts talked about taking the plunge and using herbs and spices outside our comfort zones.  Lot’s of tips and tricks were given to make it more comfortable and less agonizing to take that plunge.

It may take a little time and effort to get going, but you’ll be hooked once you start using herbs and spices more regularly and adventurously. And talk about a cheap thrill. In tough economic times, what could be nicer than to enjoy the comforting salve of a meal brightened exquisitely with the simple addition of an herb, either purchased for pennies or grown for free in our gardens or kitchens?

The best way to keep your adventure going:  Keep an eye out for other recipes featuring whatever new herbs or spices you target. This will be easier than you think: I remember how, with each new car we got over the years, we suddenly “noticed” that everybody seemed to be driving the same kind of car! By our third car, we finally realized this phenomenon was an optical illusion. Vehicles like ours had always been out there; we just began to “see” them once we became an owner. Happily, the same will happen once your attention is focused on a particular herb or spice. Suddenly, you’ll begin running across all sorts of recipes that use it.

But don’t stop with your initial one or two new herbs. Continue working up the confidence to extend even further, trying ever more daring combinations and new and more interesting herbs and spices.

As you begin experimenting, watch for patterns that emerge: how do recipes combine herbs, spices and flavorings? What types of meats, vegetables, grains or beans are used as backdrops? Does an herb or spice taste best in small amounts or large?

Speaking of patterns, one things you’ll begin to notice are “Herb Families.” These are helpful because if you like one member of a family, you may well like (and you’ve probably already had) some of the others. Here are a couple examples, by no means scientific, just to get you started:

  • Italian: Basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme
  • Indian: Coriander, cumin seeds, mustard, chili peppers, turmeric
  • Simon and Garfunkel: Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (like the song, if you can remember back that far)
  • Sweet: cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom
  • Savory: Rosemary, thyme, sage, bay leaves
  • A little more unique—the “fines herbes:” parsley, chervil, tarragon and chives
  • Mexican: Chili peppers, oregano, cumin

As an example of a pattern, you’ll see dishes with chili powder are often complemented nicely with a sprinkling of fresh cilantro and lime juice. Basil, mint and cilantro are very often combined in Thai food–an unlikely but nevertheless superb flavor trio.

Once you begin noticing these patterns, you’re set to take an exciting step: Getting creative and seasoning dishes on your own, without a recipe to follow. That’s how the fun continues without end!  Check out how I transferred the flavor family from Julee Rosso’s Beef and Eggplant Stew to a vegetarian version.

Getting Adventurous Using Herbs and Spices

Ready to start using herbs and spices more adventurously, or just at all? Yesterday’s post talked about how this isn’t hard or difficult. More than anything, it just takes a little courage and gumption. In other words, you just gotta take the plunge. Start by finding a spark of herb and spice inspiration. Once you’ve settled on a couple herbs or spices, find a recipe or two and you’re off and running. Here are a few refinements on this basic formula:

Six Tricks and Tips for a Successful Spice Adventure

1. Avoid Taste Bud Overload When searching for recipes, look for ones where all (or at least most) of the other ingredients are familiar. In particular, experiment with just one new herb at a time. No need to overwhelm your taste buds with new information—plus you really want to be able to separate out the taste of the new herb or spice.

2. Give ‘Em Time—But Not Too Much Herbs and spices are generally added early enough in the cooking process so their flavors can permeate the entire dish and meld nicely with all the other ingredients. But you don’t want to cook them too long. After 20 minutes or so, they begin to lose flavor. So if you’re making, e.g., a long-simmering stew or soup, wait until the last 20 minutes to add the herbs and spices, or add a little more if added at the beginning.

3. Test and Taste The soup/stew approach is a good one to follow even for quicker-cooking dishes when using a new herb or spice. Wait until the dish is fairly well assembled and cooked (especially ones with meat). Then test a little of the herb or spice in a small portion of the dish before seasoning the entire thing.

4. Take It Slow When you’re ready to add a new herb or spice to an entire dish, add just a little bit, stir, taste, then gradually add more as needed. Seasoning a dish is all about finding the right balance between too little (leaving the dish bland) and too much (overpowering all the other flavors.) The cardinal rule: “You can always add more, but you can’t take away.” By the same token, however, don’t be so bashful that you cheat yourself of the full flavor of an herb or spice.

5. Danger Zones While it pays to go slow with all new herbs and spices a few deserve even more caution, cayenne pepper, for instance. Rosso’s stew recipe (mentioned in yesterday’s post) called for a half teaspoon . I would have died with that much heat! I measure cayenne in shakes rather than teaspoons. A few other spices that can be complete deal breakers: chili flakes, chili powder, curry powder, cloves and ginger.

6. Oops! If you do end up over seasoning a dish, all is not always lost: Too much salt? Add a peeled potato and simmer for 15-20 minutes to absorb the excess. Too much hot spice? Add a little butter, cheese or cream to the dish. Too much herb flavor? Add more of the other ingredients in the recipe.

Tomorrow’s Post:  Seven More Rules of the Road for a Successful Spice Adventure

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