Staff List: Cooking Disasters

The Bureau Staff relates their most spectacular culinary misadventures.

Kevin: Oh, how about for this month
Kevin: Staff List: Cooking Disasters
Nick: done
Nick: I’ve got a good one for that
Nick: several, actually
Kevin: I screwed up scrambled eggs once.
Kevin: I may have been drunk.
Nick: wow, that’s…pretty bad
Kevin: Yeah
Kevin: I started stirring them IN THE PAN.
Nick: oh, you mean you cracked whole eggs in there and then tried to beat them?
Kevin: Yeah
Kevin: It didn’t taste great…
— Editor Kevin Nguyen

Fresh off four months of studying abroad in Beijing, I was eager to share my host mother’s authentic Northern Chinese cooking style with my parents and girlfriend. I would be making my ayi’s rendition of la mian — hand-pulled noodles — which were served with rehydrated hei mu er (black dried fungus) and huang hua cai (dried daylily) in a salty broth. She made the noodles from scratch — rolled, folded, cut, and pulled over and over. They were soft but offered just enough doughy resistance, and their floury blandness was a perfect counterpoint to the alkaline tang of the sodium-rich broth. The black fungus was surprisingly pleasant in its rubbery quality, and it also complimented the soft, vegetal chewiness of the absorbent daylily leaves. It was ayi’s go-to meal, easy for her to make and always a hit with me.

I was proud of the symbolic value of my menu choice: la mian was the first dish my host mother served me, and now I would be completing the cycle, the noodles symbolizing the lessons I had learned, to be consumed by my loved ones in the first meal I prepared back on home soil. I was also proud that I would be making the meal with authentic ingredients, purchased under the supervision of my host mother and slyly stashed away in my bag alongside a liter of cheap grain alcohol.

On that first nervous night in Beijing, as I sat in the muggy, fluorescent-lit kitchen, I slurped the noodles with much enthusiasm — repeating “hao chi!” (“It tastes great!”). Back in California, the best praise my audience could muster was a polite “I see what you were going for” from my father. My mother glumly picked at the black fungus; she was never a fan of mushrooms to begin with and this dish wasn’t going to covert her. The broth — in Beijing electric, now just lukewarm water with some dissolved five-spice blend — had no hope of rescuing any of the ingredients from glumly existing in their own bland, sequestered realms of taste.

In the years since that failure of a meal, I’ve become a far more capable cook. But if you gave me the same ingredients, my la mian would still be awful. — Contributing Writer Daniel Adler

I was in college, and I had yet to learn that “high heat” does not mean “leave the pan over a red-hot electric coil for like five minutes before using.” I was making Mark Bittman’s super simple garlic stir-fry, and by the time I threw my minced garlic into the pan, the oil in there could have passed for lava. The fat hissed and spat into the air, and the bits of garlic browned, blackened, and then — pop! pop! pop! — started exploding like tiny firecrackers filled with scalding oil. I dumped in the meat, but it started to sear instantly, so I rushed to get the vegetables in too. I grabbed my plastic cutting board and shoveled the bell peppers and scallions into the pan. I finally poured in the soy sauce, which scorched and nearly boiled over before finally settling down, leaving the kitchen stinking of dirty sulfur. When I tried to pick up the cutting board, it had melted to the coil I’d just cooked my rice on.

My housemates, and one visiting mother, witnessed the whole chaotic performance, complete with me insisting throughout that I knew what I was doing because Bittman said to use “high heat.” When I finally finished, the stovetop looked like a warzone, and for weeks afterward that coil filled the house with the smell of burning plastic whenever it was on.

But I got the last laugh because that stir-fry was fucking delicious. —Editor Nick Martens

When a group of friends invited me to their potluck-style Seder last month, I wanted to contribute more than bringing my customary wine or beer. I wanted to prepare something. I wanted to cook something.

A day before, my girlfriend Jessie suggested I make homemade applesauce. She had a good recipe, had done it before, and was willing to help me. Perfect.

Jessie is lactose intolerant, but that evening she decided to go for broke and eat cheese. Deciding to push her dairy-eating exercise to the extreme, for dinner I suggested a southwestern-style sausage casserole that called for generous servings of cheese and sour cream.

Soon after eating, we started chopping apples. By the time we had cut out all the cores, Jessie realized that trying to eat cheese had been a really dumb idea. She retired to the sofa, huddled in the fetal position and spent the rest of evening trying to sleep away the agony. The fate of the applesauce now rested squarely on my shoulders.

The recipe was simple — it called for just the apples, allspice, cinnamon, sugar and water. I tossed the ingredients into a pot and let them simmer for 30 minutes. All I had to do was stir occasionally.

I sat down next to Jessie on the couch while the apples were simmering, and promptly feel asleep myself. It’s my own unique form of narcolepsy that allows me to fall asleep at the most inopportune times. I woke up with a start about twenty minutes later and hurried back to the kitchen, but I could already smell smoke. The turbid, chunky concoction had charred wherever it touched the sides of the pot, leaving a layer of ash at the bottom. Even though there were still ten minutes left on the timer, I pulled the pot off the stove and stuck it in the refrigerator, unsure of what else to do.

I didn’t check the applesauce until the next morning, by which time it had turned into a sour, gelatinous paste. On the way to the Seder, I stopped by Trader Joe’s and picked up six bottles of Three Buck Chuck. I’ll cook something next passover. — Contributing Writer Tim Lehman

The summer after my junior year of college, some friends and I decided to meet once a week or so and try to make a meal that would stretch our culinary horizons. We dubbed our tradition “Housewives’ Night,” since of the five of us I was the only guy, and I kind of liked the name.

Against all odds, we had a month of unqualified successes: a whole roasted chicken, chile rellenos, raspberry souffles that rose perfectly. So, we figured, it was time to try something even harder, something that required hours of perfectly executed preparation and that could be ruined by one small misstep along the way. Naturally, it was time to make gnocchi from scratch.

So we peeled and boiled our potatoes, all three pounds of them. We mashed them by hand. We floured them. We extruded them and even made the little indentations on each and every one of them with a fork. We dumped them into the water, and transferred them to an ice bath when they were done cooking. And then, after sampling one, the only one of us who had ever made gnocchi before pronounced them unfit for consumption: they were supposed to be “little edible pillows,” which, according to her, these were not.

We ate them anyway, as much because we didn’t really want to see two hours of work go into the trash can. I still maintain that they weren’t all that bad; they were a bit gummy, which according to the culinary blog Smitten Kitchen means that the potato mash was too watery. But, according to the expert (and co-founder of Housewives’ Night), they had been ruined, and in such matters I suppose I should defer to her judgment. Five years after the fact, the gnocchi business is still a bit of a sore subject with her. — Assistant Editor Darryl Campbell

My stepmother has a unique outlook on food. To put it lightly, she is a health-food nut. In my high school years, I remember looking in our fridge and not being able to identify a single edible item. Instead there were strange vials, unidentifiable lumps in saran-wrap, unpasteurized milk, and other unlabeled objects. To her, anything that had been “processed” was unacceptable (I recall her once noting that tofu “wasn’t that healthy”). As a high school kid, I felt like my life enjoyment was severely depressed because of this gastronomic totalitarianism.

To rebel against my stepmother, I plotted to cook the biggest greaseball of a recipe I could find on the internet. So when she and my father were out for the night at the tennis club, I drove my car to Safeway and bought ingredients for a rich, buttery French chicken dish I found online. I had never seriously cooked before, but I had all the confidence in the world that this would all work out fine.

I don’t even remember what the recipe called for, but by the time I “finished,” I had a soggy, greasy blob of chicken in a pan. On top of that, my parents called me to say they were going to be home early — in about ten minutes. Because my stepmother is the kind of woman who will have a seizure if she spots a Doritos bag in the garbage, I realized I had to get rid of all the evidence of my butter chicken. I tossed out the notion of actually eating what I had cooked and instead decided to throw it all away. I packed all the chicken and other random ingredients I had bought into a bag, ran outside to the garbage, dumped out all the other garbage bags and put mine of the very bottom. I then hurriedly cleaned the greasy pans and vented out all the smelly air in the kitchen.

By the time they got home, it was like nothing had happened, and I was still hungry. — Writer Jordan Barber