"When in doubt, throw it out" is an appropriate maxim when it comes to off-smelling fish, sour milk and partners who cheat on you.
But the wise cook has in his or her repertoire a larderful of face-saving tricks for salvaging food that is seemingly beyond repair. A burned beef roast can be transformed into something edible if it's sliced thinly and floated in a little sauce. Bland fruit is easily brightened with a spritz of lime or lemon juice. Melted ice cream makes a surprisingly good dessert topping.If you think such tips are the territory of novices, rest assured that the professionals among us are the biggest advocates of rescuing food whenever possible - Julia Child once told me her fail-safe remedy for a sunken cake was nothing more magical than liberal dollops of whipped cream spread over its surface.
Herewith, a little advice for getting you through common kitchen crises:
Problem: Soup is too salty.
Solution: Drop a slice of peeled potato into the pot and simmer for 10 minutes or until the potato is tender. A can of rinsed, drained chickpeas or white beans added to the stock for the same amount of time also will absorb excess salt.
Problem: Stale chips and crackers.
Solution: Revive flavor and freshness by spreading them on a baking sheet in a single layer for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees. Allow them to cool and store in a tightly covered container or sealed plastic storage bag.
Problem: Lumps in the gravy.
Solution: Pour the gravy through a sieve or fine mesh strainer, or puree it in a blender until smooth (but not too long, or it becomes thin.)
Problem: Burnt cookie bottoms.
Solution: Scrape the bottoms across a grater; broken pieces can find new life as ice cream toppings.
Problem: Sauce is too salty.
Solution: Dip a cube of sugar in the sauce and run it back and forth across the surface, in a zigzag motion. Taste and repeat as necessary, three or four times, depending on the seasoning snafu.
Problem: Scorched rice.
Solution: Scoop the burned rice into a clean pot, being careful not to include the blackened bottom part. Place a layer of onion skins - the first few layers of the onion, minus the papery part - over the rice. Cover and let sit 10 minutes or so, while the skins absorb the unpleasant smoky taste of the rice. Remove the skins and serve.
Problem: Whipped cream that won't whip.
Solution: Add any of the following thickeners: an unbeaten egg white, three drops of lemon juice, a pinch of gelatin powder or a dash of salt. And remember that cream whips up best when cream, bowl and beaters are all chilled.
Problem: The vegetables are overcooked.
Solution: Make a soup. In a blender, puree the vegetables along with a cup or so of chicken broth. Turn the stock into a pot, bring to a simmer and add enough milk to create the desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper and whatever else you like - a dash of hot pepper sauce, some sauteed minced garlic, fresh minced herbs - to brighten the effect.
Problem: The pasta's boiling over.
Solution: Blow on the surface of the bubbling foam, remove from heat and add a tablespoon of oil to the water before returning the pot to flame. Next time around, lightly oil the top inch or so of the inside of the cooking pot before starting.
Problem: As you're frying or sauteing, the butter begins to brown.
Solution: Add a drop or two of vegetable oil to the pan to prevent further discoloring. A combination of oil and butter doesn't burn as quickly as butter alone, and the oil shouldn't affect the flavor of the fat.
Problem: You don't know whether the baking powder you're about to use is stale or not.
Solution: Add a teaspoonful of the stuff to a cup of hot water. If it bubbles vigorously, the baking powder is effective. If it doesn't, it's past its prime and shouldn't be kept.
Problem: Melted chocolate turns grainy and stiff.
Solution: For each ounce of chocolate, stir in a teaspoon or two of solid vegetable shortening and stir until smooth.