A Lesson in Screw Ups
I’ve always considered myself to be an adventurous cook. Mastering Georgian, Korean, and
Levantine food over the last couple of years are clear evidence of this. But when I got an order from The Open Pass asking for a Thai fish curry as a personalized dish, my heart sank. The last time I made Thai curry was when I was living in a tiny apartment in downtown Oakland. Though it was honestly delectable, curry was never my favorite food, so I never spent extensive amounts of time cooking it.
The exception, and there always is one, is the mysterious Jamaican curry. Honestly simpler and more flavorsome than its Asian counterparts, I always found it fascinating. To be consumed with goat, fish, beef, or chicken, it was something that sold so well in my London restaurant, and so I spent months perfecting my formula. This meant burning my hands on those cute but violent scotch bonnet peppers, scorching the chicken beyond recognition, and not giving the goat the ten hours it needs to be properly tender.
But this was no time to reminisce on the good old days when I cooked the food I knew so well. It was instead time to try something new and in this case scary. Not only was I cooking for a complete stranger, but it was his first time using a brand new service. The food I produced had to be immaculate.
I started with his other dish, a creamy French style seafood stew. It came out perfectly, something that built my confidence enough to start tackling this other recipe. Looking up a few options online and furiously asking chef friends for their recipes (who of course didn’t answer until I had already made a mess), I started to cook.
The idea of buying prepackaged red curry paste when I was so accustomed to making my own out of all the spices and aromatics that were lying around the well-stocked kitchen was strange. But still I started to warm some in a pan until it was fragrant, which given that my nose is as sensitive as your average canine’s, probably took less time than it should have. That was likely my first mistake.
I then added coconut milk and a few other aromatics and the suspiciously textured mixture was left to simmer away while I shallow fried some julienned onions. The mixture in question was starting to catch by the time I got back to paying attention to the pan. Error number two. I tasted it to make sure it didn’t taste charred and managed to burn the living crap out of my tongue. Between the heat of the curry paste and the temperature of the mixture itself, I could taste nothing for the rest of the day. Screw up number three.
I relied on that magical nose and decided that the curry sauce wasn’t burnt, then added chunks of white fish into it. The recipe said to bake it the rest of the way, so I stuck the pot in a low oven, checking it every three minutes. But for some odd reason it just wasn’t cooking. Screw it. This was going back on the stove, and low and behold it cooked beautifully in a few minutes.
Gingerly tasting the concoction, I’d never been so relieved. Somehow, it came out delicious and I still have no idea how. So I placed it to cool and took a short but well deserved break. But horror struck! Upon coming back to it, I saw that a solid inch of fat had risen to the top of the curry. The kitchen I was cooking in that day is quite poorly stocked, and so there was no ladle to skim the top. Instead I was stuck spooning off the fat with an ordinary tablespoon. Fifteen minutes later I was done and tasted it again. By that time it had cooled, but the flavors and textures were there. So a thought that never crosses my mind in the kitchen came to be: good enough.
Well. This stressful experience was enough to teach me a valuable lesson. It’s best to be honest on one’s abilities than to try to wing something and then botch it royally. From this point on, I will suggest favorite dishes of mine on The Open Pass rather than try to please someone else’s palate.