Mastering the Tricks of the Trade

Every now and then, nightly in some cases, something will happen to test a cook's mettle. Good ones will rise to the occasion, mediocrity will sink others without trace. There are a few tricks that can help when the gremlins strike in your kitchen.

Most times disasters are in the taste-buds of the beholder, because a flavor didn't turn out quite as expected or a sauce appears 'flat'. This is easily remedied with a few drops of lemon juice or, if you will take a tip from a professional kitchen, a little spicing essence. This is something that dates back, I believe, to Escoffier and is simply 50g of sugar boiled up with 50ml of vinegar, cooled and stored in the fridge. It works wonders with a variety of dishes, including salad dressings.

You never need more than a teaspoonful. On no account attempt to correct a dull tasting sauce with more salt. It will simply taste more salty, as you might expect. On the other hand, if too much salt is your problem, add a raw potato to the sauce and bring it to the boil. When the potato is cooked remove it.

It will bring a lot of the salt with it. Repeat this as often as necessary until you have the balance the way you want it. Mint, too, is a great rescuer of the mundane, either as a fresh or dried herb, or even as mint sauce. A few drops of the latter have a similar effect to Escoffier's spicing essence, with the freshness of mint to give an added lift. Don't be afraid to do this, it works with just about every kind of meat sauce and often works wonders with an otherwise uninspiring stew. Remember, too, that your attitude to what you perceive as a disaster will determine its outcome.

Your guests don't know what you intended, so don't give the game away if it doesn't seem quite right to you. Serve it like you stole it! For example, no chef would ever admit that his mashed potato was underdone. He would simply rename it 'crushed potato' and start a new trend in fashionable dining. You think I'm kidding? That actually happened in a very posh restaurant in London's swanky West End. There's nothing to stop you doing the same thing.

Never apologize. Simply place the dish on the table with a flourish and announce something like 'You'll love these carrots. The chef at (posh restaurant) showed me how to slightly burn the glaze for that extra bit of flavor'.

Oh yes, and if the mashed potato as mentioned above turns out a little sloppy instead, push it through an icing bag into little rosettes which you bake in a hot oven for a few minutes until golden brown. No piping bag? Use a tablespoon to put dollops on a greased baking tray and cook as before. With a little bit of ingenuity and a lot of brass you can get away with just about anything in the kitchen. Only you need ever know that what ended up as caramel brittle started out in life as lemon meringue. And always remember the crafty cook's motto: Cook it with conviction; Serve it with panache!.

Michael Sheridan is a former head-chef as well as an acknowledged authority and published writer on cooking matters. His website at contains a wealth of information, hints, tips and recipes for busy home cooks

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