ON TERRIBLE FOOD & ART
“Make it terrible or make it great.”
That is what my professor Stanley Whitney told me when I was a
a twenty-one-year-old whippersnapper studying painting in Rome, and he specifically meant that I couldn’t settle for painting something merely mediocre. He wanted paintings good enough for the best galleries and museums in the world, and to hell with what would merely go up in a coffee shop with a $500 sticker. That was in 2003, the year I also began to really cook.
I was reminded of his words last night when I was preparing a Marco Pierre White recipe (from White Heat) for “Hot foie gras, lentilles du pays, sherry vinegar sauce.” I had no troubles with searing the foie, but the lentils and sauce presented problems: 1) I had only a quarter cup of lentils and needed three-quarters more; 2) the sauce called for Madeira and sherry vinegar, and I had neither. Add to that a time crunch (when isn’t there a time crunch when dinner is at stake?), and I was feeling a bit of stress.
The final stressor was Joyce Liu, a friend of mine and a former roommate of my wife’s, who’d been staying at our house. She’s a fantastic chef who’s been moving up the culinary ladder mostly under the tutelage of April Bloomfield for the last five years, since graduating from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. My own time on the line has been less glamorous and my knowledge and skillset are infantile comparatively. She’d cooked for us the previous three nights, and now I was making food for her.
I decided to par cook the lentils ahead of time (adding jasmine rice for volume) but screwed up and boiled them into a mush. Bland but edible. At that point, I had three options: Keep it as is, knowing it will never be that good; toss it and cook new; or try to make it great and risk making it truly terrible. And I couldn’t toss it. I had no time and no more lentils and making my guest eat foie gras on rice or perhaps couscous instead wouldn’t at all be in the spirit of the dish. I’d been simmering a mirepoix of carrots, shallots, and celery in butter in a pan on the side. I turned the flame high, added a scoop of pumpkin seeds, dumped in the mush, and did my best to fry the hell out of it. The result was an oily, soggy, heap. The texture was still poor, the taste somewhat better. I strained it to get rid of the extra oil and set it aside, hoping for an idea later.
It was after my chicken finished roasting and I was looking at the delicious drippings that it occurred to me to strain about a quarter cup of that golden juicy fat into the heap—making it even soggier, pushing it toward a savory, bastardized congee with a French flavor profile. I cooked it into oblivion and when I was done it looked sort of like purple mashed potatoes. But! The texture was that of a good mash, and the taste was quite rich.
Regards the sherry sauce, I managed to foul it by trying to reduce dry sherry with a drop of white wine vinegar, the result being far too bitter. This was an easy fix: red wine, tawny port, and foie gras drippings brought it together into a sweet and savory syrup.
The end result was very tasty and I was excited to eat it with our guest. Was it as good as what Mr. White’s recipe called for? I think he would say definitely not (or something more profane). And wasn’t I lucky to have chicken drippings and foie gras drippings on hand? Certainly. But when you cook (or write or paint), you sometimes manufacture your own luck, and I never had the time or ingredients to make the right thing to begin with. I needed some luck and I needed to be willing to screw everything up.
– Thomas McCafferty