Cooking

Kitchen Impossible

Dana Cowin's tips for avoiding disaster when entertaining

Those of us who entertain pretty much always have a few disaster stories. I'll never forget the time I spent half a day slowly simmering a pot of coq au vin for a fall dinner party only to accidentally dump an industrial-size portion of black pepper on top (curses, loose-lidded pepper container!). My poor friends suffered through their stew in sweaty silence.

Incredibly, Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin is among our ranks. In her new book, Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen (Ecco, $35), Cowin confesses to messing up "literally every type of food (meat, fish, chicken, bread, pie) using every kind of technique (roasting, grilling, broiling, boiling) at every time of day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack)."

Mistakes are inevitable, but Cowin doesn't let that scare her from entertaining. For the book, she consulted 65 of the world's best chefs (who, conveniently, all happen to be her friends) to seek advice on how to correct her cooking screw-ups, and in the process learns how to fry perfectly crisp chicken, how to bake light, buttery biscuits and how to make a creamy béchamel, among other things. Her book is chock-full of chefs' tips, hilarious stories and 100 recipes Cowin mastered along the way.

Given that she has lots of experience on the subject, I asked Cowin to share a few of her best tips on how to avoid—and bounce back from—kitchen mishaps while entertaining.

Cowin's book cover, Baked Ziti Arrabbiata

Read the recipe thoroughly. "This is such irritating advice because it's so simple, but you truly need to read to the end of the recipe," says Cowin. "And you genuinely need to get out every ingredient and all the tools you need before you start cooking. You are so far ahead of the game if you just do these two things."

Think through the timing in advance. "I like to write out a step-by-step timeline to make sure I account for steps like chilling, baking or resting," says Cowin. "I once brought a half-cooked meatloaf to a potluck party because I underestimated the amount of time I needed to cook it." Lesson: Plan ahead.

Don't always trust your instincts. Trusting your cooking instincts can be disastrous if you lack experience. "I was making a béchamel sauce from skim milk, and it wouldn't thicken," recounts Cowin. "I assumed that it was my fault for not using full-fat milk, so I tried to reduce it like you would another type of sauce. That, of course, didn't work. When I told the story to the Food & Wine test-kitchen crew the next day, they told me that a béchamel never, ever gets reduced—you just have to add more flour at the beginning."

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Be patient. "Patience turns out to be a theme in the book," explains Cowin. "I was making the caramel sauce for the Chicken Thighs with Smoky Vietnamese Caramel Sauce, and there was this lump in the sauce that just would not dissolve. I got really frustrated. I later talked to [chef and Bizarre Foods host] Andrew Zimmern, who told me that I should have waited: With a little patience, it would have eventually dissolved and the sauce would have been perfect."

Choose a foolproof menu. "In the fall, I love making a hearty pasta like the Baked Ziti Arrabbiata," says Cowin. "I'd serve it with an incredibly simple salad, and for dessert, I'd make the juicy Plum Galette with its foolproof crust—it's a total no-fail recipe!"

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