Janet Sheridan: Curbing culinary catastrophes

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Janet Sheridan

I usually think company dinners I prepare taste like braised cardboard.

As I plan, shop, and cook, I believe I’m creating a meal destined for the culinary hall of fame.

Then I eat it.

“Everything’s so delicious,” my guests say with honest eyes and straight faces.

“Right,” I think, “and I’ll bet your children still believe in the Easter bunny.”

Actually, the food I serve others is always edible and often tasty, but the adrenalin rush caused by the unaccustomed flurry of shopping, cooking, and cleaning tends to send my taste buds to Florida for a much-needed vacation.

First, I wrestle with the menu.

I easily pair baked chicken with potatoes au gratin, roasted asparagus, and basil bread, but the ensuing complications tip me into temporary trauma: how do I coordinate four recipes that need the oven at the same time at three different temperatures?

So I switch from chicken to sautéed salmon and steamed asparagus. But, do I really want to be in the kitchen frying fish and poking a fork into asparagus while our guests munch on appetizers and laugh with Joel?

After I’ve managed to finalize a menu and shop for its ingredients, my mania focuses on the table setting: Do I have the right bowls and platters for the dishes I’ve planned? Are they clean, chip-free, and color-coordinated?

Do I have appropriate serving utensils? It’s embarrassing to dish up the entree with my go-to spatula, trying to conceal the melted lump that used to be its handle.

I worry that the guests seated on the table’s corners will be uncomfortable with no elbowroom and their knees jammed against its legs, but maybe they’ll be so merry from Joel’s pre-dinner stand-up routine they won’t notice.

Giving up on perfection, I hide the mystery stain on the tablecloth with a trivet and dash off to the kitchen where my careful coordination of cooking times is completely out of whack.

At last, I serve dinner: the guests make approving noises, I take my first bite of the entrée, my taste buds flee.

Family members and friends make company dinners look easy, and I’ve yet to see any of them choke on their own food.

What’s my problem?

Maybe I lose my sense of humor during the deluge of preparations.

A friend of mine once invited 12 guests for Thanksgiving dinner and refused all offers of help.

She welcomed us to a sparkling home, seated us at a restaurant-perfect table, and made a grand entry with a crisply browned turkey, which slid from the platter, dropped on the floor, and bounced.

As dismayed gasps escaped her guests, she sang out: “Oh, well, I’ll just pop back into the kitchen and get the other one,” scooped up the bird, exited to the kitchen, returned with the same knocked-awry carcass, and served it to the laughter and enjoyment of everyone.

Later, she confessed she watched Julia Child’s cooking series on TV and once saw the cooking queen drop a partially stuffed turkey on the floor, rinse it under the tap, and proceed.

I should watch more television.

I did hear an NPR interview with Julia several years ago. When asked if she ever cooked disasters, she replied, “Oh, my, yes. But I pour good wine and start an interesting conversation, and nobody seems to notice — especially the female guests who appreciate any cooking they don’t have to do.”

Despite Julia’s words, I doubt wine and conversation would cover my mistakes. After all, she had her reputation: If she served sub-par food, her guests would assume they were somehow at fault.

And, she probably never experienced run-away taste buds.

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