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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Disaster Strikes!

Those who know me understand that although there is always room for culinary improvement in my kitchen, very rarely do I have to actually dump a meal down the disposal. In fact, the last time was November 2001: I made a navy bean casserole but used a TABLESPOON of dried sage instead of the required teaspoon. Rookie mistake.

What I didn't know at the time is that large amounts of sage are actually mildly poisonous (is there is a such a thing as mildly poisonous or is everything just poisonous?). The dutiful diners who choked down a few spoonfuls of the toxic legume dish spent several hours regretting it. Ah, those were the days.

Since then, I've been doing okay in my cooking adventures. Not every meal is stellar, but always edible and often more than edible. I guess they do say pride before the fall, right?

So one night I am making fettuccine with vodka sauce ... "Thirty minute meal" (thank you Rachel Ray and by the way, her magazine rocks), so it isn't the *real* vodka sauce but it was going to be an acceptable substitute. I had been buying Raos brand vodka sauce, which is very tasty, but at $9 a bottle, I just can't justify the expense all the time.

I put a pot of pasta water on to boil, grab my ceramic cast iron dutch oven and start browing up some garlic in olive oil while I chop some fresh basil. All is right with the world. I even take the time to give my boyfriend a quick culinary lesson--I have been trying to help him tell different herbs apart, so I gave him a basil leaf to smell and taste.

Since I am a big Astros fan, he starts reading me an article on Lights Out Lidge and how he has moved on since that awful Pujols home run in the Championship series last season. (I'm glad someone has because I haven't.)

Anyway, I add crushed tomatoes to the garlic, then the basil leaves. When the basil leaves wilt, in goes a glug or so of vodka. At this point I am glowing about my own ability to multi-task: Salt pasta water. Check. Dump in pasta. Check. Listen to boyfriend. Check. Wait for sauce to boil. Check. Time to reduce the heat and take a taste!

This is when the trouble begins, because I decide to (*gasp*) improvise. I don't like tomato sauces that are overly acidic, and they tend to be if they don't cook very long. I read somewhere that a bit of sugar or baking soda can help with this, so I add a sprinkling of sugar. But of course, I am still not happy and make the fateful mistake of grabbing a box of baking soda and well, let's just say that if you choose to do this in the future, a little, I mean a very little, goes a long way.

My sauce foams up like I have never seen a tomato sauce foam before. Wait--I have never seen tomato sauce foam before. Tomato sauce shouldn't foam. And then it turns an unnatural orange color ... almost like the greasy residue of cafeteria spaghetti.

I try not to panic. I turn to the one cookbook that I have used almost daily for at least six years, well every time I cook anyway: Brilliant Food Tips and Cooking Tricks--an alphabetical guide to kitchen secrets and shortcuts, with some recipes thrown in.

I read the dreaded words: "The catch with baking soda is that it must be properly balanced with the acidic ingredient so that it is fully neutralized. If not, the leftover baking soda will leave a soapy, bitter flavor." I taste the sauce. Oh yes, soapy and bitter.

I am now fighting chemistry. In school, chemistry always won. Things do not look good.

I look for other acids--brown sugar, lemon juice, cream of tartar, buttermilk and chocolate ... Ok, I don't have buttermilk and chocolate is out. I try adding a bit of brown sugar. Then I try adding a can of Italian seasoned diced tomatoes for more acid. Still not working ... I add some tomato paste--just a teaspoon or so. After adding each ingredient, the foam kicks up again. I taste the sauce, which at this point looks more like soup ... Ok, a little better. Maybe if I cook it a little longer.

By this point, the pasta is done. I drain it and steam some asparagus, and turn my attention back to the sauce. A little lemon juice goes in, more brown sugar, some tomato paste, and now I can't tell what it tastes like. My mouth tastes like soap--but at least I'm in no danger of getting heartburn tonight ...

Finally, I add cream to the sauce and ladle some of it into the bowl of pasta, adding a little more basil and some cheese to hopefully mask whatever bitterness is left in the sauce. How I could make a sauce that is so overly sweet and that bitter at the same time is beyond me.

My boyfriend takes a test bite: "It's OK," he says a little too cheerily while adding a handful of cheese. I am not so sure. I think if I take one more bite, I am going to be sick and start eating the asparagus (which was great by the way). To lighten the mood, my boyfriend compares the meal to Lidge's famous failed slider that oddly makes me feel better. Then we made a unanimous decision to throw out the whole mess with pomp, ceremony and the help of a garbage disposal, and go get burgers (which were great by the way).

I will let you know when I do finally conquer the vodka sauce. I just think now is too soon. I still have the faint taste of baking soda in the back of my throat ...If culinary disaster strikes only once every five years, I can handle it ... especially since the boyfriend's parents are coming for dinner tonight.

Humbled in Houston