It is 6 p.m., and your dinner guests will arrive any minute now. But instead of pulling the perfect roast out of the oven like Martha Stewart, you discover that your dinner is unraveling.
While sitting out, the cold appetizer veggies have gone limp as a wet book cover. You overcooked the roast, and now it's on the dry side. The asparagus, perfect in the store, has no flavor.
And then there's the chocolate cake. So gorgeous in the magazine, it's burned on the edges and soft in the middle.
There lies the inevitable question: Can this dinner be saved?
Thanks to food first aid, yes.
You can cook your way out of any dinner disaster, experts say. Simple solutions to almost every kitchen fiasco just take a little creativity, says cooking teacher and author Carol Ritchie.
"Stay calm, use your imagination, and cook with all of your senses," she says. "Think color, texture and freshness."
For instance: "The pie you made tastes delicious, but the filling is runny. So serve it in individual bowls with vanilla ice cream and call it cobbler."
Problems occur most often when the cook lavishes too much attention on a dish, according to Anita Frank, a community-college teacher in Dallas.
"People mess too much," Ms. Frank says.
The perfect example is pan-frying. "The first thing people do once they put fish fillets in a skillet is to reach for a spatula." Wrong, wrong, wrong, she says.
"Protein, when introduced to heat, will stick to the pan for a few minutes. Don't mess with it! Spice it on one side and allow it to cook, then turn it."
Additional problems are created by improper cookware. Ms. Frank recommends a simple test for skillets and saucepans.
"Rap your cookware with your knuckles," she says. "If it rings like a bell, it will not insulate your food." Good cookware should be thick enough to emit a resonant thump when rapped.
But if the roast -- or any other food -- does burn, here's how Marina and John Bear suggest you handle it in "How to Repair Food" (Ten Speed Press, $5.95):
First, they write, "Stop the food from cooking by removing it from the heat at once. Place the pot in a container of cold water, larger than the pot."
Transfer the unburned portion to another pot or bowl.
"Taste the food and treat the unburned parts, if necessary, to prevent a burned taste," they say. To do this, cover the pot or bowl with a damp cloth and let it stand for about one-half hour.
"Taste again, and if the taste is still unpleasant, your food is probably beyond repair."
Ms. Frank adds these two sure-fire emergency precautions: Keep pasta and sauce on hand to substitute in a pinch, and "always have the number of a good takeout restaurant handy."
The hints from Ms. Ritchie, Ms. Frank and "How to Repair Food," should give you a handle on recovering from almost any kitchen calamity.
Food first-aid supplies
* Dehydrated onions: Fill out soups and stews; flavor bland vegetables and casseroles.
* Vanilla instant pudding: Use between cake layers or to camouflage unattractive desserts. Cut cake or quick breads into cubes and layer in a glass bowl with pudding and chunks of fruit.
* Instant hollandaise: A good way to dress up bland meats, eggs or vegetables.
* Cheese sauce or cheese soup: Ditto. Add bottled picante to make a quick dip.
* Baking mix: Stretch a meal with biscuits.
* Mashed potato flakes: Thicken soups. Extend vegetables by mixing equal parts mashed potatoes and cooked, well-drained vegetables. Top with Parmesan and broil until brown.
* Canned peach halves: Pad a skimpy green salad. Garnish a dry cake with sliced peaches and a drizzle of syrup.
* Sherry: Add flavor to any soup, stew or casserole. A sprinkling pumps up bland desserts.
* Tube of tomato paste: Stir into lightweight soups. Mix with herbs and a little olive oil to spread on bread
* Basic spices (chili powder, oregano, cinnamon, curry, cumin, garlic powder, tarragon and pepper): Pep up bland packaged foods.
* Problem: Bread dough that doesn't rise.
Rx: Set on heating pad for a few minutes.
* Problem: Bread that's stale.
Rx: Sprinkle loaf with 1/2 teaspoon of water, seal in a brown paper bag and heat at 350 degrees 10 to 15 minutes. But keep a close eye on the bag (paper is quite flammable) and wet the bag as necessary until bread reaches desired softness. This also works with bagels: Place no more than two bagels in a brown paper bag and heat at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.
* Problem: Cakes and dessert souffles that fail to rise.
Rx: Because they still taste good, just rename them, frost and
serve as frosted squares. You could also slice
the cake horizontally and add a layer of pastry cream and fruit or liqueur-flavored pudding. Then cut the cake and put it on plates, rather than serving it whole.
* Problem: A cake that's burned on the edges, soupy in the middle.
Rx: Go ahead and bake the cake until the center is done, then cut off the burned edges and garnish with a sauce or fresh fruit.
* Problem: Dry cake.
Rx: Wrap it in cheesecloth that's been soaked in brandy or a liqueur. Then top the cake with a sauce, such as Peach Dessert Sauce.
* Problem: Cookies that are bland.
Rx: Make sandwich cookies with jam or fudge, or spread with peanut butter and top with cake decorations.
* Problem: Cookies that are too crisp.
Rx: Store in an airtight container for 24 hours.
* Problem: Cookies that are hard.
Rx: Store in an airtight container with a glass of water or two slices of fresh bread.
* Problem: Icing that is too thin.
Rx: Add confectioners' sugar a little bit at a time and stir. Or beat the icing in indirect heat, such as in the hot sun, near an open oven door or in the top of a double boiler.
* Problem: A burned pie.
Rx: Remove burned areas and serve it in dishes -- perhaps spruced up with Peach Dessert Sauce. Or, if you're feeling really indulgent, Creme Fraiche.
* Problem: A savory dish that's too salty.
Rx: Add sugar. For gravy, soup or stew, add sliced raw potato, cook till the potato is translucent and then discard.
* Problem: A savory dish that's too spicy.
Rx: Add broth, milk or cream. Or, if you have the time, make another batch, unseasoned, and combine the two.
* Problem: An overdose of a pungent herb.
Rx: Add a spicy sauce, such as salsa with cream, that will distract the taste buds.
* Problem: Fried foods that fall apart.
Rx: Add a can of tomatoes, a bell pepper or two and serve it over rice.
Meat, poultry and fish
* Problem: The poultry's dry.
Rx: Slice the bird and arrange it on a heat proof platter. Make a sauce of equal parts butter and chicken broth or stock. Pour it on the sliced bird and let stand in a 250-degree oven for 10 minutes to soak up the juices.
* Problem: Burned meat.
Rx: Trim away the burned parts and rethink your presentation. Consider stir-frying the remaining meat with fresh vegetables.
* Problem: Fish or seafood that's overcooked.
F: Rx: Smother it in sauce. Or use it to make Croquettes.
Sauces and gravies
* Problem: The sauce curdles.
Rx: Force it through a strainer.
* Problem: The gravy's bland.
Rx: Add spices or red currant jelly to beef gravy. Add chicken broth, bouillon or poultry seasoning to poultry gravy.
* Problem: The gravy's lumpy.
Rx: Beat with a whisk or a hand beater, or pour or force it through a wire strainer. As a last resort, use the blender or food processor.
Vegetables, pasta and rice
* Problem: the pasta's stuck together.
Rx: Plunge it into boiling water or add olive oil and gently separate with a large fork.
* Problem: Salsa that's too spicy.
RTC Rx: Add chopped red or yellow bell peppers, cilantro or a pinch of sugar.
* Problem: Overcooked vegetables.
Rx: Slice or mash them and combine with any cream soup.
* Problem: Cold vegetables that go limp.
Rx: They will never firm up completely. But you can do a lot of good by placing them in ice water in refrigerator, or freezing for 20 minutes to a half-hour until they feel firmer.
* Problem: Burned rice.
Rx: As soon as you realize the rice is burning, turn off the stove and put the heel of a loaf of bread on top of the rice, cover the pot and wait 5 minutes. Taste the rice. If the taste is not OK, it's probably not salvageable.
Peach dessert sauce
1 cup unsweetened peach juice
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon dry sherry
1 cup sliced fresh peaches
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Combine juice and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat until it gently boils. Mix in cornstarch-water mixture and cook until thickened, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add sherry and stir well; cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat and cool slightly. Stir in peach slices, butter and lemon juice. Serve hot or cold over pound cake or ice cream.
Note: You may use any fruit, such as strawberries, pears, apples, oranges, pineapple or any combination.
Per serving: calories: 135; fat: 4 grams; cholesterol: 11 milligrams; sodium: 41 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 26 percent.
heavy cream (as many cups as you wish)
1 tablespoon buttermilk per cup of cream
Combine ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Heat just until the chill is off, to about 90 degrees. Pour into a glass jar, cover lightly with a piece of wax paper and let sit in a warm place (65 to 70 degrees) for 12 to 20 hours, until the creme fraiche has thickened.
Replace wax paper with plastic wrap or a tight-fitting lid, and refrigerate at least 6 hours before using. Keeps up to 2 weeks.
Serves 4 (2 croquettes each)
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
1 cup milk
2 cups cooked ground meat or fish
1 tablespoon minced onion
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic (or to taste)
1 teaspoon minced parsley
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup bread crumbs
In a saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and add flour. Remove from heat and whisk in milk. Bring to a slow boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. To 1 cup of white sauce (reserve remainder for later use), add ground meat or fish, onion, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper. Mix well and spread the mixture in a shallow pan (to speed up the cooling process) and chill thoroughly, about 30 minutes.
Lightly beat egg with water. Shape croquette mixture into patties, dip in egg wash, then bread crumbs and pan- or deep-fry until golden.
Drizzle remaining white sauce over cooked croquettes. Serve immediately.
Each serving has about 683 calories: 53 g fat; 196 mg cholesterol; 610 milligrams sodium.