On Recipe Failures

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Last week, someone very close to me called me a “chef.” I was flabbergasted: sure, I write a food blog. And sure, I know my way around a vegan kitchen (I specify “vegan” because, for all of my talent with veggies, I wouldn’t know the first thing about cooking flesh!). I suppose I also have a knack for making food that’s healthy, yet tasty. But I associate the word “chef” with formal training of some sort, or with a particularly nuanced palate; I think of chefs as those rare people who can stare at a table of ingredients, Iron Chef style, and immediately envision a finished dish.

I’m not like that. I’m good at creating recipes, but that’s only because I’m a good student. When I learned how to cook, I went about mastering it as I would anything else: I studied. Hard. I bought dozens of cookbooks, and I practically memorized them all. I read up on measuring conversions, on flavor pairings, and on the health properties of nearly every vegetable. Today, when I throw a recipe together—seemingly with ease—it’s only because I spent years learning and re-learning other people’s inventions, and reaping the benefit of their wisdom. There’s a reason I worship at the altar of Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Susan Voisin, Ani Phyo, Deb Madison, Nava Atlas, and Anna Thomas: these women taught me how to cook, and I’d be nowhere without them.

There’s another thing: I mess up. Frequently. Readers of my blog might assume that the recipes I share are all first tries. Wrong! Sometimes I get it right the first time around, and sometimes I really don’t. If something’s a failure, I’ll just play around with it until it’s right—or, if that’s not in the stars, I’ll just abandon ship. Of course, you wouldn’t know that, because you click on CR and see only my finished products; you never see the spectacular flops that precede them. Believe me, though, they happen. And when they do, it’s always occasion for laughter, because there’s nothing funnier than a recipe that goes utterly, impossibly wrong.

Take the soup I made today, for example. I was so excited about it: faced with a bag of organic bell peppers, 2 avocados that were ready to use, and a pantry full of seaweed, I thought I’d make a red pepper and avocado soup, and I’d toss in some wakame. I knew that this recipe wouldn’t be for the faint of heart: raw soups really don’t please everyone, even though I happen to love them, and seaweed’s an acquired taste. For those people who are used to raw soup, though, and who love sea veggies, I reasoned that this recipe would be a surefire success: avocado, pepper, a sprinkle of wakame—what could go terribly wrong?

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As I was putting it all together, I noticed that I had some basil leftover from Rosie’s salad yesterday. Basil, red pepper—a natural combo, right? I decided to throw some of that into the mix, along with lemon and salt for acid and seasoning.

I should have been worried as soon as I saw the color:

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Yeah. Not the best. Now, I like my fair share of weirdly green tinted raw food, but this just felt…wrong. It was too muddy, too course looking, even though I’d kept it blending on high in my Vitamix for over three minutes. Then I tasted it.

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Terrible. I mean, just awful. What seemed like an awesome idea a few minutes earlier—pepper, avocado, seaweed, fresh herbs—suddenly seemed like lunacy. Basil and wakame?! What was I thinking?

Fortunately, a giant salad had been made as a side dish:

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And it was hearty enough to hold me to dinner—or at least, until a good afternoon snack.

And the soup? Into the sink, I’m afraid. I try to conserve food as best I can: I use my juice pulp in crackers and burgers, I keep veggies well cared for and ventilated, so that they don’t rot prematurely; I only buy as much produce as I’ll use, and I use up leftovers dutifully. But I just can’t bring myself to eat food that tastes lousy. In fact, I’m pretty adamant about only eating food that tastes great to me: if something in a restaurant is only so so, I’ll probably eat the bare minimum and make something I really like when I get home. If I mess a recipe up, it’s not at all unusual for me to toss it and immediately start over. And I’ll gladly go through all sorts of geographic and scheduling inconveniences to find food that suits me, rather than grabbing something mediocre to eat on the go.

Perhaps I take this insistence on only eating delicious food a little too far. And if you’re thinking that it may be related to my ED history, I think you’re right: I spent many years without the enjoyment of food, and now that I do love it, I can’t help but insist on making every meal pleasurable. I’m not a lunatic: if I’m traveling or in company and I can’t get the food I want, I’ll make do. But I don’t force myself to eat recipes that I know I need improvement. Which means that my red pepper and avocado soup is going to go through a few more iterations before I post it on the blog. By the time I do, I’ll be able to offer you guys a money-back guarantee that it’s not, um, heinous.

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Gena vs. The Bell Pepper

There’s an important take home message in today’s post. One of the major anxieties that deters people from leading a healthy lifestyle is fear of cooking—or rather, fear of failing at cooking. I’ve had many clients confess that they just “don’t know how to cook” or that they “can’t cook” to save their lives. These clients often assume that cooking is some sort of God given talent, like being a piano prodigy or a math genius: either you’ve got it, or you don’t. That’s simply untrue: sure, there is such a thing as true greatness in the culinary arts, and I think the “chefs” of the world probably have it. But there’s also such a thing as being an experienced, able, and creative home cook, and that has very little to do with innate talent. It is a learned skill set, and even after you learn it, you’ll have failures and successes; recipes that amaze, and recipes that disappoint. It’s all part of the fun.

So, dear readers, remember this: you guys see about 2/3 of the recipes I make. The other 1/3 are filed away in the great “recipe fail” bin. Maybe I’ll make a point of showing you some of these, and even blogging about the steps I take to fix them: if nothing else, it should teach us all a thing or two about what to do when a recipe goes wrong. Right?

What are some of your most memorable food flops? Did you manage to fix them?


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  1. I have more fails than wins in my recipe repertoire! Mainly because I’m too impulsive…I decide I want to make something and then start cooking, even if I don’t have the ingredients. Then I find myself subbing because I don’t have stuff, except that I don’t have enough knowledge to know what to sub for what…it’s not pretty.

  2. LOVED this post. I am so afraid of recipe failures haha and I am exactly the same as you. I refuse to eat mediocre food! It makes me nauseous. I hate wasting food and I feel bad about it but yeah, if I don’t like what I made, I won’t eat it (I try and hand it off to my boyfriend hehe).

  3. Reading this post was exactly what I needed! I’ve been gettin a bit experimental in the kitchen lately and the results have been…interesting. Let’s just say my first attempt with tofu was less than stellar!

  4. you’re back :)! Usually when my recipes fail it’s because I use a spice I don’t realize I don’t like. I find certain spices very offensive, like fennel, i can’t take it!

  5. Oooh I tried a tofu scramble for the first time and went WAY overboard with the turmeric. I don’t like to waste food, but this was just inedible. We all mess up!

  6. Woo hoo! I’m not alone. I’ve literally spent way too many nights trying to perfect a sweet potato and swiss chard “casserole.” Sometimes it’s too dry and sometimes it’s too bland. I love how you turned a failure into a post. Plus, it’s a good reminder that no one’s perfect. I’m sure you’ll get the soup right, and I can’t wait to try it when you do.

  7. I made a soup fairly recently – out of a cookbook, even – and it was a spectacular fail. Not that it didn’t taste decent, but it was a soup you were supposed to blend smooth and when I did, it had the consistency of wallpaper paste – yeesh. I’d hoped it would be better the next day, but it was a bad sign when the ladle left an imprint in the “big” bowl and only half the soup slid out of the ladle into the “small” bowl.

    That, and blending the stupid soup killed my blender!

  8. I share your insistence on only eating food that’s delicious
    (though I have some scarily healthy tastebuds, so I can actually use them as a guide to healthy food). But I too have made mistakes (ever juiced arugula?) and down the drain they go. Ditto mushy apples, stringy avocados, anything that tastes “off.” I’ve actually always chosen delucious food, and I’ve always enjoyed it, even in my ED days. I could make a bran muffin or a container of yogurt last am hour. I do eat with more gusto these days, but I’m still “extremely picky.” I think I’ve always been extremely picky; it may be a personality trait that got superimposed on my eating disorder and that still characterizes the way I eat. Not sure there’s any relationship, good or bad. If I do find myself compromising, I’ll choose tasty over healthy. Not interested in life without the occasional frosted cupcake.

  9. I think we all have our share of flops and it’s so great you’re bringing it up! I think sometimes things that go wrong teach us more than things that go right. For my example, let’s just say tahini is not a good substitute for cashew cheese and leave it at that! πŸ˜‰

  10. After a few disastrous attempts of my own, I have discovered my perfect raw soup recipe! I love it and eat it all the time. Here it is:

    1 medium tomato
    1/2 sweet bell pepper
    1 small zucchini
    1/2 avocado
    1/2 stalk celery
    1 green onion
    1/2 small garlic clove, deveined
    Handful fresh basil (or other herbs like cilantro, dill, parsley)
    2-4 leaves of greens, destemmed (chard, kale, collards, romaine)
    Juice of 1/2 small lime
    1 Tbsp white miso
    1 Tbsp hot sauce or fresh jalapeno pepper (or to taste)
    2 cups warm water

    Blend and enjoy!

  11. I love that you’re sharing your food flops with your readers!

    It’s great to remind everyone that food bloggers aren’t perfect cooks! I definitely had a bad flop the other day when I tried to make a mole sauce from Oxygen mag that looked so simple and delicious. umm no disgusting!

    I just changed my link so hopefully it will actually direct you to MY website this time! πŸ™‚ although Anne does rock πŸ™‚

  12. I once tried to make a zucchini quiche and didn’t quite follow the recipe…what I thought were fun substitutions ended up completely changing the texture of the dish and the filling had this weird texture that was the density of a brick but sill gummy and moist (in the worst way possible). To make it even better, I was having people over for brunch so, while I was scrambling a replacement, I just loaded them all up with bloody marys and mimosas until they pretty much forgot food was even being served!

  13. I made this carrot ginger sauce for a kelp noodle salad, and it was absolutely horrible.

  14. I agree so much about wanting everything you eat to taste fabulous. Thats been a huge change for me, when I was over weight I would over eat but get very little pleasure from my food. Now I try and make everything I eat taste amazing so that I feel truly satisfied and nourished!

  15. Love this post! I have a food blog and am far from posting every recipe I create. Some are keepers, some are just NASTY.

    My most memorable food failure was when I was probably eight years old. I decided to make muffins of some sort and basically did everything wrong that I possibly could. We didn’t have flour in the house (that one is on my mother) so I figured I would just substitute baking powder. They were both white powdery substances; how different could they be? Now, I wasn’t allowed to use the stove without supervision, so I decided to just cook the muffins in the microwave. Metal muffin tin and all. Honestly, I consider this recipe a success just by virtue of the fact that I didn’t burn the house down! But the muffins were metallic tasting soup. Not good noms. I recovered from it though, and now my muffins pretty much always come out. That first effort was definitely an epic fail though.

  16. This is too funny! I made an utter and total mess of my kitchen this morning, only to end up with a gross mix that looked like veggie soup and tasted awful. So I hear you: no more green smoothie improvisation until I’ve mastered the basics!

  17. Thank you for your super honest post. I am so there with you in terms of not eating bad food (esp if it is just me at home, you know?)

  18. Ah, recipe failures. I’d say my biggest failures were in sprouting. Sometimes it’s just not clear on the packaging if something was good for sprouting or not and we all know what happens when things don’t sprout, they rot. Anything too complicated with a dehydrator is also out of the question for me, I’m generally anti recipes which have 20 steps, I just can’t follow them without trying my own versions and usually that doesn’t work when a dehydrator is involved.

    I absolutely agree with your philosophy about eating only the foods and recipes which are perfect for you! It makes eating so much more pleasurable.

  19. Ah, yes, the passionate dedication to making sure every meal is wonderful – I understand you completely, and agree with everything you say, particularly with regards to the history aspect. For a little while, a single bad restaurant meal would ruin the entire day for me, and possibly many days, as I stressed over how I’d “wasted” an opportunity on bad food. In the past year, I’ve been really happy to truly understand in myself that sometimes, going out is about the company and not the food, and so while I still don’t like failing at a recipe or getting a poor meal when out, I’m much better and moving on and not dwelling. I still prefer pure deliciouness though πŸ˜‰

  20. I love your blog Gena! I read it everyday! Recipe failures? I have TONS! I’m exactly like you though, I don’t like to waste food but I guess our failures just make our successes sweeter right? πŸ™‚

  21. Well, I, for one am really enjoying your wonderfull efforts! I’ve told many friends about your blog and I’ve told them that I have made several recipes you have posted and I’ve been very pleased with all the ones I’ve tried! You have helped me past my fear of raw and vegan food, and I’m ready to read the books from your mentors! Thank you!

  22. What a great topic to bring up, especially for those who are perfectionists and or are afraid to fail. That’s totally one of my weaknesses- I strive for all my meals to be beautiful and, well, somewhat perfect. Yeah, that doesn’t always go as planned, tonight being a good example when making a cabbage pancake. When reading blogs, we often think they cook perfect, but that’s not always the case.

  23. Love the pic, if only there was an Iron Chef Vegan! I have plenty of flops, my last salad dressing didn’t work out so well and I over salted a broccoli pate I was trying. I also flop in technique when it comes to flipping breads on dehydrator trays, flipping skillet socca … or anything that requires coordination. πŸ™‚

  24. Thank you so much for this observation: “I spent many years without the enjoyment of food, and now that I do love it, I can’t help but insist on making every meal pleasurable. I’m not a lunatic: if I’m traveling or in company and I can’t get the food I want, I’ll make do.”

    Both of these comments articulate perfectly not only why I love the act of eating a good meal so much, but also reminds me that my eating habits proved much more of an inconvenience when I had the ED than life in the present as a vegan (and that says a lot).

  25. I remember I once tried to make a mock BBQ chicken sandwich using crumbled silken tofu and BBQ sauce. The end result was vile. Not even Ted (my dog) would eat it!

  26. My most memorable recipe disaster was when trying to make homemade seitan. I gag just thinking about it. I had never (and still have not) tried even a store bought version, so I wasn’t sure what the taste/texture should be like, but I know I must have been waaaaay off because it was just awful. I can’t remember what cookbook I was using…maybe VCON?

  27. I don’t know how to cook, meaning that I am totally dependent on recipes. Thank you for your recipes (failed attempts and all), since they ensure that I eat well!

    I read that one use for juice pulp (if you had excess to your cracker needs), was to blend it up with water and pour it over plants or a garden for fertilizer. Perhaps your plants will like the taste of the soup more than you did.

  28. Oh goodness, food flops…my husband tried to make a soup in our Blendtec once, but he got a little carried away with the onion. THAT definitely went in the sink. I made a salad dressing last week trying to create something my aunt made, but it just…wasn’t right. I seem to have a hard time with recipes that needs to be Blended smooth. Chunky things like salad and stir-frys are much more forgiving with adventurous flavors.

  29. i first got into eating raw food about 3 years ago, and my boyfriend gave me ani phyo’s cookbook. the first recipe i decided to make was her raw risotto since it seemed simple enough (just food processing cauliflower and a few other ingredients). i had only followed a recipe a few times before in my life, but i really did know the difference between a clove and a head of garlic. however, there was some disconnect in my brain that day and i peeled two whole heads of garlic and put them in rather than two cloves. the smell of garlic immediately took over my kitchen as the processor whirred. i thought nothing of it. then i tried the risotto directly from the food processor and.. holy GARLIC. i thought i loved garlic but in that moment it was the most wretched and potent flavor i’d ever experienced. like you, i hate wasting food so i added more cauliflower, tried it again, and still wanted to cut my tongue off. defeated, i threw it out. and had garlic coming out of my pores for the next 24 hours, i was seriously bothering friends (and myself!!!) with the smell.

  30. So interesting that this is in the air: I wrote an ‘eating my mistakes’ post just a week or so ago, and WhatRunsLori had an epic of unphotogenic ‘fails’ today. It’s a great discussion.

    I think it’s great that you have given yourself the freedom to throw things away if they don’t turn out. I have a residual ‘eat only leftovers’ thing that I think is an ED hangover, and is gradually improving.

    My big fail that I blogged about? I was trying for a white chocolate (had done a successful one) and was making a ‘tiny,’ test amount and wanted a bitter note. And I put a whole tablespoon of MSM powder into four tablespoons of cacao butter (would have been enough for about a cup). Can we say ‘bitter??’

  31. I AM a classically trained chef- and I still have flops! We all do, it’s all part of the game- and part of the fun! Unless of course you don’t have dinner πŸ˜› I’ve loved all your successes, it’s nice to know another experienced cook has flops too. Thanks for being so candid πŸ™‚

  32. 2/3 make it to the blog? Way to go! Far fewer make it to mine, mostly because of my perfectionism. I had to make dozens of my bean burger recipe before I felt it to be blog worthy. Sometimes I accidentally get it right the first time though. It’s fun to play and let the expectation fall right off. If I pressure myself to come up with something great, that’s usually the time it won’t work out.

  33. Oh, loving your honesty in this post, Gena! And I think that basil really overpowers things and one has to be reallllly careful with it. I have ruined plenty of sauces by trying to just “use up” the basil on hand that I have…when I should be less concerned with trying to use up everything and just focus on that KEY ingredients and flavors of the dish at hand.

    I hate eating food that doesn’t taste great or that’s not what I want..I mean who would? Aside from really unique circumstances, traveling, out to eat and it’s been forever since your last meal, everyone (it’s human nature) wants their food to taste good! Good for you for pitching the sub-optimal soup. I would have done the same thing!

    And learning to cook is a process of trial and error! Do not be afraid to try is what I tell ppl. I used to not be able to cook. Then I just tried. And now, I can cook. But I will always be learning…by way of experimentation, trial and error, and being adventurous and unafraid. Worst that can happen is you toss out $3 worth of ingredients. πŸ™‚

  34. I definitely think you’re a chef, and part of the reason is that your recipes have a “point of view.” Every recipe is a Gena recipe. And I’m sure “real” chefs mess up, too!

    All my biggest disasters have been when I’ve tried to make raw soups. I just never enjoy them. My raw hummus was pretty bad, too, because I didn’t realize that sprouted chickpeas are kinda gross.

  35. The first thing that I made in my VitaMix the day that I got it was a raw soup. I figured I would throw in a bunch of veggies and a raw onion and viola! a soup would emerge. But was I wrong! Totally disgusting. I’m sad to say that I haven’t tried a raw soup again . . . but I really need to.

    Speaking of leftovers from you juicer, DOES ANYONE HAVE A GREAT MAKE AND MODEL FOR A JUICER TO RECOMMEND? I’m seriosly considering a 10 day juice fast . . or at least juicing instead of cooking meals some of the time!

    • I have the Omega 8003 and love it. It handles all veggies including wheatgrass, and you can also use it to make nut butters and pasta. Best part is that it is super easy and fast to clean, which guarantees that it gets used lots.

  36. I think one of the best parts of cooking IS messing up – or more that it’s experimenting with whatever you might think of. It’s the best chance to be creative without major consequences if you “fail.” Failure or success, food and cooking are meant to be enjoyed! πŸ™‚

  37. I just blogged about a few kitchen failures myself, ha. It happens to everyone, that’s for sure. I was really intimidated by cooking at first myself, but the more you just try things, the easier to becomes.

  38. Great post! When I’m cooking without a recipe, I always seem to add one-too-many ingredients, that last seasoning that I think will make it great, but ends up making it kind of weird. It never turns out inedible, but just not great, and I wish everything I made was great!

  39. Loved this post! Haha, maybe because in the photos you look just like my best friend. Seriously though I really liked hearing about how and why you only eat food that tastes amazing; I’m the same way and it’s nice to hear I’m not the only one. I think I’m trying to make up for all the food I missed out on.

  40. i am so glad you posted this. nobody has ever called me a chef (so far as i can recall), but i have had a few people tell me to write a cookbook. its insane to think, but since i only post my successes, i guess its easy to think those are the only kitchen experiences i have. definitely not the case. im not mama pea. i wont be writing a cookbook. ill leave that to the pros. im content with the frequency of my successes for the moment – and yours πŸ™‚

  41. I had a major flop when making chocolate pudding in high school. At the time I did not know my way around the kitchen at all! The mistake was turning on the burner before I added the milk. Because the pot was too hot when I added the milk, the chocolate pudding tasted like burnt chocolate! I tried to salvage it, but it didn’t work haha. My family still finds it hard to believe that I cook all the time now πŸ˜‰

  42. Dang, that soup did sound really good too! Everybody has flops, I think my last one was in trying to make socca crackers. I thought I’d be clever and make them with buckwheat flour and sprinkle on crushed nori and sesame seeds. Sounded great, tasted awful!

  43. Story of my life! There was the lentil curry that turned into a soupy soup (oops!) and my “bars” that turned into thick paste and my sunflower butter which was way too hard to be called a butter. I posted about that but, in retrospect, probably should have left that off the blog haha. Ah well. I usually eat my failures because I’m stubborn. πŸ™‚

    I completely agree with you about cooking, though; anyone can do it! With that said, I do think you have a LOT of creativity in the kitchen which makes your food so great (except maybe this soup ha)!

  44. I’m one of those cooks who used to be afraid to try new recipes for fear of wasting food. That fear is slowly changing to excitement over trying new food and new ways of preparing old foods. Of course, I try to us recipes which others have found successful. For instance I’ve enjoyed all the ones I’ve tried from your web site. Thanks for trying to give us the best.

  45. This was such a cute and honest post. I feel that way too, from my ED past, that if a food is not delicious, I shouldn’t eat it. But we can’t hold those high standards all the time–we need to adapt. I have to remind myself that I am so lucky to even afford healthy, organic food–because so many people, nationally and globally, cannot!

  46. Firstly – you are gorgeous!
    Secondly, I am secretly glad you’ve had recipe fails πŸ˜› I thought you were a super-woman!
    I can share your view about only eating stuff that tastes good – that’s sometimes what gets me into food ruts, cos when I KNOW something will taste good, I want to eat it again and again, and am worried if I make something different, it won’t be as good. I don’t want to eat things I don’t like, food should be fun! I do need to experiment more though πŸ˜›

  47. LOVED the photos of you in this. Way too cute! πŸ™‚ I can also totally relate to this post. It’s hard to have time to blog it all, especially the fails, but maybe once every few weeks a “fail” post would be fun!

  48. A valiant effort, nevertheless πŸ˜‰ I have my share of fails, almost always in the baking department. Trying to bake vegan (and gluten-free), I’ve just learned that sometimes, new territory takes time to master πŸ™‚ Good thing we have a sense of humor!

    • Every other GF vegan baking experiences I have fails. But its worth it for the half that work out.

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