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When Bad Things Happen to Good Cooks: How to Fix a Bad Dish

Updated on August 25, 2015

It happens to the best of cooks. Something goes wrong in the kitchen. Burned food, forgotten ingredients, a recipe that just didn't turn out quite as expected. Don't waste your time crying over spilled milk. Instead, use my tips to turn a potential kitchen disaster into a culinary masterpiece.

The first question to ask is whether the dish can be repurposed to serve in a more appealing form. Are your vegetables overcooked? You can turn almost any mushy vegetable into a delicious first course soup. Just sauté some onion or leeks in olive oil or butter until tender, add the vegetable and some chicken broth and let it all simmer for a while. Puree it with an immersion blender and, if you're feeling a bit decadent, stir in a couple of tablespoons of cream before serving. Who wouldn't be impressed with a lovely cream of broccoli, carrot, or pea soup?

Is your chicken dried out? Let it cool, then shred it and mix in enough good quality barbecue sauce to get it all moist and juicy. Serve it on buns with coleslaw on the side.

Has your bread gone stale? Cube it up and toss it with melted butter, herbs, and garlic salt, then toss it in the oven on a cookie sheet to crisp up. Use your homemade croutons to dress up a green salad or garnish a soup.

Use your mishap as an opportunity to get really creative. Can the dish be used as an ingredient to transform another favorite recipe?

I recently tried a new recipe I found in a women's fitness magazine for a dip made with pureed butternut squash and white beans to serve with pita chips. Although another recipe I tried from the same magazine turned out wonderfully, this one was a disappointment. The dip was too sweet and the texture was off. My guests barely touched the little bit of it I served, and I had a huge amount in the refrigerator that I hadn't even set out. I hate throwing away food, so I was determined to put the leftovers to good use.

I decided the dip, too sweet to stand on its own but full of nutrients and fiber, would make a great addition to macaroni and cheese. In fact, the creamy puree could be used in place of much of the cheese to make a really healthy version of the dish. I whipped it up for dinner to rave reviews, Not only did I find a good use for leftovers that otherwise would have been tossed, I had a new recipe to add to my collection. It's too good not to share.

Before adding bread crumbs and baking
Before adding bread crumbs and baking | Source
Hot out of the oven
Hot out of the oven | Source

Macaroni and Cheese with Butternut Squash and White Beans


1 small butternut squash, halved lengthwise and seeded

1 can white beans (I used Great Northern), rinsed and drained

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided use

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon ground paprika

1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

2 cups elbow macaroni

1 small onion, minced

1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence

1 cup grated Cheddar or Colby cheese

Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon butter, and more to grease baking dish

1/2 cup whole wheat bread crumbs


Preheat oven to 400° F. Place squash cut side down on an oiled baking sheet. Bake for one hour. Let cool, then scoop the pulp from the skin with a spoon and discard the skin.

Puree the squash in a food processor with the white beans, 2 tablespoons olive oil, Parmesan cheese, paprika, and fresh ground pepper. Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Refrigerate in an air-tight container until ready to use.

If proceeding immediately, reduce heat in oven to 350°F.

Cook elbow macaroni in boiling salted water until just tender, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and Herbes de Provence and cook until onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in puree. Remove from heat and stir in cheese and cooked macaroni. Salt and pepper to taste.

Grease a 1-1/2 quart deep baking dish with butter. Transfer the macaroni mixture to the baking dish.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Stir in the bread crumbs and toss to coat.

Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the macaroni mixture. Bake in 350° oven until the bread crumbs are lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Let stand for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Serves 4 as a main course or 8 as a side dish.

Other Quick Kitchen Fixes

  • If your dish is too sweet, add some acid (vinegar, lemon or lime juice).
  • If your dish it too acidic, add a pinch of baking soda.
  • If your dish is too spicy, add some sweetness (a bit of sugar, honey or ketchup) or dairy (sour cream or plain yogurt) to cut the heat.
  • If your soup or stew is too salty, add a potato cut into chunks to absorb the excess salt as it cooks. Remove before serving.
  • If your dish is too thin, stir in cornstarch as a thickener.
  • If your dish is too thick, thin with liquid (water, broth, milk or juice).
  • If your salad is overdressed, add raw broccoli florets to soak up the dressing.

Emergency Substitutions

If you don't have:
For each cup needed, use 1 tablespoon lemon juice plus enough milk to make 1 cup. Let stand 5 minutes before using.
Cornstarch (for thickening)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour for each 1 tablespoon of cornstarch needed.
Corn syrup
1 cup granulated sugar plus 1/4 cup water for each cup needed.
Dry mustard
Three times the amount needed of prepared mustard.
Fresh garlic
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder for each clove needed.
Granulated sugar
An equal amount of packed brown sugar or double the amount of sifted powdered sugar.
1-1/4 cups granulated sugar plus 1/4 cup water for each cup needed.
1 teaspoon onion powder or 1 tablespoon minced dried onion, rehydrated, for each small onion needed.
Tomato juice
One-half cup tomato sauce plus one-half cup water for each cup of juice needed.
Unsweetened chocolate
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder plus 1 tablespoon butter for each ounce needed.

What would you do?

How do you handle kitchen mishaps? Share your tips in the comments section below.

Additional Resources for Cooks


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