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.