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Mess Up? No Problem

You’ve labored in the kitchen all day. You have special guests coming to dinner — family, friends, maybe even the boss — and you want everything to be perfect. But then you taste the gravy, and — bleeech.

Time to panic? Nah. Time to employ a few lifesavers from the pros.

Yes, things go wrong in professional kitchens, too — "more than you think," concedes Matt Seeber, executive chef of Craftsteak at MGM Grand. If you haven’t noticed, "that means we do a good job of fixing it before it gets to you."

The best advice, of course, is to avoid problems in the first place.

"I think the best tip for the holidays is really to keep it simple," says Edmund Wong, executive chef of Bellagio, "and not to try and make too much and overburden, and then the next thing you know it becomes the typical tragic holiday story — cookie dough is still on the ceiling in February."

"Be prepared and well-organized," says David Walzog, executive chef of SW Steakhouse at Wynn Las Vegas. "That kind of sets you up for success."

Walzog advises doing some things in advance.

Seeber suggests developing a "repertoire of things you make on a regular basis; you get comfortable and know how long something’s going to take and how long it can sit."

To avoid over-seasoning something — a gravy or sauce, for example — Seeber recommends being careful and adding as you go.

"You don’t need to season it all at the beginning," he says. "You can adjust it, always, at the end, which is preferable to trying to fix it later on."

But sometimes, things happen. Catherine Margles, owner of Creative Cooking School, says if something is too salty, adding a little sugar sometimes helps.

Wong suggests adding some chicken broth to an oversalted sauce or gravy — "You can get some at the store that’s very high quality" — or "Las Vegas’ finest from Lake Mead" if you don’t have any stock. Or "make more that’s not seasoned, and mix it with a little bit that’s overly seasoned," Walzog adds.

Or, Seeber notes, add some olive oil. "It doesn’t actually thin it out," he says. "If you do it slowly and emulsify it, it will actually add volume to your sauce and take away some of the saltiness at the same time."

If something’s too bland, add salt or herbs or spices, Margles says. Too sweet? "Counteract it with something that’s a little sour, like maybe adding lemon juice."

For a tomato sauce that’s too acidic, Wong suggests adding a pinch of baking soda.

If it’s too spicy, he says, add some sugar. Or dairy products, such as sour cream or cheese, maybe used as a topping, Margles said.

Other tips to get you through the holidays:

• If you slightly overbrown cookies, Wong suggests dipping them in chocolate (or spooning it over them or using a pastry bag to squiggle it over) and sprinkling with icing sugar.

• If you overseason the mashed potatoes, Seeber suggests adding some that aren’t seasoned.

• If the mashed potatoes are too lumpy, whip them in a food processor or stand mixer, Wong says, starting at a low speed and adding the butter and cream slowly. Or avoid lumps altogether by using a ricer.

• If baked potatoes come out of the oven too hard, he suggests removing them from the foil and finishing them in the microwave.

• If your stuffing is too loose, Wong suggests adding more bread, adjusting the seasoning and returning it to the oven.

• If your hollandaise sauce separates, Walzog recommends adding a little bit of cold water; Seeber suggests making a new, "overly thick" emulsion of 1 or 2 egg yolks, vinegar or lemon juice, and clarified butter and gradually adding the separated one to it. "If you do it right, it’ll hold," he says.

• If your turkey gravy separates, Wong suggests making a roux of equal parts butter and flour, mixing it in a pot over low heat until it turns golden brown and then gradually incorporating the separated gravy into it.

• Or, Seeber says, if it’s right before the meal, use an immersion blender (also called a stick blender) to try to whip it back together.

• If your gravy is too thin, add flour, Margles said.

• If you’re nervous about making gravy, Wong suggests having a couple of cans of gravy as a backup. "Sweat off some shallots, add some fresh chopped thyme, rosemary and sage to take away a bit of that commercial flavor," he says. "Butter is always good. Guests will never know the difference."

• If the turkey isn’t done when it’s time to come out of the oven, Seeber and Walzog both suggest cutting it up and putting it back in the oven in pieces — or, Wong suggests, on the barbecue grill — because it will cook more quickly than if it’s whole. A bit of hot oil in the bottom of the roasting pan will cook it even more quickly, Seeber notes.

• To avoid overcooking meats, Walzog suggests taking the turkey or roast out of the oven when it’s 15 to 20 degrees below the ideal temperature, because the residual heat will cook it further.

• If you have more people than you planned, "slice whatever you’re serving a little thinner," Wong says.

The one thing you can’t save is an incinerated turkey or roast.

"In my experience, if anything gets burned in the kitchen, there’s no savin’ it," Margles says. "I’ve worked with hundreds of professional chefs, and they’ve all dumped it. That would be my advice."

"If the entire turkey tastes burned all the way through, quite honestly I don’t know how to fix that," Seeber says.

But Wong does have a face-saving idea:

"If the roast burns, really the best thing to do is come to the Bellagio for dinner."

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474.

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