THERE IS nothing more devastating than a failed first attempt. So assumably you have convinced your heretofore hopelessly non-cooking lover to take the potted plunge, you will have to prepare him for his first disaster.

And in fact, even accomplished chefs fall on their souffle from time to time. Every year, for two weeks, my mother was doomed to burn the limas. No matter how carefully she watched them, or how many times she tried, they were ritually ruined. Just the limas; no other legume. Then, suddenly, the curse would be lifted and she would embark upon 50 weeks of perfectly ordinary beans.

Now, there's only one thing to do with encrusted beans, and that's give them a decent burial and pray the pot recovers. But there are some foods which, burned, dried out, limp or rigorously peppered, can be rehabilitated into polite society. For example:

Beginning cooks are more apt to under-spice than over-spice, but it's often easier to soften a too-harsh flavor than to compensate for blandness. The most dependable absorbers of spice are sour and heavy cream, flour, rice , pasta and potatoes.

Infernal chilis and curries take easily to sour cream or even yogurt (which should be stirred in at the end and not allowed to simmer, or it will separate). Anything served over rice will pull its punch (and why put salt in the rice when you have all those other spices to contend with?); ditto for dilution by noodles, etc. Western-style cheese dip which out-jalapenos its welcome can be softened into a sprightly macaroni. Potatoes eat salt, and there's nothing wrong with diced potatoes in gumbos or goulashes. Adding flour is tricky, but a basic white sauce could stretch and soothe the savage feast.

If you have under-flavored dinner, there are some spices which can be applied at the last: lemon, chive snippings, real fresh green herbs, hot pepper sauce, mustard. Salt and pepper shaken on top taste as if they were shaken on top instead of cooked in (Remember that the cooler food is the weaker the spice, so salt cold soups more heavily.)

Underdone meats are more easily recovered than overdone. Pan-fried or sauteed meats can be returned to the pan, if not already sauced; if they are, put the whole dish in a moderate over (325 degrees or so). A too-rare roast, if there is such a thing, can be sliced and seared under the broiler or sauteed Diane; or cubed and transformed into strogonov or kebab. If the center is really raw, grind it for a flourish of tartar. Pink chicken can be hashed or Chinese'd; lamb marinated and broiled. Too-lightly poached seafood can be dunked into lime juice for cerviche.

Dried-out roasts, on the other hand, lend themselves best to full-speed-ahead overcooking; beef bourguignon, hash, stew. If just slightly too done, they can be rescued by a good gravy or a tenderizing marinade and turned into exotic sandwiches. Tough seafood should be shredded into a casserole, curry, crepe filling or salad. Over-cooked lamb can be ground and then made Middle Eastern inside such juicy vegetables as eggplant and zucchini. Dried-out poultry is a national disgrace and should be consigned to soup.

A lot of middlingly limp vegetables -- carrots, celery, broccoli, squash -- may be revived by soaking in ice water.Or you could pickle or marinade them for relish or salad nicoise. Wilted lettuce can be disguised as intentionally wilted by a quick saute in butter or splashed with hot bacon-grease dressing.

Overcooked veggies can often be pureed and served that way (very cuisine minceur) or folded into souffles.

Baked potatoes that turn out not to be baked can be sliced and pan-fried or hashed, or quartered, boiled and mashed. Or, if there is time, they can be halved, put in an iron skillet with some bacon grease and roasted.

Never cry over soured milk, it can be made into cornbread, "buttermilk", pancakes, or devil's food cake.

The fried or soft-boiled egg that comes up hard-boiled need not wait for another spinach salad (unless you already burned the bacon, too): Let them cool, rice the whites and the yolks together with mayonaise and Worchestershire sauce. Heat and serve over toast.

Burned toast will retain charcoal flavor no matter how artfully scraped, so forget it. It's for the birds.