During the 1990s, I did a bunch of television — cooking demos, chef profiles, restaurant reviews — for CBS4 (at the time, the station was known as KCNC Channel 4). One popular segment was to arrive unannounced at a viewer’s home (they had volunteered, but didn’t know which day we’d show up) and, with a camera crew and a Denver chef in tow, cook a meal from whatever the homeowners had in their pantry.
One evening, restaurateur Kevin Taylor and I went to a house where the cupboards truly were bare. But we pulled it off, poaching a frozen (in fact, freezer-burned) filet of salmon in Red Zinger tea.
You know what? It was surprisingly tasty. Ha.
Just shows to go ya, you can make dinner from what’s on hand, as meager as that may be.
Even in these challenging times, your own pantry likely is more adequately stocked; most are, especially with nonperishables. Fresh foods are always another matter — but especially presently. Indeed, given current urgencies, we Americans have picked clean many a grocery store shelf of even nonperishables.
Many of us aren’t able to go out to get what’s not there. What if you or your family are now homebound — and, it would be fair to say, kitchen-bound — for a stretch, in self-imposed and cautious quarantine, or in an imposed isolation from others?
What’s for dinner?
Some advice, a few tips, and a suggestion or three.
Above all, reframe what a “meal” means. Three squares and that nutritional pyramid-on-a-plate may not work as well as eating more frequently what restaurant menus these days call “small plates.” Or nibbling on relatively the same thing a few times a day all day long. We humans used to do that for millennia before we even came up with the idea of a dining room.
Second, much is to be honored in the bounty of what the Italians call “cucina povera,” the cooking of the poor. It uses less expensive cuts of meat protein (or, indeed, little or no meat at all); stretches ingredients with pulses, grains, or vegetables; and uses lengthy cooking methods to develop layers of flavors and aromas.
It’s also sage. Cooking a lot of food on, say, a long Sunday for the week or weeks ahead gets many a big job done at one go. For example, braising — the quintessential technique of cucina povera — is, at its best, large-batch cooking, uses proteins that benefit (in the development of both tenderness and flavor) from long, slow cooking, and requires, to boot, less attention than fancier cooking. Plus, braises almost always freeze more gainfully than other forms of cooked food.
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Our crisis economy has rationed foods for us far more brutally than any government would do in conventional wartime. Why not ration your own stores, to your benefit and that of your kitchen’s?
Save scraps from vegetable peeling and bones from a braise to make stocks and broths for tomorrow’s use; don’t toss, but save and store, the waters that you use to cook pasta and beans (they, too, form a flavorful base for upcoming food preparations); utilize, for a second or third time, cooking oils or rendered fats (very safe to do so if refrigerated).
You’re not cutting corners; you’re building blocks.
Finally, view “filler” foods (that, felicitously, in their customary dried form are themselves a very sturdy store) such as rice, grains, beans, and pasta less as something that stretches out other flavors, and more as the base or foundation upon which you can layer and build and assemble the many flavors and aromas that make both cooking and eating so enticing anyway.
It’s probable, too, that you have some time on your hands. Feed your soul: Read M.F.K. Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf,” written in 1942, during wartime rationing, by one of America’s more delicious writers on food and recipes. The “wolf,” generally discussed, is hunger. Devour the writing.
From M.F.K. Fisher, “How to Cook a Wolf”; serves 4. Fisher does not define “obstaculos,” but the word is Spanish for “obstacles,” in the sense of hurdles or inconveniences. These are eggs with which to overcome. No better use, eh?, for that jar of salsa in the back of the refrigerator.
2 tablespoons butter or oil
3/4 cup hot tomato sauce (salsa piquante) or 3/4 cup tomato sauce and 8 drops Tabasco sauce
1 cup warm beer
Heat oil and sauce in a shallow dish (skillet or pan), rolling it well around the edges. When bubbling, break eggs into it. Heat slowly until the eggs are done, pour the beer over, and serve at once, with the toast.
St. John’s Congee
One of my favorite recipes, especially in chilly weather; serves 4-6.
3/4 cup jasmine or other regular-length white rice
1/2 cup glutinous, “sweet” or “sushi” rice
8 cups water or thin chicken stock
1 small to medium head Napa cabbage, cored, outer leaves removed, and sliced thin as if into cole slaw
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1-2 teaspoons kosher or other non-iodized salt
Pinch freshly ground white pepper
1 2-inch knob ginger, peeled and sliced and cut into matchsticks
Additions to your liking that have an abundance of flavor (thinly sliced scallions; Sriracha sauce or other spicy chili sauces or oils; crushed roasted peanuts; chunked hard-cooked eggs; cubes of medium-firm tofu; or leftover cooked shellfish, fish, pork, or chicken, cubed or shredded)
Put both the rices into a large pot or bowl and rinse them in at least three changes of water, using your hands to slush them around, until the water runs mostly clear.
Put the rice into a large pot and add the water or stock. Cover, bring to a boil and then lower the heat to low or medium-low, leaving the lid on a crack, and cook very slowly for 2 hours, stirring once in a while to keep the rice from adhering to the bottom of the pot. The cooked, broken-up rice should come to resemble a thick porridge.
To serve, bring the congee back to a good bubbly boil, add the cabbage, soy and fish sauces, salt and pepper, and the ginger matchsticks, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3-4 minutes.
Serve, very hot, in bowls with whatever garnishes you set out. Add them with a generous hand to the congee.
Reach Bill St John at email@example.com
This story first appeared in the Denver Post.