More often than not, I grocery shop with my close friend Chagrin, who just talks incessantly.
Rolling my cart down the aisles, all I hear in my head are Chagrin’s belly-aching questions.
“Why would anyone cook mac’ and cheese for just one?” “All I’ve got to make are croutons for that Caesar salad, so does that mean I’ll just waste the rest of this loaf?” “Whoever actually uses an entire bunch of parsley?”
Chagrin also follows me home and blabs whenever I’m at work in the kitchen. Evidently, she doesn’t like to waste.
“OK, there you see it. Enough boiled pasta to feed the third grade.” “Well, what have we here? That finger of ginger has more wrinkles than the Dos Equis guy. Are those sprouts coming out of that garlic bulb?”
So, I’ve taught myself to take Chagrin’s nags and spin them into something useful. Culinary jiu-jitsu, if you will.
Here are two hacks that might profitably utilize your own kitchen excess.
Whenever I note the close-to-corpse remainders from a bunch of parsley in the refrigerator’s vegetable bin, or Chagrin’s gnarly knob of ginger or sprouting head of garlic, I make “herb bombs,” small frozen, concentrated pieces of minced herbs (sometimes with ginger).
These you can use to finish a pan sauce for a steak; enrich the end of a stir-fry; lay down an exclamation point in a bowl of soup; up the ante on a fried rice; coat the pasta noodles with something extra — you get the idea.
Add a small handful of blanched parsley leaves (and some hanging-around spinach leaves if you have them) — blanching is key — with a couple cloves of garlic and a 1/2-inch-square of peeled, chopped ginger to a food processor. Pulse and process, binding the pulp with an extra virgin olive oil (not water; EVOO holds together all the flavors better in the freezer).
You don’t want a too-aggressive oil here, just one that has great undernotes of fruit flavor such as a Ligurian or Provencal oil, or something from the mild, buttery arbequina olive of Spain.
Freeze the paste into cubes or, better, splay flat in a sturdy plastic zipper bag. Crack out a smidge whenever you’re after the bomb.
Another favorite kitchen hack of mine is to take next-day leftover risotto and fry it up into a crisp pancake, sort of a flat arancini ball. The Italians call the pancake “risotto al salto” and it loosely translates that “the risotto jumps into your mouth.” Nice.
Iranian cooks do much the same with next-day leftover pasta preparations; they fry it in clarified butter and olive oil and call the crisp pancake a “tahdig.” What the skillet does is add a huge additional flavor, that of a crisp skin, the brown of a pecan shell, to both sides of the pancake. Let’s say you have some leftover mac ‘n’ cheese (or any leftover rice, cornmeal, or other pasta dish). Make a tahdig out of it.
3 tablespoons olive oil (or a mix of clarified butter and olive oil)
2-3 cups leftover macaroni and cheese (or other starchy leftover such as rice pilaf or risotto)
Additional olive oil if necessary
Chopped flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground black pepper and salt, to taste
Heat a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, add the olive oil (or the mix of clarified butter and oil). Slip in whatever leftover mac ’n’ cheese you’re now going to turn into utter scrumptiousness, and pat it down with a silicone spatula into a flat pancake.
Once it starts sizzling, let it fry for a good 15 minutes over medium-low heat, frequently tucking in the edge all around with the spatula, turning the skillet a quarter turn every few minutes to even out the heat, and jostling the skillet to keep the Persian tahdig loose in the skillet.
You’ll hear the Persian tahdig scratch somewhat when the first side is browned enough. Slip the tahdig out of the skillet onto a large flat cookie sheet, or pizza peel or pan, and lightly wipe out the skillet with paper toweling. Place the open side of the skillet over the “raw” side of the tahdig and carefully flip everything over so that the tahdig can now crisp on its second side.
You’ll probably need to slip a little more olive oil down into the skillet and under the Persian tahdig (but, depending on the style of mac ’n’ cheese preparation, perhaps not). When the tahdig is finished cooking and nicely colored, cut it as you wish to serve it, and top with chopped flat-leaf parsley and a solid grinding of black pepper and salt, to taste.
You may reach Bill St John at email@example.com