By Suzanne Dunaway
ooking is my passion. It comes as naturally as breathing. The love affair began at age five with my mother’s pie-dough scraps, a tiny, red-handled rolling pin, some cinnamon and sugar. Ten minutes and a hot oven later, the ingredients and the tools combined to make magically crusty little pinwheels.
I was hooked.
There is one part of cooking prep that I still adore even after years of providing daily meals for guests and cooking classes: Opening the fridge.
When my husband asks, “What’s for dinner,” I’m often stumped.
But I know I’ve stashed a few little Tupperwares. Leftover this and that will put something tasty on the table. Or provide a never-before-seen variation on an old standby.
When students tell me they toss extra juices, sauces and pasta, or feed them to the cat, I’m horrified. Evolutionary cooking — nourishing the ingredients — can help you become a confident and innovative cook. Moreover, you save invaluable time spent pondering recipes.
Here’s a scenario that begins with a kilo of lamb:
I bone and stud the leg with slivers of garlic and bits of salted anchovy. I roast it with small potatoes, artichoke hearts, and mint, and add wine until the meat is like butter and the gravy in the pan is dark and shiny. But will two people eat that kilo?
Not today, but the leftovers are conveniently available two days later when I get home at 8 p.m. with nary a meal in mind.
I open the magic fridge and see not only the lamb leavings, but a container of its exquisite juice. I also see my staples: a few onions, potatoes, carrots, garlic, celery, zucchine, tomatoes — the basics a cook needs to face any emergency. Like lunch or dinner.
On the pantry shelf is my favorite tin of Madras curry powder, some of those tiny little Italian peppers that make your eyes light up, plus another important staple, rice. So tonight, we put on Ravi Shankar and go into Indian gear as I chop up the lamb, the potatoes, the zucchine, and uh, oh… there’s an apple looking wan in the fruit basket. Chop that up, too.
Next, sauté some curry powder in a little oil, toss in the other ingredients — all chopped. Sauté the ensemble for a minute or two, then add the lamb juice and some liquid (if you didn’t make your weekly stash of fresh bouillon, use an instant chicken cube, it’s OK), turn the flame to low, and cover.
Put the rice in a pan, cover with cold water to double the depth of the rice (works every time), and bring it to a rapid boil. When the water recedes and craters appear in the rice, turn off the flame and cover it. Sip some wine and come back in 20 minutes, and dinner is served. (I stirred in a bit of yogurt at the end.)
You do have to practice, but you can use simple dishes made with staples that should always be in your kitchen: fresh vegetables, a few cans of plum tomatoes, whatever pasta secca you like, Parmigiano Reggiano (they’ll grate it for you at the alimentari), and maybe a few eggs and a piece of bacon. You can eat for days with these ingredients, adding a piece of fish or meat here and there, and hitting the bowl of fruit or a nice bite of 85 percent chocolate for dessert!
Always keep those leftovers in mind. Cook for four instead of two, or six instead of four. Add a little milk to any leftover pasta ensure pasta al forno stays moist. Start off a soup with whatever is in those little forgotten Tupperwares, and finish it with a slosh of white wine and a squeeze of lemon (to give it balance — works for almost any dish). Your guests will think you’ve slaved all day.
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