Hello Gentle Readers, it has been a minute. As we are in a time of unprecedented uncertainty and disruption, many of us sheltering in place by choice or by law, there are a lot of us spending a lot more time in the kitchen. I’ve often said that having been raised on a farm by an extended family that did survive the Great Depression, that I had missed my era to shine.
I am a Great Depression style cook—I would rather make do with what I have, or use a simpler recipe, than shop for and cook exactly from a recipe. So bear with me, because I know there are a hundred better and more well-photographed recipes for anything I’ll put up here. But this is not a moment to go out and purchase one tablespoon or a third of a handful of something you don’t already own.
Now is the time to survey your pantry, decide what you like to eat, and figure out how to map those two things together. I’m kicking the blog off again for a while, and I will tell you what I’m making and how I did it, but I also hope it will inspire you to be confident in your taste and your skills, or maybe just provide a little comfort in a day full of challenging news.
With my life schedule upended, I have time not just to get back in the kitchen, but to teach the Practical Cooks Junior how I cook, how I create inventory and use up what we’ve got, and how to take a reasonable amount of time to get food on the table. (Not going to lie, Gentle Readers, I still don’t have the precision of a true baker, that is my youngest, or the persistence and sheer bravery that my eldest brings to the kitchen.)
Step 1: Know Your Pantry
What is in your pantry? Hopefully you were able to get some basic supplies, and if not, perhaps spend some time making a list and using a drive-through option or delivery service to get some building blocks.
The Practical Cook Pantry
- Dried pasta
- Dried beans: chickpeas, pintos, black-eyed peas, limas, mixed beans, and whoever took off with all of the black beans, we are going to have words
- Canned beans, no-salt (you can add that yourself later): black beans, kidney beans, vegetarian baked beans, navy beans, refried beans
- Canned fish: tuna and salmon (again, what other old lady besides me raids the canned salmon? It was all gone, and somebody is going to have a fit when they find the bones in there.)
- Tomatoes: whole ones, sun-dried, cans of no-salt tomato sauce, and tubes of tomato paste
- Dried potato flakes: not for mashed potatoes, but they are the bomb at thickening things that go wrong
- Rice: jasmine, basmati, arborio
- Pickles: refrigerator pickles, chow chow, pickled okra, and more pickles (because I’m Southern and we realize that when good gets boring, pickles help)
- Indian pantry: some jars of my local store-brand simmer sauces, which are surprisingly good when doctored a bit, coconut milk, spices
- Chinese pantry: new for me, and more on that in posts upcoming, I have an arsenal of soy sauces, vinegars, and pastes
- Long-term veggies and fruits: cabbage, onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes (sweet, Russet, Yukon Gold), apples
- Baking: Assorted flours, sugar, butter, dried buttermilk, evaporated milk, raisins and nuts, oats, cornmeal
Do not panic if you don’t have a carbohydrate-laden war chest. Everyone eats differently. That’s really the point: my kitchen serves 4 people, all fairly big eaters, 2 pescatarians, 1 vegetarian, and me, the omnivore. Each non-meat eater is picky in a unique and special way (one hates tofu, one hates vegetables, one likes everything but carrots in certain forms, and one is allergic to fish).
However, it is possible to feed them all without resorting to Waffle House style short order cookery. Everyone eats eggs. Everyone eats pasta. Everyone loves cabbage for some unknown reason. There is hope.
Step 2: Know Your Tastes
Gentle Readers, I am obsessed with food. I do not expect you to be. But it does help to be aware of your tastes, and the preferences of those in lockdown with you. Here are a few basic parameters to assist in self-diagnosis.
- Texture: Meals are more successful if there are multiple textures. I’ve never been one for smoothies as meal replacements, I have to chew food to think I’m eating. So all soft meals don’t work, I need crunch. Picky eaters very often have texture issues. Figure that out and add some crunch or some options for the texture-challenged. This also applies to overly wet or dry foods. Soups may not pass muster, but stews will.
- Spice: If you have spice adverse people, bring the heat to the table to add individually. Pickled jalepeños, red pepper flakes, hot sauce, spicy pickles, whatever it takes. If you are bored of pantry-safe meals, add some heat to change them up.
- Heat: Now I mean temperature. Consider how you’re serving this meal. Does it taste the same freshly made, at room temp, cold? Does it suffer in one of those states? If you make ahead, don’t be afraid to suggest warming up an individual serving if someone likes piping hot food. Often dishes benefit from adding a little liquid when you reheat them.
- Salt, butter, cream: As a very wise chef friend once told me, add enough of any of these, and food will taste good. Someone told me recently that they couldn’t taste salt, so they didn’t cook with it. Gentle readers, just no. If you have health conditions that preclude it, by all means work around. Otherwise, rinse your canned beans and use no-salt when you have the chance, and add kosher salt throughout the cooking process (salted water for pasta, salt to help sweat and sauté veggies, taste and finish with salt if needed before serving). Butter and cream, that goes without saying, and you don’t have to add it to everything, but it can go in one dish and it will be delicious.
Step 3: Prepare to Improvise
The internet is a glorious place full of flexible recipes, suggested swaps for missing ingredients, and easier recipes if you don’t feel like soufflé tonight. The other day I planned to make wontons with my leftover wonton wrappers. I made the filling, had to take a break, and then came back just before dinner. The wonton wrappers had obtained a mold that very well may be the missing cure to something. It was not good. The filling was cabbage and chives and fauxsage and I suddenly realized it looked a lot like moo shu. I know that moo shu pancakes are not unlike tortillas, which I did have. Best of all, it is much faster to heat up tortillas and filling than to make wontons (at least for this beginner!). Don’t panic, just pivot.
Don’t have some piece of kitchen gear? Look for alternate recipes or prep methods that approximate. Don’t have an ingredient? Decide if it’s central or a sidenote.
That is the journey through the mind of The Practical Cook. It’s how I learned to cook, it’s how I learned to eat, it’s how I learned to watch what people were eating and more successfully feed even the pickiest. And I’ve raised two people who are comfortable cooks in their own right.
Coming up next time, last night’s dinner complete with recipes: beans, greens, and cornbread.