Work with what you have

We’ve returned home after five months away and are trying desperately to reinsert ourselves back into our normal lives. This is proving to be substantially more difficult than we had anticipated, but thankfully the task of cooking is always there to ground me. My aspirational motto for this summer (and forever, really) is “Work with what you have.” It’s easy to wish that circumstances were different, or that we had an alternate set of tools at our disposal to complete a specific task, but in the kitchen, as in life, sometimes you simply have to work with what you have. And so my task for the summer, at least, is to cook from our existing food supplies rather than buying more.

Grains and pulses

Dry beans, grains, seeds and legumes are a pantry staple.

By most estimates, about 40% of all edible food produced in America is thrown out (more, if it’s fresh produce) instead of eaten. This is a statistic that I cite often in my classes; I ask my guests to calculate their own food budget and determine how much money they’re throwing away. I’ve even gone so far as to put actual dollar bills in the trash can (later retrieved, obviously) because for some reason that sludgy green bag of decomposing kale in the bottom of the crisper drawer doesn’t seem to equate to real money to most people. Apparently we care about our food waste problem, but we’re just too busy to do anything about it.

Sauces

How to add flavor and interest to your food.

Americans spend less money on food than any country in the First World. Calories are cheap here and we’re obsessed with aesthetic perfection, plus we have absolutely no idea what all those “best by” and “use by” dates actually mean. (Answer: nothing. There are no regulations. Use your common sense; it’s designed to protect you from food poisoning. Plus, food manufacturers and grocery stores love those misleading labels because the sooner they expire, the sooner you buy more.) That means that not only do we waste food before it even arrives in the grocery store, but we buy more when our fridge and freezer and cupboards are already filled to the brim. Hence, the summer challenge.

Baking

I bake frequently, so I keep a well-stocked baking pantry.

One of the most important concepts I try to get across in my cooking classes is the idea of cooking without a recipe. I would love not to hand out recipes in class, but am well aware that this would not endear me to my guests. I want people to feel comfortable working towards a basic end goal; i.e. “Tonight I’d like to make a stir-fry,” rather than “Tonight I’m making Mark Bittman’s Beef with Broccoli and I have to stop by the store on the way home to buy beef and broccoli and fourteen other specialty ingredients.” If you look in your fridge and you’ve got a little leftover steak plus some carrots and peppers (because you already used all the broccoli earlier this week), and you know you have rice in your pantry along with Asian basics like soy or hoisin sauce, then you’ve got a meal. Start with what you have, and figure out where you’re going from there.

Spice dishes dark

So much flavor hidden in these little dishes.

In addition to teaching people specific recipes (which I invariably deviate from in class – people hate this) I also teach how to stock your pantry. Oils and vinegars, sauces and condiments, spices and seasonings, grains, pasta, beans and legumes, plus freezer basics like frozen vegetables (which get a bad rap but are in many cases better and cheaper than fresh) all come together to form the basis of some truly amazing meals. I know that people who are new to cooking require the comfort and guidance of a recipe. But I also think that as you grow and develop as a home cook, you should challenge yourself to work with what you have, rather than buying exactly what you need. Oh, and those specialty ingredients you bought for that one recipe you made months ago but never used again? A quick online search for “What should I do with tahini?” goes a long way towards using those up.

Freezer

Don’t judge. I’m working on it.

So please, friends, try this at home. I’m willing to bet that you have at least two weeks’ worth of food in your house already. Challenge yourself – for a day, a week, even a month – to only cook with what you have. See if you can come up with interesting, delicious and healthy options to use up all that food you’re stockpiling. Learning how to trust yourself and improvise a bit in the kitchen is one of the biggest steps towards becoming a better cook, and I promise you that the reward is worth the effort.

9 thoughts on “Work with what you have

  1. Thanks for including my vanilla bottle in your baking pantry photo! 🙂 I’ve been trying to come to your classes this summer, but I keep being scheduled to work at the bakery. I hope to make it to a class soon!

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    • Hi Kristen! I thought of you when I was styling that photo – I love the labels you used on the bottles! Hope you’re enjoying your time at the bakery and I look forward to seeing you soon!

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  2. Hi Elizabeth! I’m glad that you had a safe journey and made it back. I’m sure it will take a while to adjust after being away for so long. Thanks for the great tips! I’m starting to venture out and using recipes more as a guideline. I still don’t feel fully comfortable cooking without a recipe but someday I will get there.

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    • Tricia, thanks for your comment and thanks for reading the blog. I know that it takes time to develop that confidence – just cook a lot, taste a lot, and trust yourself and your palate! Nothing worthwile comes easily, but learning to cook well is definitely worth the trial and error.

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  3. Welcome back! I have enjoyed every one of your blogs while you were on your journey. Thank you for blogging! I hope to see you at a Hunter Douglas Lunch and Learn soon!

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  4. I read this post a couple days ago but am commenting now because I was at home making my grocery list when I was thinking of your words/challenge about using what is in the house. After inventorying the pantry, fridge and freezer I came up with a shorter list and a dinner adventure for the up coming week.

    I have truly enjoyed reading about your adventures. The photographs and the commentary are delightful. Thank you for sharing.

    Love the shout out of Epicurean Butter!

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  5. Pingback: Keep going | Finding Quiet Farm

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