There is a commonality among nearly the whole torrent of blogs and books and shows on food. No matter their audience or aim, most all treat cooking by putting it through that incredibly deceptive apparatus: the recipe.
I do not dislike recipes. They can be wonderful things. They are very good, for example, when you know that the only thing that you want tonight is paella. Then, you need a certain kind of rice and instructions not to stir, and other specifics. But you do not always want paella. Sometimes you just want a good meal, to end up satisfied and happy, and not devote too much time or money to it. Then, recipes can be sort of like maps that demand you travel to a different location before you start your journey, then show you only a single route.
That is to say: a recipe is not always the sensible place to begin.
I have been thinking this quietly for years, watching friends fill cabinets and refrigerator drawers with jars of not terribly useful condiments and spices, bags of fresh vegetables that would wither and wilt as the next round was dutifully bought, as per so-and-so’s instruction for their signature chicken dish.
Sometimes you just want a good meal, to end up satisfied and happy, and not devote too much time or money to it.
So I wrote a book on the ways we have of feeding ourselves well on little. I marched through the simplest and best cooking techniques, like boiling and roasting vegetables, using fresh herbs to enliven dull ingredients. I wrote that the equipment one needed to do all this was the equipment one already had, that a good meal could nearly always be made with the ingredients on hand.
Then I was asked to teach cooking classes, and was suddenly, rather completely, confused.
It is one thing to write all that in a book. It is another to figure out how to teach it in a cooking school—with pots and pans of every variety and unanimous sheen, an ingredient request form from which I could order the vegetables I wanted, whatever eggs and oils suited my fancy, freshly bought cheeses.
I tried a few formats, none of which felt exactly right. It seemed to me that short of actually going into each student’s kitchens, opening cold beers, and cooking from whatever I found there, there was little I could do to really show how to put what I preach into practice. So, I did what seemed the next best thing, which was to ask students to bring the contents of their cabinets and refrigerator drawers to me.
I sent out an email explaining that the coming class was “bring your own.” I provided examples of what to bring: fading vegetables, old herbs, celery tops, jars half full of whatever, leftover pasta, neglected croutons…
I would take anything, I promised.
Students wrote back immediately--if dubiously--telling me what they planned to bring. Most lists were versions of each other; they contained old olives and capers, inevitable old bread, cabbage, and cauliflower. They read like the perverse material of witches’ brews.
Here is one:
Wilting ½ head cabbage
½ ltr leftover juice from canned tomatoes (2 weeks old though)
Collard greens from the farmers mkt Saturday
Handful of drying brussels sprouts
Leftover kimchi from takeout
Bowl of not so fresh kalamata olives
Open half-full packet bacon
Ditto smoked mackerel
Enormous quantities of capers
Also have 2/3 good loaf of bread from Sat. And some shallots.
Half full or half empty?
My heart, I am half-embarrassed to say, leapt. Each item on each list was now an ingredient, instead of an accident. Having been written, it had become so.
Half full, I thought.
A commitment to using the often unused is not mine alone. I wanted to teach this, too, so, I asked other chefs to help. “I'm in!” said Chris Behr, former chef of SPQR in San Francisco, who wanted to use stale bread for Italian bread soup— pancotto—and bread salad. Mona Talbott, author and founder of the Rome Sustainable Food Project, formerly of Chez Panisse, said she would make tacos with leftover meats and vegetables. I wanted to make pasta frittatas. And my brother John, the chef of Franny's in Brooklyn, said, “I’m all over fried rice.”
I knew how good my stale bread soups tasted at home, but I wondered whether it was because I have simple tastes and am forgiving.
The day of my experiment, I showed up early, vaguely planning to wash or cut things. But, because we were beginning with leftovers, there was nothing to do. I spent the half hour before class making signs. I made one that said "Starches" where I arranged my own pasta, cold brown rice, a quart of cooked black-eyed peas, and a half baguette so hard it seemed impossible it had ever been food. I made another sign that said "Preserved Items," for the various half jars of olives and capers and the single, “large” anchovy one student had promised. On a piece of cardboard, I wrote "Vegetables," took a step back, looked at it, and added "cooked and raw. Peels and herb stems count,” which seemed clunky but comprehensive. I made a "Liquids" section, where I put a murky half quart of bean cooking liquid and garish, red vegetable stock that had been given to me by Nissa, the cooking school’s owner. (“Chard stems!” she explained.)
Then I hoped for the best.
My fellow chefs showed up all at once, with odds and ends of their own, which they cheerfully dealt out according to my taxonomy. The students trickled in, the first bearing a darkened Prosciutto end and her unloved anchovy. Then the rest, who walked uncertainly around the table, observed Mona’s sad, browning escarole deposited near my “Vegetables” sign, the shrunken fish, my own cold rice. Gaining confidence from the obvious decrepitude of the ingredients they added to them, contributing wrinkled peppers, cooked beets and asparagus, soft celery, dry scallions...
The chefs circled, planning our dishes. "I'd like the old cabbage for my tacos," Mona said. Chris said he’d take the tough outer cabbage leaves for his soup. "Cabbage core in fried rice," my brother said efficiently. Cabbage: Done.
And then we gained steam: "Oh, liquid from a can of tomatoes will be perfect for pancotto."
"Also good for heating up chicken for tacos."
We were players of ping pong, auctioneers. "Chris, do you want this bread, too? How about these two carrots?"
"Do you need all of the celery leaves?"
"Wait, do you want the anchovy?"
Chris offered me the half pack of bacon. My brother was greedy, gathering anything and everything for his rice. We had the inevitable short sibling skirmish over the Brussels sprouts. "John, you have everything! I need those." He surveyed his bounty, and with a sigh, agreed.
As we moved toward the stoves, our arms full, I was suddenly nervous, wondering whether assigning chefs the task of breathing life into hard bread and faded vegetables had been foolhardy. I knew how good my stale bread soups tasted at home, but I wondered whether it was because I have simple tastes and am forgiving. Would our food be good enough to get the students excited about the forgotten souls they’d lugged with them?
I acted sure. I collected the array of different colored olives, pushed their pits out, and showed the class how to soak dried, salt-packed anchovies in water for ten minutes, during which time they plump up like children’s bath sponges, and become easy to filet. I chopped what I soaked—which had been six anchovies fused into one mass during the eons they’d spent together—and added capers, pounded garlic, parsley, and olive oil to make a tapenade, explaining that the proportions don’t really matter as long as you keep in mind that you’re combining a few strong, savory ingredients and pounded up garlic to make a bold sauce, which means tasting it often as you go, and being conservative with capers to ensure it’s never too salty. We spooned it onto toasts. Everyone munched and murmured about how good their old olives tasted. Then I pounded old toasted nuts with more garlic, chopped herbs, and hard Pecorino from a previous class. I added a lot of olive oil, and we had a delicious topping for a second round of toasts. More murmurs. I felt less worried.
We were players of ping pong, auctioneers.
Chris began his lesson, cutting the crusts off old bread and finely slicing Prosciutto. He had students roughly chop soft celery and carrots so rubbery they bent. Others pulled some wilted kale from its stems, and cut escarole. While they did, he put a tray of bread into an oven to toast for a few minutes. He started his soup, then made bread salad of thinly sliced onions and old peppers soaked in salt and vinegar, half-toasted croutons, parsley, and olive oil. Everyone tasted it, tentatively. It was delicious.
I sliced my Brussels sprouts thinly, cooked them in bacon fat, and then mixed them with cold, cooked asparagus, cold pasta, and parsley. I added just enough beaten egg to hold it all together, lightly spooned in a little ricotta I'd found earlier, and slid it all into a hot, oiled pan, and put it in the oven.
Mona transformed the carrots and onions of various vintages into pickles, heating vinegar with salt, water, and sugar and then pouring it over the vegetables. She tossed shrunken cauliflower with ground dried chilies and roasted in a hot oven. One of the many cabbages was thinly sliced and mixed with cilantro and lime. Tortillas new and old were warmed. Pork was shredded and mixed with chiles and diced boiled potatoes, chicken with sautéed peppers and tomatoes.
The big pot of bread soup simmered away. Chris added the toughest cabbage leaves, yellowed collard greens, and sunken escarole, along with the beans and enough olive oil to drown a whole city—or keep it afloat.
In the meantime, my brother had been quietly building an empire. He’d combined his old rice with someone's leftover quinoa, and next to it, arranged a beautiful kaleidoscope: leftover beets, chopped dented cucumbers, thinly sliced cabbage, celery, broccoli, chopped herbs, an omelet he’d made and cut into squares, other things that looked promising. It was too much for one cook. So, we took places next to each other at the stove and he walked the class through fried rice and quinoa.
Choosing the widest pans the school had, we added sliced onions, celery, chilies, and garlic to hot peanut oil. Then cabbage, broccoli, finely chopped fennel, even more-finely sliced fennel tops, and thin rounds of collard greens stems. When it had all settled and softened, we added the diced cooked beets and watched everything turn luxuriously red. Good fried rice depends on each grain having a chance to fry in hot oil; so we moved the vegetables to the sides of our pans, added more oil to their hot middles, then both shrugged happily and shook cold rice and quinoa into the oil and waited for each grain to get a crisp, golden surface on one side.
Our pans sizzled. We tossed our rice, sprinkled it with fish sauce, turned off the heat, added handfuls of chopped cucumbers and bigger handfuls of herbs, then omelet and lime juice. Tasting our batches, we agreed that fried rice should always contain old cabbage and celery and quinoa and beets, and tipped the contents onto big white platters.
There was the clatter of the table being laid, the excited pops of corks leaving bottles of wine.
Chris opened his half-covered soup pot to show how hard bread had turned into thick, aromatic, velvety soup: Bread soup is ready when a bite leaves the taster not knowing what the creamy main ingredient is; the only mistake is to stop the cooking too early--or forgetting how good it is.
Then it was time to eat: there was the clatter of the table being laid, the excited pops of corks leaving bottles of wine. We ladled golden soup into small, antique bowls and drizzled it with olive oil and roughly chopped parsley. Spicy pulled pork and potatoes and chicken and peppers went onto rectangular platters alongside stacks of warm tortillas wrapped in big cloth napkins. We cut the frittatas into thick wedges.
It was beautiful. The white bowls of soup look sophisticated, the taco toppings bright and enticing, ready to be wrapped along with spicy pickles and crisp cabbage salad. The beet- fried rice waited to be scooped up with the last bites of frittata.
In a perhaps nervous pre-emptive strike, I reminded the class that the discordance in the menu—bread soup and fried rice makes a starchy dinner—came from the fact that you'd never make all those dishes in one night. If on Monday you had bread soup, you might serve it with roasted broccoli squeezed with lemon. If on Tuesday you made tacos with the leftover roasted broccoli, you might not need anything else other than your array of pickles and cabbage salads. Everyone assented, but really just looked at it all happily and started to eat, exclaiming over how good it all tasted.
We went on eating and drinking long past the class's formal end time. We feasted and I felt the beating heart of the evening's lesson: that a good meal requires little when most of it preparations have been made just by your having eaten one before it. We had folded up the normal sort of map and felt our way from where we were toward where we wanted to end up.
At 11 o'clock, the last of us wended our way out the door. My brother and I drank whisky at a neighboring bar. Had we helped, I wondered? He said he thought so, and at least from now on people in the class would be able to hold their ground against the accusatory half bunch of celery they found at the bottom of the refrigerator drawer.
I wished I had reminded my students to hold their ground, too, against the flood of expertise, which shows no sign of abating—the maps and instruction manuals that deal so over-weeningly with the elemental activity of feeding ourselves well.
I wished I had asked us to pause, as we sat sleekly sated with the meal we had cooked. I wished I stood then and said solidly: “When you wake up hungry tomorrow, which is something of which you can be reasonably certain, please remember to not go too far. Just remind yourself that you are already in the middle of cooking a meal, and that is precisely the best place from which to start.” Anyway, I can say it now. And now I have.