Regular readers of this blog might assume, with as much as I write about food and food related literature, that I dine every evening on a lucullan scale. Well I don’t. In fact, I have moved far away from the meat/veggie/starch model of my childhood. These days, a weekday dinner is most likely to be a bowl of soup, a simple pasta dish, or something on toast. Then again, it might be my most favorite thing of all…leftovers.
I love leftovers, perhaps because they never featured strongly in the refrigerator landscapes of my childhood. My mother always seemed to make just enough food to serve each of us once although she occasionally planned for second helpings of those dishes that she knew we really liked. I suspect that my father might not have been a big fan of second act edibles. His mother, after all, set a table for which the term “groaning board” would have been an understatement—not to mention the fact that she would can or freeze just about anything that couldn’t run away from her. Then there was my extremely picky brother who could spin dinner time drama from the simplest meals. Every dish that wasn’t dessert carried the potential of hidden threats (like diced onion) and dangerous spices (like pepper). Given the frequent scenes over, say, a casserole…or really anything “new”… I can understand my mother not wanting to risk a rerun by serving any dish a second time.
Not me. Nothing says meal time contentment like the knowledge that my refrigerator contains roasted chicken, cooked vegetables, a container of rice or mashed potatoes – not to mention eggs, chicken or vegetable stock, salad greens, and all sorts of condiments. Given these components, making dinner becomes primarily an assembly job and a very pleasant one at that. Or maybe I made a lasagna or a pot of beans over the weekend or even two months ago. Dinner is then a simple matter of pulling a container from the freezer and reheating.
You might be wondering how to attain that happy state of affairs in your own kitchen. Maybe you’re tired of relying on packaged food or store prepared dishes or take out. There’s nothing horrible about any of these options but they may not be as healthy for you as food that you make yourself and they certainly are going put a deeper dent in your budget over time. The older kitchen classics can guide you well in not only how to use leftovers but how to get them in the first place. I would recommend The Fannie Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham, or my favorite, the 1975 edition of Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking. The leftover concept can be a bit more difficult to track down in recent cookbooks. In spite of the popularity of cooking shows and food based blogs, it seems that more and more people think of actual cooking as something that belongs only to the most “iron” of chefs or to the sort of deep thinker who has hours in her or his day to stroll through the local markets picking up the choicest ingredients which will be transformed into exquisite food…in an equally exquisite kitchen…in Paris if at all possible. Well, what if you don’t possess that sort of training or time? What if your food shopping mostly happens on the way home after work and you don’t want to sit down to eat dinner at 10:00 p.m.? If that’s your situation (as it is mine) then check out theses resources from DCPL.
One of my current favorites is Plenty: good, uncomplicated food for the sustainable kitchen by Diana Henry. Henry takes a “try it and see” approach to food and comes up with patterns for meals that sound wonderful without being difficult or extravagantly expensive. Take that roasted chicken, for example. Henry provides the (very simple) basic technique and follows with seven different variations on it. Then come the leftovers—salads, risottos, pies, and noodles. Wonderful soups are here, inventive vegetable dishes, lovely composed salads—all presented in a beautifully bound and photographed format that makes this book a pleasure both to browse and to cook from. Highly recommended.
Diana Henry is British and her book, most charmingly, shows it. A more American tone is struck by Ted Allen with In My Kitchen: 100 recipes for food lovers, passionate cooks, and enthusiastic eaters. Allen was the food and wine expert on the television show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and he currently hosts the cooking competition show Chopped. Allen’s approach to cooking and writing about it is informed by humor. Upbeat and encouraging, he’s like the best kind of older brother, experienced but relaxed about it, and always cheering you on. Like Henry, Allen shows you how to make that roasted chicken (and that pot of rice, and those roasted vegetables) then he shows you great, fun things you can do with the leftovers (tacos! fried rice!). As a bonus, Allen provides tips on freezing and instructions on making your own vinegars, preserved lemons, and refrigerator pickles. Don’t worry, these things are much, much easier than you might think.
As I have mentioned here before, one of my favorite food writers is Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher who is better known as M. F. K. Fisher. Fisher’s influence runs all the way through An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler and, in fact, Adler states in her introduction that she has modeled her own book after Fisher’s 1942 classic How to Cook a Wolf. Adler is a wonderful writer who spins poetry from such a simple thing as a pot of boiling water. While enjoying Adler’s lyrical prose, you will also discover surprisingly practical suggestions for creating satisfying meals from simple ingredients. Can you poach or fry an egg? Put it on top of something else! I did just that on Tuesday night when I took leftover potatoes and sauteed spinach and onions, reheated them, then gently poached an egg and laid it on top. Happy, happy bowl. Rice, bread, onions – all of these things become transformed through Adler’s alchemy. Of course, she did spend time cooking at Chez Panisse where ingredients are revered but page after page of Adler’s book reveal that you don’t have to be a professionally trained cook to create kitchen magic. All one really needs is an open mind and a generous spirit.
Speaking of Chez Panisse, I must finally mention The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. The recipes within are indeed for simple, delicious things like braises, soups, and all sorts of vegetable salads. Desserts show up as well, including a 1-2-3-4 cake that looks as easy as a purchased cake mix. Good old roasted chicken makes its appearance, although I must say that after reading Waters’ very detailed account of how to properly source, season, slather, and rest the bird, I don’t think I would know whether to carve the chicken or build it a shrine. In any case, the proof is in the pudding, as that adage goes, and the recipes here are exactly what Waters promises in the book’s title. You could cook exclusively, and very happily, from this book for a long time.
Do you have favorite simple meals? What ingredients do you like to keep at hand?