I spent last year going through old recipes and making my favorite dishes from childhood. The Year of Nostalgic Cooking was fun, but what was almost more fun was finding uses for some of the ingredients left over after making the recipe. I savored the challenge of figuring out how to incorporate things like extra pimientos, pineapple, vanilla wafers, dates and cranberries into all kinds of dishes and desserts. (I did not make any desserts containing pimientos. Blech.)
These next months, I’m determined to focus less on cooking from recipes and more on culinary ingenuity. I aim to reduce my food waste, engage my imagination and save some money to boot. During a time when inflation is on the rise and excess is passe if not downright ignoble, I’m approaching every edible item as a precious resource that must not be squandered. My next cooking experiment is creative consumption. My motto: Eat Everything. I don’t know about you, but eating everything is the kind of New Year’s resolution I might actually be able to keep.
This make-use-of-everything mentality is more closely aligned with the way I normally cook. It capitalizes on my innate dislike of advance planning and following instructions, two things that are absolutely required for adulthood but that I’ve never seemed to master. I don’t have menu plans and I rarely know what I’m going to make next week. I don’t usually assemble shopping lists with ingredients for specific dishes; instead, I stock up on staples every one or two weeks. I cook everything I can from them and then go back to the store when I run out.
Many things I make are designed to take advantage of leftovers, scraps and culinary odds and ends. Casseroles, quiches, soups, stews and pasta sauces make regular appearances because they can incorporate all kinds of ingredients and still be delicious.
One of the best ways to use what you’ve got is stir-fry. My homemade stir-fries bear about as much resemblance to an authentic Asian stir-fry as a tree-shaped air freshener does to an actual tree; the general outline is there, but that’s about it. I did start with classic Asian flavors: ginger, garlic and soy, splashed generously in a cast-iron skillet (I don’t own a wok, tragically) with a bit of vegetable oil and mushroom umami seasoning. I enhanced the sauce with a sweet element (a tablespoon of brown sugar) and a tangy element (balsamic vinegar). I browned half a pound of thawed chicken cutlets in this rich and aromatic syrup. Then I searched for vegetables.
I haven’t purchased fresh vegetables since before Christmas, so the contents of my vegetable crisper were looking pretty bedraggled. We all buy vegetables with every intention of eating them at the peak of freshness. Then real life intervenes with its pies and cakes and cookies and roasts and au gratin potatoes and enchiladas and barbecued ribs. Before you know it, your carrots are desiccated and your celery is limp and don’t talk to me about that mushy cucumber. However, a dry or slightly bendy vegetable is still usable in sauces, stocks and, in my case, stir-fry. (But please do not ever ingest foodstuff that is moldy or is in the process of becoming liquid. If it’s sprouting purple mushrooms or growing whiskers, back slowly out of the kitchen and call the biology department at Washington State University Vancouver.)
I rummaged around and found a small onion, half a bag of dry baby carrots and the somewhat soft inner stalks of a bunch of celery that I bought for Thanksgiving stuffing (sad but true). I also found the remains of a vegetable platter from New Year’s Eve with five cherry tomatoes and five or six small but fully crisp stalks of celery. In my freezer, I found a quarter-bag of tricolor bell peppers. From the pantry, I gathered a 7-ounce can of mushrooms and a 15-ounce can of pineapple chunks. Enough for a feast!
I put on a pot of rice while I chopped and diced, cutting the baby carrots attractively on the diagonal. I drained the mushrooms and the pineapple, reserving three tablespoons of pineapple juice to add to the sauce. I tossed everything in at once, stirred it around to coat it thoroughly, and let it sizzle for a few minutes on high before covering the pan with a lid to tenderize the raw vegetables with steam. My daughter, roused from her homework by the tantalizing aromas, yelled, “What smells so delicious and can I please eat it right now?”
From a few canned goods and somewhat unappealing produce I made a respectable one-pan dinner, rescuing remnants that would have languished even longer in the fridge before passing to garden compost. Not bad for a few chicken cutlets and vegetable scraps! I’m delighted to report that between dinner that night and lunch the next day, we ate everything.