Necessity is the mother of invention. The cliché is especially true when it comes to food. When kitchens and even grocery stores run low on supplies, necessity—like hunger—prevails, forcing us to see our fridges and pantries with new eyes. Beginner's eyes. "There's nothing to eat" becomes a creativity-stretching endeavor to find out exactly how many of the random ingredients lurking around our homes or on bodega shelves can be transformed into meals. And while this act of creativity doesn't require special culinary skills, it does take a little old-timey ingredient-mixing know-how.
How exactly did your nonna make that bread, again? What was the recipe for opa's sauce? How did that rice and bean dish we ate on vacation go? For a long time, knowing how to mix and prepare dried legumes, herbs, spices, and grains until they became delicious food seemed antiquated and unnecessary. Modern life clips at a truly hectic pace and food has evolved to become convenient and plentiful enough to keep up. But what do we eat when the pace of life slows down and stores no longer brim with our favorite fast foods? Start from scratch.
Don't Underestimate the Fab Four
We all have a wonderful friend who can whip up something delicious using "whatever is in the kitchen." It's time for you to become that friend! Did you know that if you have baking soda, salt, sugar, flour, and the internet you can create a variety of what your food-savvy friend would call quick breads? These fab four also combine to become waffles, pancakes, and with more ingredients, even scones. Bring butter, yeast, and milk into the ingredient mix and watch your options for breads, pie crusts, soup dumplings, crackers, and even pretzels stretch out before you.
Stock Up on Spices
Whether you shop on the fly or pick up only what you need to satisfy this week's meal plan, there are a few herbs and spices that belong on any list. When you find the fridge or the grocery store shelves lacking, flip your focus to these key, foundational flavorings that can be mixed in a multitude of combinations.
Add sweet and savory herbs and spices like the cinnamon, allspice, and ginger found in breads, baked goods, and breakfast foods; and the Italian seasoning, paprika, cumin, and dried basil typically found in sauces, pasta dishes, and casseroles. And grab some cayenne, curry and chili powder, too, won't you?
Know Your Roots
Vegetables, that is. When fresh produce is harder to find, the dark underground world of root vegetables provides. Subterranean comfort carbs like beets, potatoes, parsnip, turnip, carrots, leeks, and good old onions are known to stay fresh longer and are easy as toast to make. Peel the skins, chop them up, toss them in olive oil, salt, pepper, and the herbs of your choice, then bake the batch on a cookie sheet at 425 F until they're soft in the middle and little crispy around the edges.
Master the Fridge Frittata
It seems like when we're not staring into our phones, we're staring into the fridge. But this doesn't have to end with you eating fists full of cereal directly from the box. When a fridge visit reveals a mish mash of seemingly unrelated, unremarkable ingredients (one small container of roasted root vegetables, half cup of white rice, three slices of spicy calabrese, half a pepper, one serving of macaroni and cheese, and, la piece de resistance, six blessed eggs), it's time to frittata. Scramble up some eggs, chop miscellaneous fridge leftovers, mix them all up in casserole dish, bake, and top with cheese to form an unexpectedly delicious and filling meal. Go forth!
Befriend the Freezer
Having a few extra ingredients on hand doesn't mean all that fresh food needs go to waste. In addition to smashing overripe bananas into your oatmeal before cooking or baking a batch of banana bread, freeze them for future smoothies. Extend the life of heavy greens like spinach, kale, collard greens by blanching them in a pan and freezing them until their next life in pasta sauces, soups, or scrambled eggs. Boil squishy tomatoes in water until their skin splits, peel it off, and chop or puree and season what remains to replace some canned tomato products. Not going to eat that meat teetering on expiration? Salt it, wrap it in plastic, toss it in a container, and freeze it.
Pantry Surprise? No Problem
Whipping up a terrific meal while cooking-in-place means mounting an overdue expedition through long-forgotten cupboards. Here, you'll find dormant ingredients like the lentils from that time you made vegetarian shepherd's pie and the quinoa that fueled your body during that summer of 6 a.m. bootcamps. In the far reaches of the kitchen, you might find wonderful ingredients that can be softened by soaking overnight and mixed in with rice dishes, soups, frozen vegetables, or folded into wraps—we're talking of course about dry beans and legumes, oats and barley, plus the starches that serve as bases for saucy dishes: cornmeal, dry rice noodles, and, if you're lucky, couscous. This is also a good time to remind yourself that a mountain of simple hummus can materialize in minutes with only chickpeas, sesame seeds, olive oil, garlic, and a blender.