Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: The day has gone long, and you have not had a moment to think about dinner. You scrounge through the fridge and the cabinets and you think, there is nothing to eat in this place. Me too. I suspect that your larder is more plentiful and full of meal potential than meets the cooking-weary eye. I’ll admit; it takes practice to cook with exactly what you have on hand, and the temptation to snack versus cook is real. The pandemic is making you crazy. And so on.
If like me, you’re pining for fresh local corn and tomatoes and can’t seem to get out of this funk, let’s play a game. A game inspired by the cooking show “Iron Chef.” Like those contestants, we all have secret ingredients that we are not aware of. No mad skills or lots of prep time required; just some mindful rummaging and a sense of adventure is all you need. Behind each “door” are three common ingredients. Your challenge, should you choose to accept, is to make a satisfying meal using the guide provided.
We all need a periodic cheat sheet to get back into a kitchen groove. Here’s mine. So what’s in your cupboard? Contestants, sharpen your knives!
Transform the dried lentils hiding in your pantry into a warming bowlful of sustenance.
- 1 cup brown or green lentils
- 1 carrot
- 1 stalk of celery
1. Place the lentils in a medium pot and add 4 cups of water or broth.
2. Wash (and peel as needed) the carrot and celery, then finely chop both.
3. Add to the pot, along with 1/3 cup of olive oil. Bring to a boil, stir, and lower the heat to medium-low. Partially cover — lentils are notoriously combustive — so that you can keep an eye on potential eruptions onto the stovetop. Lentils should be cooked through in about 25 minutes. Season with about 1/2 teaspoon salt.
4. Eat as is, with a hunk of crusty bread, another drizzle of olive oil and maybe a few shavings of Parmesan or Pecorino. (Plan B: See Door No. 2.)
Variations on the theme/other options
While lentils are simmering:
- Add a few tablespoons of tomato paste thinned out with water.
- Add a sprig of rosemary or thyme for an extra layer of flavor.
- Add a whole garlic clove, which will soften and melt into the lentils.
When lentils are done:
- Add 1/2 to 1 cup of cooked macaroni elbows for a version of pasta e fagioli. If too thick for slurping, add some tomato puree, broth or water to adjust the texture as needed. Serve with grated cheese if you like.
- Add the juice of 1/2 lemon and some chopped fresh parsley or cilantro (or dill!), stir off heat and add some ground black pepper to taste.
Borrow a trick from the late great Marcella Hazan, whose three-ingredient tomato sauce is a go-to for cooks of skill levels. Use as is, or as a building block for variations.
- 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
- 1/2 stick unsalted butter
- 1/2 medium onion
1. First thing’s first: Puree the whole tomatoes with a stand blender, mini chopper or food processor.
2. Transfer to a medium pot or saucepan. (No need to puree if tomatoes are already crushed or diced.)
3. Remove the skin (and root end) of the onion half and add to the pot along with the butter.
4. Place the pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the butter melts. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook at a simmer, uncovered, so it can thicken and gently reduce. The sauce is ready when you see little pools of butter emerge on the top, but you can cover and stall until dinnertime.
While it simmers: Add 1 teaspoon dried oregano or smoked paprika; take it in a south Asian direction and add a 1-by-1-inch hunk of peeled fresh ginger, 1/2 green chile pepper and 1 teaspoon of your favorite prepared curry powder.
When sauce is done:
- Eat by itself with a piece of crusty bread or some leftover meatloaf in need of a companion. I have smeared it onto pizza dough straight from the refrigerator; the butter gives the sauce a more spreadable texture while still cold.
- Spoon over your favorite pasta, with chopped basil or arugula just before serving; Spoon a few ladles of lentils from Door No. 1 on top the sauce/pasta duo for an even heartier result. This combination really hit the spot on a chilly evening a few weeks ago.
- But what if I have a little bit of penne and a little bit of ziti from two different packages? Throw caution to the wind and do it! You will need to keep closer tabs on doneness and potentially adjust cook time, but that’s a small price to pay for dinner. It will help to compare timing guidance on each package.
This one is a no-brainer — cold, next-day rice develops a starchy exterior that is perfect for stir fried rice. It’s also the kind of dish that invites the little odds and ends in the refrigerator that need using up, which explains the small amount of bacon listed below (which of course, is optional).
Scrounge around and see what you have on hand to add layers of flavor; minced fresh ginger, diced or grated carrot, chopped scallions, a celery stalk or a handful of frozen peas are all fair game. Think of things that cook quickly and you’ll be in business.
The egg, also optional, turns this into a meal in a bowl. If using, cook first. A wok is my first choice, followed by a large (12- or 14-inch) skillet.
- 1 cup (more or less) of leftover rice from a takeout container or last night’s dinner
- 2 pieces bacon
- 1 egg
1. In a small bowl, fork whisk the egg; over high heat, add 1 tablespoon of neutral oil (and 1 teaspoon of sesame oil if you have some) to pan, tilting until the bottom is coated.
2. Immediately add the beaten egg, tilting again so that egg can spread, resulting in a thin pancake. Cook for about 45 seconds; the egg will set quickly.
3. With a thin-edged flipper or tongs, fold the egg in half and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into thin strips.
4. Remove any stuck-on bits in pan as needed.
5. If using bacon, chop into small pieces then fry over medium heat until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon.
6. If omitting bacon, use 1 tablespoon neutral oil and stir-fry, starting with small aromatics such as ginger and scallions, followed by peas and carrots, for a total of 90 seconds.
7. Add the rice (do not use more than 3 cups), breaking up any clumped rice as needed.
8. Add 1/4 cup of soy sauce and 1 tablespoon of water, quickly moving rice until well coated.
9. Stir in the chopped egg and bacon, if using. Eat hot.
10. No eggs or bacon? Add a handful of peanuts of cashews just before serving.
That half-eaten loaf sitting on the counter may look sad and lonely, but this soak-and-toast hack will have the band back together in no time.
- A stale 1/2 baguette or crusty bread
- 1 clove garlic, peeled but left whole
- Sardines, capers or a handful of Kalamata olives
1. Fill a shallow bowl with water.
2. Quickly dip the crust-side of the bread into the water to prep it for your knife.
3. Cut in half or into sandwich-style slices, depending on the loaf.
4. Dip the now-exposed interior into the water on both sides. By rehydrating the bread, you are giving it new life.
5. Toast until golden in a toaster oven, toaster or in a 300 F oven.
6. Immediately rub the toast with the garlic.
With your revived aromatized goodness, you can take the toast in two different directions:
1. Keep toast as is and build a killer sandwich, either traditional bookend style or open face. I suggest something briny like sardines, capers or olives for big flavor, but you could add a strong mustard or prepared horseradish instead. A sliced tomato adds sweetness, but so would a peach or an apple. You could keep going and add your favorite stinky cheese and a romaine lettuce leaf or a few slices of cucumber. Maybe there’s a can of tuna in the cabinet. Build to your heart’s content.
2. Cut toast into 1- or 2-inch croutons for your favorite new salad add-on. Drizzle olive oil on top, then start building. The briny options are fair game, as are pickled pepperoncini, canned artichokes, plus your favorite charcuterie, a can of drained chickpeas, the hallmarks of an antipasto salad. A handful of romaine lettuce leaves make great edible scoops. Finish with more olive oil as needed and a few spritzes of lemon or wine vinegar for acidic pop.
These three seemingly unrelated ingredients make great company for an elevated breakfast-for-dinner.
- 1 or 2 eggs
- 1 potato
- 1 bunch parsley or cilantro that has seen better days
1. Wash the herbs really well, removing any decaying leaves. Pat dry or shake over the sink to remove water.
2. Roughly chop, then puree in a blender or food processor with at least 1/3 cup of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
3. Add 1 clove of garlic and 1 teaspoon of oregano if you have it (but don’t worry if not). You can make it spicy with red pepper flakes or with a thumbnail size piece of fresh ginger.
4. Squeeze some lemon or lime; if you don’t have, add 1 teaspoon of white vinegar. Blitz until well blended. You can make spicy with red pepper flakes. You can add a thumbnail size piece of fresh ginger.
The resulting sauce is great on the egg and potato combo that you’re about to whip together, but it’s also great over rice, grilled steak, chicken or fish, roasted potatoes or your shoe (just kidding).
5. Meanwhile, peel the potato and cut into small cubes.
6. Place in a medium saucepan and add 3 to 4 cups of water plus 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Drain and pat dry.
For this challenge, I like to fry my egg sunny-side-up, with the just-set yolk the first to arrive on the plate and looking right at me. Just as the egg comes out of the skillet, I add the par-cooked potato until coated with the residual oil. You can let them cook until golden or until just warmed through. Spoon on top of the egg, along with a few spoonfuls of green sauce and tuck in. Dinner couldn’t be quicker, or finer.