For the cupboard-hoarders; you know who you are!
September 17, 2006
Food - New York Times
The Way We Eat: The Cookout
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
I know I had a very good reason for purchasing two pounds of lupini beans in the winter of 2005. But what was it?
I pulled out old cooking magazines, interrogated my husband and made a few desperate phone calls to Italy, where friends had no suggestions but did ask that I respect time-zone differences the next time I had a food inquiry.
But the beans had to go — as did the two cans of pumpkin, bags of lentils, a tin of wasabi powder, chicken stock, walnuts, pecans, garam masala, coconut milk and lots and lots of rice. I was moving from New York to California, and the entirety of my pantry could not come with me. So in between lunches with old friends, school picnics and crying jags precipitated by my inability to find the dry-cleaning receipt, I would boil, broil, baste and sauté these ingredients away.
Perhaps you are like Mrs. Virkus, the mother of my childhood friend Jill, who diligently recorded every family dinner, down to the last ground-beef “porcupine ball.” I’ll bet Mrs. Virkus always knew when she was out of paprika. Or perhaps your larder is more like mine, full of the detritus of good intentions, stemming from a combination of time-management issues, absent-mindedness and an inflated sense of your culinary skill and your family’s willingness to indulge you.
All cooks have things in the pantry they cannot live without. My list: dried pasta, sea salt, cocoa powder, curry and plenty of baking powder. Then there are those things we seem to get left with: cans of pumpkin (holiday baking), mustard seeds (for pickling) and five bags of lentils and rice, an inch in each bag.
In a subcategory of leftovers are those ingredients you buy for one recipe — like that wasabi — use a teaspoon of and then curse each time they clonk you on the head as you reach for a can of tomato paste. You don’t toss them, because you like to think of yourself as the sort of person who really ought to be cooking regularly with wasabi paste.
Then there are the vacation ingredients, meant to recapture a beloved meal made elsewhere, which, of course, is rarely successful. Old Bay seasoning, so enjoyed on those crabs I pummeled during a summer vacation in Delaware, has no rightful place in a New York pantry in December. Finally, there is the ingredient abuse of which I am most ashamed: comestible posing. You know the drill: you flip through a new cookbook or the latest issue of this magazine and say to yourself, “Hey, yes, I will make bobotie tonight.” You go to three different stores, ferret out each exotic ingredient, come home, pull out a few pans and order pizza. No judgment!
So, left with these categories of goods, I flipped through cookbooks, scanned recipe sites and bothered one friend relentlessly for ideas on how to cook down my pantry without having to buy more ingredients. A new favorite emerged, Goan coconut-milk pilaf, from the lovely cookbook “1,000 Indian Recipes,” by Neelam Batra, which had two important elements: speed and lots of ingredients. My supply of basmati rice, married with several spices and an onion, suddenly formed a fragrant side dish. The garam masala and that coconut milk gave it some zip. I had no cardamom pods, and had no intention of buying them, but the dried stuff was fine.
On to the lentils. My expectations were low when I took on a soup with pounded walnuts and cream, because the recipe called for only 10 ingredients, including water (though I chose to use chicken stock, and you should, too). I used the brown lentils I purchased in bulk months ago at an Indian grocery store but I am positive I would have thrown in a cup each of all the lentils in my pantry. The soup was simple and flavorful on its own, but when mixed with the mashed paste of my leftover walnuts and some crème fraîche (a process that takes less than five minutes), it was divine.
Lentils? Cooked. Wasabi powder? Coming with me. Pumpkin? To be fair, the failure of a panna cotta adapted from the book “Italian Two Easy” (my idea was to add the pumpkin) was largely my fault, as I did not properly calculate the gelatin-to-pumpkin-and-milk ratios. But the authors didn’t help any by suggesting that I remove the gelatin from the milk after soaking it, which is a little like suggesting you strain the sugar from your morning coffee after adding it. One panna cotta slid obediently from its ramekin, doing a little dessert shimmy on the plate. The other formed a gloppy puddle. But when rejiggered and prepared as it is here, it’s a fabulous alternative to the standard pumpkin pie. Sometimes leftover ingredients and ambition alone do not do the trick.
And that big bag of lupini beans? Pie weights. This Thanksgiving in Los Angeles.
Goan Coconut-Milk Pilaf
2 tablespoons grated fresh coconut or shredded unsweetened dried coconut
1 to 2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 1-inch stick cinnamon
5 whole cloves
6 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed (or 1 heaping teaspoon ground cardamom)
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 ½ cups basmati rice, sorted and washed
1 cup coconut milk
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon Goan vindaloo powder or garam masala
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped.
1. Dry-roast the coconut in a small skillet over medium heat until fragrant, but just barely darker in color, 1 to 2 minutes. Cool and set aside.
2. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the cinnamon, cloves and cardamom pods and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the onion (and ground cardamom, if using) and cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Mix in rice, coconut milk, 1 ¾ cups water and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover the pan and cook until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest for about 5 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish, mix in the coconut, vindaloo powder (or garam masala) and cilantro. Serves 6.
Adapted from “1,000 Indian Recipes,” by Neelam Batra.
Lentil Soup With Pounded Walnuts and Cream
2 cups lentils
2 to 4 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely diced
1 bay leaf
6 cups vegetable or chicken stock (or water)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large garlic cloves
2/3 cup lightly toasted walnuts
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons crème fraîche
2 tablespoons minced parsley, optional.
1. Soak the lentils in water for 2 hours, then drain.
2. Melt the butter in a large pot over low heat. Add the onion and bay leaf. Sauté over medium-high heat until onion is translucent, 5 minutes. Add lentils, stock and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Simmer, covered, until lentils are soft, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic with a large pinch of salt. Add the walnuts and work until finely ground. Add 2 tablespoons crème fraîche, mixing it in a teaspoon at a time, to form a paste.
4. Add the remaining ½ cup crème fraîche to the finished soup. To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and top each with a large spoonful of walnut cream, a bit of ground pepper and, if desired, a sprinkle of parsley. Serves 4 to 6.
Adapted from “Vegetable Soups,” by Deborah Madison.
Pumpkin Panna Cotta
1 ½ tablespoons unflavored powdered gelatin (about 2 2 ½ -ounce packets)
2 ½ cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup sugar
1 15-ounce can pumpkin purée
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg.
1. In a bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over 1 cup milk and let sit for 10 minutes.
2. In a medium saucepan, heat the remaining milk, cream, sugar and salt to just before boiling. Whisk the gelatin mixture, pumpkin, cinnamon and nutmeg into the warmed cream. Remove from heat and let sit for 10 minutes, then strain through a sieve lined with cheesecloth. Do not press on the solids. Pour into 5 ¾ -cup ramekins and chill for at least 3 hours.
3. To serve, dip the base of a ramekin in hot water until the panna cotta is loose. Lay a plate on top and invert it. You may need to shake the ramekin to release the panna cotta. Serves 5.