The kind of cooking I love to do is …. you look in the fridge and say, “oh look, there’s that, there’s that, and there’s that. What can I do with them?” I find restriction kind of inspiring in a way. I think sometimes when you have complete freedom, you can have whatever you want, you can afford whatever you want, you don’t come up with something as good.” (Diana Henry, British food writer and author of Plenty speaking to Lynne Rosetto Kasper on A Splendid Table.
Inspiring. Well, that’s one way to frame the scavenger’s approach to cooking. It works pretty well for the first few days after a visit to the grocery store, when the lettuce and peppers and are still fresh and the carrots still have their turgor pressure. It can get a little scary when when the fresh produce is either gone or looks like the creature from deep lagoon and all that remains are a few potatoes, a box of pasta, and things that come in cans and jars.
This is when you get no holds barred creativity in the kitchen. Say you look in the fridge and you find eggs. You look in the pantry and you find an onion, a potato, and a can of enchilada sauce. Assuming you’ve got some sort of oil, you’ve got it made! Saute the onion and potato. While that’s still cooking, beat the eggs and dump them in on top of the potato and onion and then mix in the enchilada sauce. You have just made eggs to die for. But what happens when all you find that looks like a vegetable is a jar of Kim Chee at the back of the refrigerator. If you’ve got tuna, you’re in luck! Dole out a cup or so of Kim Chee, drain the tuna, stir it in with the Kim Chee and you’ve got a meal in less than five minutes. Add a few corn chips and it’s almost heaven. Though it occurs to me that perhaps a better word for it might be desperation.
This said, the real question may not be, “What can you come up with?” but “Can you eat it?”
Three simple rules will help you fit most of your scavenger concoctions into the “edible column.” First, don’t cook until you get hungry. If you are hungry enough, you can eat almost anything. Second, if it’s not good, add wine. You’d be amazed at what a little wine can do to elevate a dish. Finally, if you added wine and it’s still not good, drink wine. If you drink enough wine, you won’t care what it tastes like.
These rules work. My first roommate and I followed them religiously and there was only one meal we cooked that got declared “inedible.” As I recall it was a pasta sauce made from tomato paste, onions, canned tuna and frozen corn. Even then it wasn’t a total wash. Her boyfriend finished up the leftovers. I guess compared to dorm food, it wasn’t so bad.