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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Eat Like an Italian Part 2: Don't buy that Shallot

The flip-side of eating what you have--in your garden, in your fridge, in your pantry--is NOT eating what you don't have.

My sister-in-law, who hates to cook, is now the cook for her own family of two (her child is away at college) and for her father, who lives nearby. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, she probably spends ten times as much time cooking as I do, and I like to cook. During our last visit, she made an eggplant stew with polenta topping. Delicious. She also made a salad with shallot dressing. Delicious.

Both recipes were clipped from the newspaper and she followed them to the letter. She made a shopping trip in the morning to amass the ingredients. At dinner time, she discovered that she had forgotten to buy a shallot. I suggested that she use a garlic clove or chopped scallions, both of which were in the house. This was not acceptable. She sent her daughter off to get the shallot and she returned, twenty or so minutes later, with a shallot.

Each meal starts similarly starts from scratch. Shopping and cooking take a long time.

I, by contrast, am a lazy-ish cook. Tonight I made a potato pie from the potatoes and caramelized onions I had. I added some eggs and sour cream and topped with breadcrumbs and then baked in my trusty toaster oven. Total prep time--10 minutes. Baking--around 40 minutes. Of course, we had some greens with it!

An Italian peasant--from the scenario recounted in yesterday's post--would surely not make a trip to buy a shallot.

Of course, it has taken me years to get lazy. Like many people my age, I learned to cook from cookbooks, laboriously following Julia Child's recipes, perspiring all the while.

But there does seem to be a change afoot. The Wall Street Journal, whose food articles are often very good, had a piece yesterday on improvisational cooking. The piece featured cooks who urge us to figure out how to use what we have--

Among them: Marc Matsumoto, a freelance writer and marketing consultant, who launched the Web site a year ago. The site's motto: "No recipes: Cooking is more fun without them." Mr. Matsumoto focuses on technique and inspiration, rather than detailed instructions, when he writes about his off-the-cuff creations that include spicy lemongrass soft-shell crab, and shrimp and duck gumbo.

Lest it seem that my ego is running amok here, let me say that my sister-in-law is an excellent housekeeper, who probably looks with horror at my inefficient and futile efforts in that department. I probably spend more time than she does at housekeeping and, trust me, my house looks a lot worse than hers does. If only we lived near each other! I'd be happy to do all the cooking and I hope she would help me out with my weak spots.

Dear Readers: any tips for improvisational cooking? How do you make one meal into more? Any clever substitutions? Do share.


Duchesse said...

"Improvisational" assumes you have stocked your pantry so you can play! Tuna, anchovies, good olives, San Marzano canned tomatoes, beasns and lentils, some good smoked bacon and whatever vegetables are around and I can do pasta six ways to Sunday! Sometimes you really do need a key ingredient that is hard to substitute, though, like anchovies!

Do you know Mark Bittman's 100 Simple Summer Dishes (available online, search "Bittman 100" or his book "Quick and Easy Recipes from the New York Times?" Great stuff!

Midlife, menopause, mistakes and random stuff... said...

You are such an inspiration Frugal Scholar......I think you are a tad harsh on yourself sometimes dear friend?? Maybe you're not a lazy're a "Creative Cook". That substitution sounds exactly like what I'd have done. Sometimes when I'm catering, I find that I may not have a necessay ingredient and "voila" it magically appears in the form of whatever I find in my house!!
You make the best sounding dishes right out of your own garden and pantry. I call that brilliant :)
Hope you're feeling much, much better and.......

Steady On
Reggie Girl

Frugal Scholar said...

@Duchesse--Yes! the pantry is key. Why doesn't everyone do it???

I read the Bittman on-line last summer. It's worth another look. Thanks for the reminder.

@Reggie-I am a lazy cook. It's OK. It's helped me develop shortcuts.

Funny about Money said...

LOL! An Italian cook would have shallots growing in the backyard. ;-)

That reminds me...wonder if they'll grow here in the Valley of the Altogether-Too-Much Sun...

IMHO, improvisational cooking comes with experience and age. Over time you learn that most recipes are pretty forgiving, and also that you often can improve on them with a little creativity. And over time, you get too darned lazy to schlep to the grocery store for one, count it, one forgotten item.

sallymandy said...

What a great post, Frugal. Many years ago I read a book that was already outdated, called "Cooking Without Recipes." Re: the science of what happens to food, so one could use that knowledge to cook with. I didn't absorb much of it, but I agree with Funny that improvisational cooking comes with experience. I think one learns over time what happens to food as it's cooked so you don't need recipes as much. That's also an issue of confidence, and permission to make mistakes.

I almost never use a recipe any more. Without meaning to, I've evolved into improvising by a psychological path: what are my assumptions about what constitutes a "meal," and do I want to hang on to them? For instance, why does a meal need a "main dish," a vegetable, and one other thing? I've loosened up a lot to let nutrition and not an arbitrary aesthetic guide me in what I cook--though it still has to be yummy. I love to eat.

I have to have good butter, good yogurt, real parmesan, a pantry with non perishables, and eggs. Eggs always! Simplifying helps, as does having outstanding ingredients which can stand on their own without too much "reformatting."

I'm going to be thinking about this some more, I can just feel it.

sallymandy said...

Well, I also have to say one more thing, about making one meal into more. Permission to change my self-imposed rule that every meal has to be different. Just like Europeans often wear the same outfit more than one day in a row, I'm okay with feeding my family the same thing twice in a row.

That said, I do really love making enormous quantities of soups and stews and freezing them.

Fabulously Broke said...

We do this all the time. We mix leftovers we won't eat alone into a fried rice dish, add some scrambled eggs and call it a day :)

Turns out quite good if you add some bacon you have lying around too...

I'd never just drive to a store for a shallot unless I was making a special birthday dinner and NEEDED to do that recipe.

Sounds like your sister should clip everything out she wants to make, make a meal plan for that week and buy everything at the start, that way she doesn't waste time or gas.

Fabulously Broke in the City

"Just a girl trying to find a balance between being a Shopaholic and a Saver."

Frugal Scholar said...

@sallymandy--My cooking is turning into something similar to what you describe. Sometimes, like tonight, I just want a big bowl of mashed potatoes.

And, as for your second comment, my husband and I once ate burritos for 5 days in a row (kids were at camp). That was what we WANTED.

@Fabulously--My sil hates cooking so much that she won't plan. It goes against logic, I know. I'm the same way with cleaning and organizing so I can relate.