A brief flurry of cupboard doors, bowls are snatched from the fridge, a quick pass over a gas burner and dinner is on the table. It has no name, came from no tried-and-true recipe, and it can never be duplicated. It is rarer than truffles, as uncommon as mare’s milk, yet far less dear. Bare cupboard feast is the name we use for these meals made with no forethought or shopping lists. Prepared without preparation and presented without ceremony they vie with dinners offered by acclaimed restaurants for palate-pleasing flavor.
The unplanned dinner necessitates pairings otherwise viewed skeptically. First glance might not reveal a meal in the random elements in the cupboard and refrigerator, but there is always a combination that will turn into dinner. How fortunate we are that we are never in a position to state, truthfully, that there is nothing to eat. Those evenings when I have not shopped for dinner and have no meal in mind bring out my greatest and most pleasurable skills as a cook. It may be tempting to simply head into town and go to a restaurant, but the challenge of raiding the cupboard is far more satisfying. It is also a gentle reminder of just how much we have.
There is always a variety of pasta. I stock up when at Trader Joe’s, and we are gifted with exotic squid inky linguine or mysterious grains in beautiful packages that we cannot read. Jars of sauces and tapenades are picked up on travels because they looked interesting, but never used because I do not tend to cook with prepared sauces. The freezer usually has a bag or two of mushrooms we have gathered, fish caught, and deer or duck hunted. I suspect I could come up with decent, no, wonderful, dinners for several weeks. And probably feed us, though less pleasingly, for quite a while after that.
Eight pm, we are hungry. I thaw some bass caught by my husband and his grandson, brown it in the herby breadcrumbs left over from topping a layered potato dish and heat the remains of last night’s pasta primavera sauce. Oh, there is that little dish with the seasoned ricotta filling. I stir it into the primavera sauce and slide the browned fish into it. This is topped with some oil-cured olives.
I had cooked too much orzo two nights ago, gauging quantity is not one of my skills. That was warmed and tossed with the olive oil dipping sauce from last night’s bread. The oil, with minced garlic, sage and pepper coated the orzo and served as a bed for the fish. Greens from the garden, a quick mustard-lemon dressing, and dinner was ready. Each bite was a rich burst of disparate, but happy-together flavors. “I wish we could share this,” I say as we eat. But I know unless someone walked through the door right then it would never happen. To recreate this meal I would have to make the ricotta filling, primavera sauce, herbed bread crumbs, and have plenty of bass. This meal will never happen again.
It also only happened because I loathe waste. Leftovers are considered trash food by many. I was once at a dinner and watched as a dozen uneaten jumbo shrimp were scraped into the trash compacter, followed by a plateful of devilled eggs and a bowl of guacamole. “We always make fresh,” my hostess boasted, and “We would never put waste on our gardens, we buy mulch,” she replied when I asked if they had considered composting.
A pantry full of food, however ill-assorted, is not a luxury all are fortunate enough to share. I feel a sense of security when I have drawers and shelves filled with non-perishable food items. Grains, simmer sauces, pickled beets, anchovies, and olives can pair with whatever little dishes of leftover salad dressings or vegetables are in the fridge. While I love menu planning, seeking recipes, shopping, prepping, tasting, and serving, there are usually expectations to be met and guests to please. Making a Bare Cupboard Feast has no pressure. The freedom of creating, and very quickly, is simply fun with no worries. Working with this limited palette in a very short window of time precludes much thought. I think that is its appeal for me. I can spend hours researching recipes, planning a menu, and be knocked for a loop if an essential ingredient is not available and I have to rethink.
The week night scratch meals are created playfully. No time to look things up, I draw on my memory. Like interdisciplinary studies, differing ethnic cooking techniques and flavors meet and work together. The plan is being made as things are pulled off the shelf.
3pm, and we are invited to go boating with friends in an hour. It was suggested we bring a dish. Could dash to town and buy stuff, but there is not really enough time. I had been practicing Bare Cupboard Feasts for about three days, just seeing how far I could go, so the cupboard was really bare. Here it is, and I was asked for the recipe twice.
Bare Cupboard Pasta Salad
Package of trader Joe’s multigrain fuselli with flax
A cup of monkey nuts left from a cocktail party
Last night’s roasted summer squash, eggplant and red pepper
Garlic (we always have garlic)
Tamari, black bean sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, Zea Salt
Hard-boiled eggs (from lunch)
If you are passing through Otter Creek, stop by some evening. An unplanned guest would be welcome for an unplanned meal!
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