Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Here's how I like to cook - and why you should cook this way too

Living alone has taught me how little one person needs to eat - not just to survive, but to be truly gustatorily happy. Even when I buy only one piece of each vegetable in a standard grocery shop, there's always soft wilted vegetables left in my fridge at the end of the week; once when I pre-cooked 3 simple meals on a Sunday, there was still heaps left over nearly two weeks later, which luckily were spared because I reserved some for the freezer.

The desire to save both money and food waste has really taught me how to use a combination of scraps, pantry staples, and the right mix of tasty condiments and spices to make the sparest of fresh produce last one or even two decent cook-ups. You don't need fancy ingredients to create a deliciously satisfying but simple meal.

Allow me to convince you!

My sister was about to leave on a one month holiday so I rescued a tub of ricotta from her. I love ricotta. I don't know if this is just weird or if it's actually normal somewhere in the world, but one thing I love to do is mix plain ricotta with a couple of teaspoons of hot chocolate powder (and if I have it, some grated or finely chopped dark chocolate.) It makes for a strangely indulgent dessert, because the ricotta is already rich and sweet. The cheese flavour isn't strong. It's like a textured form of mascarpone to me. It ends up tasting like a healthy chocolate mousse! And it takes maybe 2 seconds to put together, if that.

Something else I like to do is mix natural greek yoghurt (full fat, not light) with a bit of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, honey, and - get this - turmeric powder. Trust me, it's nice! Put a dollop on a thick slice of your favourite toasted bread and it's an amazing breakfast. I don't eat many curries so I welcome any way I can sneak some turmeric into my diet, especially as a sweet treat.

Anyway, back on track.

So I let my eyes wander the inside of my fridge, with the tub of very promising and tempting ricotta in one hand for inspiration, and here's what I ended up pulling together.

Creamy capsicum and ricotta pasta

I put finely chopped garlic and thinly sliced white onion in a pan, with butter and a bit of olive oil and a fat pinch of salt. I didn't fry it, but let it melt and sweat slowly until it was soft and sweet.

I sliced red and yellow capsicums (aka paprikas/bell peppers), a bit thinner and longer than usual, so it almost mimicked the shape of the onion strands, and threw them into the pan. Popped on the lid and let them sweat slowly too while I got the pasta on - a mix of angel hair and spaghettini. (I'm not a purist about my pasta choices, I just go with whatever feels right.) Every now and then I shook the pan vigorously so the condensation on the inside of the lid re-hydrated the vegetables underneath, because I wanted them to tenderise before they scorched.

When the pasta was about halfway done, I threw in a - perhaps eclectic - flurry of spices and dried herbs to the pan: black pepper (lots, I love it), marjoram, oregano, thyme, and some all-spice. (If I'd had it, I probably would have added some lemon zest too.) Tossed it all up and the aroma was immediately madly delicious. I turned up the heat slightly so the capsicums started to get a yummy caramelised browned smokey taste, and the liquid in the pan began turning gooey and concentrated.

Into a separate bowl, I cracked an egg, spooned a large dollop (maybe two) of the ricotta, some grated parmesan, and another pinch of pepper. Whisked that up very well with a fork, and got it ready.

When the pasta was done, I turned off the heat under the pan of vegetables, and added the pasta to it. I never bother to drain my pasta in a colander. I just use tongs or the pasta ladle, whatever that hooky thing is called, and pick up the pasta and add it straight to the sauce. That usually saves me the trouble of adding the pasta water, because there's already enough still clinging to the pasta, plus it's faster and leaves me less to wash up later. But in this case, I wanted more body, so I poured a couple of extra sploshes of the starchy pasta water to the pan for lubrication and emulsification. Then I quickly stirred in the egg and ricotta mixture until everything was creamy and combined. At this point I began to bounce on my tiptoes in the middle of the kitchen because it smelled and looked so delicious and I couldn't wait to eat it.

In a bowl, in my mouth. It was good. If I do say so myself.

But my point is, the only things I really needed for this impromptu recipe was a capsicum and a couple of tablespoons of ricotta - everything else was a handful of standard items most people always have on hand, like dried pasta, eggs, alliums, cheese, butter, herbs and spices.

If you know what you like to eat and what flavours you enjoy, and you don't worry too much about the mechanics of how to put a basic dish together, you can easily cook a proper, homemade, fulfilling dinner for yourself without too much cost or shopping time.

Here's another quick example I'm pretty proud of. (Maybe I shouldn't be.)

Vamped-up crab and tuna pasta salad

My mum is an amazing cook, with the skills and experience to feed an entire family on a budget, and I love her meals to bits. She can blow anyone under the table with her Vietnamese dishes, no questions asked. But I'm sorry to say, she doesn't always get western food right. Usually I don't mind her adding a bit of soy sauce to her bolognaise or adding shrimp to her pork or oversteaming the broccoli. Her culinary habits arise from vast expertise in a cuisine where they not only make sense but are absolutely critical to the final result.

Tonight she made a very straightforward pasta salad. Penne, chopped up crab sticks, canned tuna, and some mayonnaise. It was fine. Perfect for a work lunch. But I wanted a bit more excitement from it, especially if it was going to be the one thing I had to look forward to in the middle of my work day!

I scrabbled together an armful of jars and items from the fridge, and briskly got to work with a chopping board, knife, and spoon.

So in a bowl: finely chopped spring onion, as much lemon juice as I could squeeze from a tired half-fruit I recovered that had been cryo-meditating for a few days, a teaspoon of dijon mustard, and half a teaspoon of salt (more than usual but you'll see why in a minute.)

I let the onion party with the acid for a bit to mellow out, while I finely chopped and added a few cornichons (mini-gherkins). I love the tang, so I dunno, maybe it was 4 or 5?

I stirred all that up really well, then added a couple of generous tablespoons of full fat natural greek yoghurt, some black pepper (love it!), and folded everything in until properly combined. I tasted it and added a tiny pinch more of salt, but you may choose not to. I just found that I needed more savouriness with how sweet and creamy the rich yoghurt is, and how sweet I knew the crab would be once added. I also especially needed the sourness for balance, but if you don't like tartness as much as I do, go easy on the lemon juice and pickles. You could use more mayonnaise like my mum did, but I really felt the yoghurt was the right choice for me.

I combined this enhanced yoghurt dressing with mum's base pasta mix, and when I was done, I found it pretty hard to hold back from eating it all straight away. The future of tomorrow's lunchtime happiness relies on tonight's restraint!

There you go. Another quick and easy meal that's both cheap and tasty. Almost everything was from the pantry!

So go my children! Go into the world! Try to make the most of what you already have before you look up elaborate recipes and spend ages in the supermarket piling up expensive ingredients in your shopping cart. It can be so much more liberating, creative, fun and rewarding to cook thrifty and clever.

And that's my random lesson for today. Happy cooking (eating)!

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