I just finished up a lovely bowl of leftover pasta from last night with just a little bit of the tannat that we opened as well to complete the experience. What I love about the pasta—aside from its delicious taste, of course—is the fact that it came together so easily from what I already had in the pantry and fridge. I did not shop with this meal in mind. While I did “plan” it into my menu, I used what I already had on hand to do so.
The main thing that is needed for this kind of flexible and delightful cooking (and eating), aside from having a well-stocked pantry, is creativity.
What my pasta included: 1/2 lb. of quinoa-brown rice noodles, roasted bell peppers and mushrooms, sautéed onions and kale, and the finishing touches of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Pecorino Romano, and walnuts. Very simple. But so satisfying (and nutritious to boot!).
How did I build this meal? Well, I looked in my fridge, to start. I knew I had one and a half bell peppers needing to be used as well as a partial bag of shredded kale. I had half a bag of pasta as well as my pantry staple onions. I also had mushrooms with no particular plan; I just like to have them around, so tend to buy them weekly, knowing I will use them in some way. Thus the pasta was born!
Such dishes don’t need a lot of “help.” I didn’t worry about a sauce, nor did I season the vegetables with anything but salt and pepper (white pepper, just on the kale, to be exact). When using good ingredients that complement each other, there is no need to mask their identity with extra spices. Often it hides them. Rather, it’s more about knowing what cooking methods make ingredients shine. For instance, roasting is probably the best way to prepare a bell pepper (at least, it’s my favorite). They develop a lovely sweetness and richness that just doesn’t come any other way (except perhaps grilling, which is similar, but also adds smokiness). So, too, with mushrooms. They do beautifully when sautéed on high heat, but to save on the work of doing batches, and because I wanted to sweat some onions, I just shared the sheet pan with the peppers and roasted them up. Onions do beautifully when sweated on a medium-high heat (salted) and covered for about five minutes before uncovering and lowering the heat a bit. It helps to release moisture, which helps them to soften up as well as release their natural sweetness. Yum. Lastly, tossing the kale atop the onions for the last few minutes of the pasta’s boiling gives it a lovely texture, tames some bitterness, and, as I’ve read, may actually make the nutrients more bioavailable. Wins all around!
Once everything was assembled, I poured over some good olive oil, a bit of balsamic, and topped the served bowls with torn, thin slices of Romano and chopped walnuts. Served up beside some Uruguayan tannat . . . even on its own, you can’t go wrong.
But how do you know what to put together? I often get questions about how I create the dishes that I do. How I can be that creative, etc. You know, it really all begins with attention. Pay attention. What food combinations do you like? What have you seen on a menu, in a cookbook, etc. that sparked your interest? Knowing what goes together is one thing. Another is also simply being willing to take risks. I did a heck of a lot of under-seasoning when I first started to cook. I was afraid to overdo it. But then my food tasted bland. Sometimes you will fail miserably—we’ll never forget the Mexican oregano my husband put on broccoli—but that’s ok. Other times you discover something marvelous! (Curry powder in quesadillas, anyone?)
There’s so much to be said for having the guts to give something a go. When in doubt, look into the combinations you have in mind. Has someone else tried it before? What did they do? What else did they pair it with? What cooking methods did they use? What other ingredients, spices, etc.? It’s all a journey of discovery, and it can be oh so much fun. Even more, you gain skills and increase your own comfort and confidence in the kitchen. This can translate to confidence in the grocery store, too, or at restaurants. You find out what works, you get curious about new combinations, you find new go-to favorites, and you start to build up a terrific repertoire of recipes and cooking abilities.
So to come full circle, back to the pantry-based pasta: start where you are. Start with what you have. Take a creative look, and see what you can come up with!
Let the journey begin.