Oh, the Possibilities!

Red bell pepper. Yellow onion. Mushrooms. Garlic. Scallions. Cashews.

A group of common ingredients that I used this week to make two radically different meals.

I’d like to call this a brief study in “doing more with less.” It’s all about thinking creatively about the range of possibilities. With food, the sky is the limit. Preparation method and application vary so widely, as do combinations of base ingredients with special add-ins that can completely change the direction of a dish.

What did I make? A more-or-less “Italian” pasta dish and an Asian fried-rice.

Two different continents, two totally different takes on these base ingredients.

The similarities? Sautéed mushrooms. Pressed garlic tossed into the pan with some oil. That’s pretty much where the similarities end.

The differences? Preparation, application, and special add-ins.

Preparation: roasted red bell pepper, caramelized onions, cooked scallions, and cashews made into a creamy sauce vs. sautéed pepper and yellow onion, raw scallion, and toasted, roughly chopped cashews.

Application: pasta vs. rice (additionally, a pasta boiled in water, and served with a creamy sauce vs. precooked rice fried in a pan with oil and aromatics).

Add-ins: sardines, fresh rosemary, and walnuts vs. ginger, tamari, sesame seeds, green peas, eggs, and lime.

What’s fun about these meals, in addition to the divergent nature of the outcomes with a large overlap of common ingredients, is that many of the components were either leftovers, or not planned for these meals in particular. For instance, both the pasta and the rice were leftover; the pasta was half of a bag leftover from another meal, and the rice came from a large order of Indian food (they always give a bounty of rice, which is terrific for making fried rice). The rosemary and sardines had already seen service at the table for other reasons. Additions such as walnuts, sesame seeds, ginger, and green peas are simple pantry and freezer staples of mine. I always keep onions and garlic around (and cashews), and like to have mushrooms and eggs on hand. Really the only “special” ingredient I got “just because,” and knew I would figure out something to do with, were the bell peppers!

Having the freedom and ability to create “more” with “less” is where having a well-stocked pantry comes in handy. Have a variety of grains (and grain products, like pasta and bread) to work with; always be stocked up on alliums: various onions and garlic; keep versatile fresh things on hand like eggs. Having a variety of nuts and seeds on hand can also add a lot to a dish. Once you have a good “canvas” to work from, your weekly grocery shopping can be for fresh produce that can take a variety of applications. For instance,

  • Asparagus (blanched, sautéed, grilled, or roasted) can find its way into a salad, a pasta, a frittata . . . even a pasta frittata (which is a thing. It’s delightful.)
  • Kale can be sautéed as a side, massaged for a salad, tossed into a soup or pasta, made into a pesto to coat noodles or slather on bread for a tartine . . .
  • Sweet potatoes can be roasted whole and eaten for breakfast with almond butter and jam, cooked in an Indian sauce with chickpeas, made into a twice-baked main, cubed and roasted as a side dish, etc.

That’s nearly twenty ideas already. And that’s only three vegetables . . . not to mention the other ingredients to play a part.

The possibilities are as many as the combinations you can think up.

I encourage you to start with what you have, and ask yourself what the ingredients in your fridge, on your counter, and in your pantry could become. Consider a particular item, asking what ways you might cook it, and what dishes it might be found in (or added to) . . . you’ll be well on your way.

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