Late winter is a good time to take stock of the pantry. An early version of spring cleaning, in preparation for the season's fresh food. So in the last week, every time my husband tries to "run to the grocery store," I tell him we don't need to. Between the freezer and the pantry, we have everything we need.
This kind of clearing the scraps takes creativity. What to do with barley, dried mushrooms and canned tomatoes? Yet, twice this week, when I've been inspired by a recipe, I've been able to implement it immediately. With a few minor tweaks.
First, my sister co-produced a video with Mark Bittman and Mario Batali (I know! How cool is that?). After watching it, I immediately wanted to re-enact this sweet potato gnocchi for lunch. But we didn't have potatoes, seemingly a prime ingredient. We did, however, have frozen korean rice cakes, whose glutinous core resembled gnocchi enough for me. So the dish became equal parts David Chang and Mario Batali. It was delicious.
Then, on a lazy Saturday afternoon, while continuing to read Tamar Adler's excellent book, An Everlasting Meal, I came across her recipe for ribollita, a Tuscan stew made from stale bread. This magical dish is one of my most vivid food memories. When I was 16 years old, I used my stashed-away birthday money on a school trip to Italy. It was my first time to Europe, and I was excited to try Real Italian Food.
At the time, I was in one of many vegetarian moments, moved by a concern for the planet. So rather than being served a meat stew, my best friend and I got a bowlful of green mush at a pre-ordered trip dinner in Florence. We pondered over this monstrosity for a moment, cursing our ethics and wondering if we could feign poor english while requesting what the others were having. After hesitating, I tried the smallest bit, and discovered a rich complex flavor that the green mush betrayed. Afterwards, I would remember this dish as the highlight of the trip, but would not know its name.
When I went back to Florence last year, I realized most tourists in Florence were approximating my experience: they were 16 year old girls with a thirst for new knowledge and no idea how to seek it. American girls travelled the city in little flocks, mostly seeking italian food that would replicate their expectations and prior experience: pizza, pasta, gelato. But, older and wiser now, I went looking for the mushy stew. The second time around, the ribollita did not disappoint.
So when I came across Adler's recipe last week, I knew I wanted to make it right then and there. And I knew with a little improvisation, we would have all the necessary ingredients. We had saved stale bread, cutting it into small pieces and putting it in the freezer earlier in the month. I knew we had canned tomatoes from a sale months ago. And some frozen spinach could stand in for kale. As Adler herself puts it, this "make-do" approach is the entire philosophy behind ribollita. Her Tuscan friend once told her, "You don't buy ingredients for ribollita. You have them."
The ability to see a recipe or a dish and quickly recreate it with what you have in your kitchen can be challenging. Perhaps my success this past week is the result of subconscious long-term planning. The fruits of a year of unintentional hoarding. But it seems the key ingredients to improvisation in the kitchen are closer to confidence and seeing abundance rather than scarcity. Ask yourself what you can do for that can of tomatoes, not what that can can do for you, and the rest will follow.