Social Distancing Installment #3: Cook with what you’ve got

Trying to cook with the ingredients at home these days — and no one is better at using pantry goods for meals than Jack Monroe. She has started a Twitter feed to help people with questions, and that has led to a BBC show recently.

I’m the kind of cook who usually shops nearly every day.  Since we are encouraged to stay at home as much as possible, though, I’m trying to cook from what’s around here instead of shopping.  I’m pretty good at coming up with combinations of odds and ends – at least within the mindset of the styles of food I usually cook.

But that’s sometimes limiting.  So I’ve been turning to Jack Monroe for inspiration.  I had seen her on Twitter and then read about her in a Washington Post profile.  She’s definitely a home cook and not “chef-fy” in any way.  Her cooking drive came from necessity.  Faced with unemployment and a child to raise, she had to find a way to eat from the weekly food box she received from a local food pantry, supplemented with other low-cost ingredients.

She started blogging about her experiences, and the blog turned into cookbook opportunities.  She’s now working on her seventh cookbook.  They’re full of ideas and different flavors.  Monroe has great instincts for flavor combinations.  (Check here for the recipe that made her famous – Carrot, Cumin, and Kidney Bean Burgers.)  These days, lots of cookbooks seem to be specialized by cuisine or region of the world.  And while it’s fun to see collected recipes from individual cuisines we don’t know much about, it’s also great (and face it, a lot less reading) to have different styles of recipes together.

In these home sequestration days, Monroe has been using her skills and knowledge to help her Twitter followers make meals with things they find in their pantries.  You can check them out using the hashtag #JackMonroesLockdownLarder.   Obviously, she’s way ahead of the curve on this – and she’s going to be on a daily BBC television show soon to demonstrate recipes and share more ideas.

It’s great to see her so successful, since things didn’t always go this smoothly for her even after she started finding an audience for her books.  She got plenty of criticism for using  “expensive” ingredients like wine in dishes when she’s supposed to be helping poor people cook (and I guess they don’t deserve nice ingredients?  Even when you can get an inexpensive bottle of wine and make four different dishes with it?)  And at the start of the coronavirus crisis, some UK publications were turning to “celebrity” chefs for the kind of things she does much better.  Frankly, it’s hard to imagine some of these folks ever reaching for the packaged products that Monroe uses so well.

For example, one of the things I admire about her is her ability to use existing pantry staples to make new, more interesting pantry staples.  Like her idea for pickling canned beans.  She inspired me to come up with my own version and some variations – there are plenty of things that will work, so try something that appeals to you.



Basic method

Drain and rinse a can of cannellini beans and put them in a mason jar with a bay leaf, a few peppercorns, a big pinch of red pepper flakes, a quarter-teaspoon of dried oregano, and a big pinch of dried rosemary that you’ve crumbled a bit.  Combine ¾ cup white or apple cider vinegar and ½ cup water with a teaspoon of sugar and 1/4 teaspoon of fine salt in a small saucepan.  Add a small clove of garlic that you’ve thinly sliced.  Heat until the liquid boils.  Stir and let it boil for a minute to cook the garlic through and dissolve the sugar and salt.  Pour over the beans, put the lid on, and cool to room temperature.  (If the liquid doesn’t cover the beans, you can add equal parts vinegar and water to top off.) Then put the jar in the fridge for a couple of days or up to a week to flavor up.  Drain the beans and stir in a little olive oil and you have a great mixture for serving on pieces of toasted rustic bread.  You can also mix them into prepared hummus as a spread, add them to salads, mix into tuna salad (add some chopped olives too), etc.

A few riffs

First, if you don’t have a mason jar you can use a heatproof bowl.  Cover the bowl with a plate until everything cools, then switch to another jar or plastic container and refrigerate.  Then, switch out beans and flavors.  The cannellini bean flavorings will work with other beans, certainly, or try these:

Black beans (or pintos, or red kidney beans) — a half-teaspoon of cumin seeds (toast them in a small pan first if you can), ½ teaspoon ancho chile powder (or use regular chili powder, or crumble up a bit of a dried chile), and a half-teaspoon of oregano into the jar.  You can also put a couple of slices of jalapeño or serrano if you have it around.  You could stir some into guacamole, use as a garnish for chili or soups, or mix with avocado and tomato for a salad.

Chickpeas – a quarter-teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, cumin seeds, and coriander seeds.  Put in a pinch of red pepper flakes and a couple of cardamom pods that you’ve crushed lightly (or add a pinch of ground cardamom).  If you have some bell pepper (any color) dice up about ¼ and add it.  This makes a great salad with some grated carrot and radish.  Or cook some ground lamb or beef with a bit of the same spices and stir in the pickled chickpeas.  Serve with rice or couscous.

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