Pantry Cooking III: More Recipes

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Okay, more with the recipes for making meals from what you have on hand. It just goes on and on.

Another strategy for using up odds and ends is to make a casserole with some kind of pasta, leftover meat and vegetables, and a white sauce to hold it together.

If you have powdered milk on hand, and butter or margarine and a little bit of flour, you can easily make a white sauce.

Basic White Sauce
2 Tbsp butter or margarine
2 Tbsp flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup milk (fresh or reconstituted from dry milk powder)

Melt butter over medium heat. Add flour and stir with a fork or whisk until combined and clumped together and bubbling. (This is called making a roux. I know, so fancy!)

Cook and stir for a minute or two to lose the raw flour taste. Add milk and stir to disperse all of the butter and flour in the milk, and continue stirring until smooth. As it heats up it will start to bubble and thicken, which is what you want.

This is for a medium sauce. For a thinner sauce, use one tablespoon each of flour and butter; for a thicker sauce use three or four tablespoons of each.

You can add up to one cup of shredded hard cheese to it if you want, to make a cheese sauce, and spice it up with pepper, mustard powder, paprika, chili powder, etc. Once you add the spices and you’ve combined it all with pasta and vegetables, no one will even be able to tell it was made with powdered milk. Or you can use fresh milk if you want, that’s fine too.

Note that this is the same technique used to make gravy — add flour to fat, stir together to make a roux, then add liquid, heat and thicken.

You can make milk gravy from chicken fat left from frying chicken and serve with mashed potatoes, or sausage gravy from the fat rendered from cooking bulk sausage. Add the cooked sausage to the gravy when done and serve over biscuits.

You can also make gravy from the broth you get when you stew chicken — add a flour/water mixture to the stock in a 1:2:8 ratio (e.g, mix 1/4 cup flour with 1/2 cup water then add to 2 cups stock) — which you can serve over dumplings or potatoes.

I feel like gravy is a lost art. It gets a bad rap for being unhealthy, and it’s true, its key ingredient is fat, how healthy can it be. Unless you’re out slopping the hogs at the break of dawn every day, you probably don’t want to eat it at every meal. But man is it good. And cheap. And it holds things together to make a meal like nothing else.

Also in the casserole-ish leftover department, you can change things up and skip the pasta and use pastry instead — combine vegetables and leftover meat with a white sauce and a pastry crust, to make a pot pie.

Or skip the white sauce and mix everything up and then make pastry dough to make some kind of meat pie (like an empanada — I use the recipe from the More with Less cookbook, and wrote about it in 2010, with pictures and everything).

Or use potatoes and mix the meat and vegetables with that and fry everything together to make hash. (And if you have some gravy to serve with this, all the better.)

There’s really no excuse for not using up leftovers, there are so many things you can do with them to turn them into a new meal.

I once had an odd assortment of leftovers, including potatoes that I’d cooked when I roasted a chicken, so they were coated with chicken fat and rosemary, and some bacon and scrambled eggs (and honestly I don’t know how I ended up with leftover bacon and scrambled eggs, I think I must have thought I was really hungry and cooked a lot and then realized I wasn’t that hungry and didn’t want to throw them away so I stuck them in the fridge, that’s not something I usually have around). It was Weird Food Night where I eat whatever odds and ends I have, and I mixed together the potatoes and bacon and eggs and heated it up and it was SO GOOD.

The down side of mixing up stuff like that it’s really hard to recreate, so if it turns out to be super delicious you end up being kind of sad about it because you know you’ll never be able to have that exact same thing again. But you get a good meal and you can just try to live in the moment. And once you start making things like that, there’s almost nothing that isn’t worth saving, you can use it all.

You can also incorporate assorted leftover things into quick bread/muffins — things like cookie crumbs, small amounts of nuts, leftover jam, cooked grains — and that’s magical too. I wrote about that in 2010 also, so won’t go into it again here. That technique is also from the Tightwad Gazette. Thank you again, Amy Dacyczyn.

The bottom line is that you want to learn how to be creative in the kitchen and to get away from the idea of needing a recipe to make a meal. Which doesn’t mean that you will never make anything from a recipe again, making a nice meal with things you went out and got just to make a nice meal is enjoyable and you should definitely do that as often as you’d like. But doing that takes time and energy, and you don’t want to have to expend time and energy every time you’re hungry. It also generates leftovers that will go to waste if you’re making a fresh new meal with newly purchased ingredients every day.

The ultimate goal is to develop a repertoire of things you can make that require hardly any time or energy at all, and once you know what those things are, you can work on keeping the ingredients for those things on hand.

So when it’s late and you’re tired and hungry, coming home and going to the freezer and pulling out some chicken and tortillas and vegetables, and heating the chicken with spinach and corn and eating it in the tortillas with a little bit of salsa, and maybe some cheese, feels like less work than stopping somewhere and standing in line and ordering and waiting for your food and bringing home a styrofoam container of food that, despite the styrofoam, will not be hot by the time you eat it, and will not be very good. And will cost ten dollars.

That’s the place you want to get to.

One Response to “Pantry Cooking III: More Recipes”

  1. Trish Perkins Says:

    I’ve been at that place! I can be there again!

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