Working with what I have.
New York Times Cooking has posted a new and enticing 6-serving recipe for Mushroom & Potato Paprikash. I took out the small notepad I use for shopping lists and jotted down the ingredients in half the amounts the recipe calls for: 1 pound mushrooms, just under a pound of Yukon gold potatoes, vegetable stock, dill (I don’t need to buy butter, onion, garlic, paprika, white wine, canned tomatoes, flour). Then I paused at the ingredient at the bottom of the list. The full recipe calls for 1 cup sour cream. Of course, I said to myself, paprikash always has sour cream. Now I had a problem. I thought, I could buy a half pint of sour cream for a half cup equivalent. Then I remembered that the last time I looked for a half pint of sour cream I couldn’t find any. Only pints and I know for a fact that the leftover sour cream in a full pint container will grow mold in my fridge. I won’t use it. In any case, half of this recipe calls for more than I should eat in one go, even allowing for the generosity with which I usually translate a recipe’s stated number of servings. Further complicating my predicament is the effect is has on me. The recipe looks so good I can almost taste it. So, what do I do?
This is an infinitesimally small problem. Ridiculously trivial. And yet. My hunger for culinary variety fuels not only my waste of food but also my lack of focus. I flit from recipe to recipe in a bee-like way. An unfamiliar ingredient stimulates my curiosity. I want to see it, feel it, and taste it. And once I’ve tasted it and put the interesting ingredient in my fridge or cupboard, I rush off to the next recipe.
For me, the compulsion to try new recipes feels like an addiction. Should I declare a moratorium on new recipes? Every day I scour the New York Times, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph (only for the food page; never their jingoistic news), Serious Eats, Smitten Kitchen, the LA Times, and my cookbooks for new recipes to try. An appealing Ottolenghi recipe almost always involves a trip to the store to buy limes, white balsamic vinegar, or black sesame seeds, none of which I tend to have on hand.
My long-standing approach to cooking is not very different from the malaise of Conspicuous Consumption. The latest car, the new “in” kitchen appliance, the most recent iPhone have their culinary counterparts in barberries, black garlic, canned Icelandic cod liver, expensive loose Assam tea, and Kashmiri chilli powder (all of which I’ve bought in the past year). Why do I feel a compulsion to try as many different recipes as I can fit in a week instead of concentrating on making a few of them really, really well? I should be listening to the shopping mantras of environmentally hip companies like Cuyana (“Fewer, better”), Patagonia (“Give a Damn”) or Alex Mill (“Wake Up, Get Dressed, Don’t Overthink It”). Simplify, simplify.
In my pantry, I can almost always find confectioners’ sugar, cocoa powder, salt, egg whites, vanilla extract, and chocolate chips. Those ingredients are the makings of a cookie Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery calls Colpa Degno (loosely translated as “guilty pleasure”).1 The cookie dough comes together in about five minutes and bakes in about ten. The result is a deliciously gooey, deep, rich cookie that is as simple as it gets. I usually make a batch of these cookies without having to make a trip to the store for one or more of the ingredients. That gives me an absurd sense of achievement for an act so nugatory. I’m using up what I have on hand instead of heading to the store for yet another ingredient that will sit on my pantry shelf for months or even a year until I throw it away. It bothers me more and more that I rush from recipe to recipe rather than deepen my familiarity with the ones I’ve made before. Instead, I am a sucker for new recipes that capture my attention.
Given I’m a mostly solo cook, I want to open negotiations with my captors. I want to eat what I want within healthy reason, but I want to reduce material and financial waste. I will not make the Mushroom & Potato Paprikash for myself. I’ll save it for my friends. In the meantime, I will keep a closer eye on the time-tested recipes that are amenable to adaptation and call for ingredients that are usually on hand.
This approach focuses me on what I have. Go with what you have and enjoy.
Jim Lahey and Maya Joseph, The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook, p. 211. Heat oven to 375 F; line baking sheet with parchment. Whisk 185g confectioners’ sugar, 40g unsweetened cocoa powder, 2.5g coarse sea salt in bowl. Whisk whites from 2 large eggs and 6g vanilla extract in small bowl. Pour egg whites into dry ingredients and blend until completely absorbed. Add 100g milk chocolate chips and 100g dark chocolate chips. Stir until well combined. Use little melon scooper or tablespoon to pack the dough and drop on parchment-lined sheet pan about 3 in apart. Bake about 10 mins, maybe less (if convection), maybe more (depending on the oven). Cookies will continue to cook a bit once removed, so don’t wait until hard or crisp. I leave them on pan for a few mins before transferring to wire rack to cool. Best the day they are made.