As someone who has become more and more resolved over the past year to cook the vast majority of my meals at home, I’ve found myself in many a dinnertime drama where ingredients are limited, going to the store is a hassle, and Seamless is only a click away. It’s so easy, in those moments, to throw in the towel and order some satisfying, greasy food for 20 bucks (more if there are two of you), and promise that you will go to the grocery store tomorrow. I’ve done it, like everyone, but am proud to say that over the past few months, I’ve gotten really good about doing it very rarely. I honestly order takeout food about twice a month, and usually because I was planning on it for a special occasion, or because I knew I wouldn’t have the time/energy to cook. Life is better this way, and I have much more money leftover every month.
But how do you navigate those moments when you have some random kitchen scraps, and no good ideas? Obviously you can turn to the many recipe generators online in which you enter your ingredients and are given a potential dish, but I find that I often either don’t like the options, or am missing one key element to something I want. I’m not here to make a cheese soufflé just because I am low on regular food and happen to have some baking materials. I like to make my own off-the-cuff recipes (heavily using my oft-referenced home cook kitchen staples), and I have found that, in general, it relies on the same three strategies. It is in this way that I made the recipe included here. But more on that later. First, the rules of making something good from nothing.
Find a simple base you can build on. This can be anything from a spare bag of rice to a big bag of frozen vegetables to a half-box of pasta in the back of your cabinet. Something starchy, filling, and copious can make a really nice base for your meal. Chances are, if you’re running low on food, you probably don’t have a ton of meat or fish lying around, so you’ll have to find another way to fill yourself up, and this is a pretty efficient way to do it. Everyone usually has some leftover grain or something, and this is the time to put it to good use.
Make use of your canned or frozen veggies. I’m a huge fan of frozen veggies, but canned are just as good in the kind of kitchen-sink recipe where things are going to get cooked all together. This is the time to take whatever old-ass veggies you’ve been keeping in the freezer or cupboard and make them sing, whether it’s by mixing them into some rice with some bouillon and making a quick risotto, mixing them with some potatoes for a roast, or quickly tossing them with some pasta and simple seasonings.
Be liberal with the seasonings. I find that when I’m making these “something from nothing” dishes, I enjoy it way more if I include all the yummy seasonings I want, and experiment a little. I crush garlic cloves and toast them in olive oil, I caramelize onions, I use Old Bay or fresh herbs, I find whatever I can in the cabinet that can enhance my food in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m being cheated out of a “real” meal. A smashed potato with a bit of butter, Old Bay, and sautéed broccoli is a delicious meal, as is a risotto cooked down with some chicken bouillon, pecorino, and a medley of veggies. A nice quinoa with some curry spices and a stocky veg like cauliflower is delicious, too. The less you have the “nice” ingredients, the more you should go to town on the seasoning.
And on that note, to the recent “emergency recipe” I made,Smashed Garlic & Brussel Sprout Pasta. It’s so simple and satisfying, and everything can be substituted for whatever you have on hand.
-1 bag frozen or fresh brussels sprouts
-Crushed red pepper
-Several garlic cloves (I put a lot in, like 7)
-Ditalini pasta (I had this kind on hand from a soup, but you can use any pasta)
-Salt & pep to taste
To prepare, you simply smash the garlic cloves on the back of your knife so they’re flat and toast them up in some olive oil (toasting them whole like this makes them sweet and caramelized, instead of pungent, so don’t be afraid of using a lot). Cut the brussels sprouts into ribbons, and add them to the toasted up garlic and toss them around a bit until they start to cook down and get a little color.
Salt, pepper, and red pepper your brussels sprouts mixture to taste, add in the pasta (and a little pasta water to make it thicken) and toss. Grate a healthy dose of pecorino and continue to stir until it gets well-blended and every noodle is coated. You can add a little more water if needed.
Serve a big helping with a little extra pecorino and crushed red pepper on top. Delicious!