The view out my window is relentlessly white. Deep snow has collected across the yard, and the temperature is hovering around -30°C, as it has for the past week. The forecast for the coming week is no better. The roads are rotten. I’ve used up the coffee cream and eaten all the oranges.
Winter weather means that this week’s cooking must be from the pantry, with no spontaneous trips to town. But even when the pantry looks scant, we can find an onion, a carrot, a can of beans, a few spuds. Peasant food? Absolutely. Those peasants, my grandparents among them, were hardy folk – and simple dishes based on vegetables and grains with a modicum of meat kept them hale and strong.
Yes, but – you might say – there’s nothing special about squash. Nothing sublime about onions. Nothing redeeming about root veggies.
Maybe not. But it’s all in what you do with them: simplicity is the mother of inventive cooking, and sideways thinking is a sure sign of a cook accustomed to using few ingredients.
Here are a few ideas for cooks on a winter-weather shoestring.
Sauté sliced ham or bacon in a pot, add garlic, onions and carrots generously seasoned, then add wedges of cabbage. Add white, black or pinto beans, cover with water or stock, and let the magic happen under a lid. Later, add a smoked pork hock or a sausage or two, et voila! Cassoulet for many!
When a sack of onions is the sum total of your pantry, make onion soup. Start with a vegetable stock made with onions, carrots, garlic, potatoes, herbs and water. Let it simmer while you don your swimming goggles and slice a prodigious heap of onions for the soup. Sauté the onions and an entire head of garlic, and add pinches of dried Mediterranean herbs and the dregs of last night’s wine before you tip in the stock. Thickly slice a loaf of bread, drizzle each slice with olive oil, top with a spoonful of onions from the pot and maybe a bit of cheese, then broil the croutons before floating them in the soup bowls.
If you have a squash languishing in the cupboard, dice it, sweat it with onion, garlic and olive oil, then stir in arborio rice and vegetable stock for a rewarding risotto.
Alternatively, combine the diced squash with a handful of split peas, star anise or fennel seed, cumin, grated fresh ginger, sautéed onion and stock. A dollop of honey and a pinch of salt bring it all into harmony.
Lentils in the cupboard mean quick-cooking high-protein dishes like mulligatawny, the yummy self-thickening soup of Indian origins. The formula is simple and easily adapted to whatever produce is in your fridge: onions + garlic + ginger + oil + veggies + Indian spices + lentils + fruit + water = soup. Garnish the finished soup with yoghurt and toasted coconut.
Pasta works well with a handful of broccoli, garlic and onion, a generous drizzle of olive oil, a smattering of hot chili flakes, and the last of the Parmesan. Add cooked lentils or beans, and it becomes pasta e fagioli, an Italian peasant classic.
Use grated raw yams, sweet potatoes or common potatoes with red, white or yellow skins and flesh for latkes.
If the flour jar is full, make pizza. Top it with roasted slivered root vegetables (carrots are especially good; parsnips are very sweet) or roasted mushrooms or eggplant, leftover chicken or roast lamb, a bit of cheese. Slices of grilled onion add a sweet, charred note. Fold the filling within a small round of dough and pinch the edges closed for a crusty calzone.
That’s supper on a shoestring. First we eat, then we talk about goin’ to town.
Golden Vegetable Latkes
This works best with raw potatoes: choose red-skinned, yellow-fleshed, purple or sweet, and add grated carrot as well. Children will drown these in syrup; adults might prefer a compote of simmered cranberries, apple or pears with yoghurt on the side. Serves 2-4
1 lb. sweet potatoes, potatoes or root vegetables, peeled and coarsely grated
2 carrots, grated
½ onion or a handful of green onions, minced
1 tsp. dried basil
a handful of chopped parsley
salt and hot chili flakes to taste
3-4 Tbsp. cornstarch or flour
Combine ingredients. Heat a well-seasoned cast iron pan, then lightly oil the pan. Scoop the mixture into the pan, pressing each scoop flat into a patty. Cook for several minutes on medium heat until brown, then flip to cook the second side. Place the finished patties on a baking tray in a warm oven while you cook the rest.