Leaning In. Or not.
There are 3 things I can make well without a recipe: pasta, pizza, and soup. Everything else I have to lean in to that slip of paper torn from a magazine, that section of the cookbook laid out, spine of the book broken, or that app on the iPad, said iPad carefully covered with a Ziploc bag to prevent catastrophe. I’m not a cupboard chef, I can’t just whip open the doors and magically create something in 30 minutes. The Hubby can. Me? I lean.
But with pasta, pizza, and soup I’m a magician. Pasta was the first thing I ever conquered out of necessity. When you live on your own in your 20’s making minimum wage you quickly discover a 65-cent box of linguine (that’s what it cost at Food Lion back then) can go a long way. Grilled cheese and ramen get old.
After hundreds of attempts I learned you don’t have to dump everything you own into the pasta for it to be tasty. When that happens the flavors muddle together and all you taste is a gloppy nothing. Filling yes, but not good. Keeping it simple is always best so the flavors shine through. Only use 2-3 ingredients besides the pasta, salt and olive oil in order to keep the taste lively and clean. Some of my favorite combinations are:
- Sautéed shallots, Romano (The Hubby’s “Comfort Pasta” which he makes every time we’ve had a shitastic day.)
- Sundried tomatoes, capers, Parmesan
- Diced leftover chicken, cherry tomatoes, Feta
- Roasted garlic, lemon juice, Romano (or Parmesan, or Feta)
- Toasted pine nuts, capers, and Romano
Make sure one of the ingredients is acidic (tomatoes, onions, capers) and one has another flavor, whether umami like mushrooms or green like basil, or sweet/sharp like roasted garlic. You really can’t go wrong. Experiment! Play around with different flavors and textures. The one great aspect of not leaning into a recipe means you’re free to play.
Pizza follows the same pattern. Start by lining your pie with sautéed shallots, fresh ground black pepper, and a little salt. Then go crazy, but keep it to 2-3 ingredients + cheese to keep it clean:
- Thinly sliced apple, crumbled bacon, Mozzarella
- Roasted tomatoes, capers, Mozzarella
- Roasted red peppers and Feta
- Sundried tomatoes, basil, Mozzarella
- My new favorite: skip the shallots spread on a thin layer of white bean dip with roasted garlic, top with bacon, capers, arugula and Mozzarella
Soup is another beast entirely. It’s super easy to make one better than a restaurant’s, and if you make a mistake, it’s really forgiving. The first time I made a “restaurant-quality” soup was in my late 20’s, because I ordered it in a fancy restaurant and what arrived at my table resembled baby food. And tasted like watered down oatmeal. Blech! I sped home determined to make one better. During my experiments I discovered a few things:
- Every good soup starts with sautéed onions or shallots
- Cream makes every soup just a little more spectacular
- Apple cider adds a nice sweetness
- If your soup is too salty, add a touch of sugar. Or a big hunk of starch, like potato or celery root. It will soak up the extra salt. Just let it simmer awhile and work its magic.
- An immersion blender is a must. You can blend away until your soup is smooth as glass, or you can just pulse a few times to add depth but still keep things chunky.
I made a white bean/sweet sausage/kale soup recently that was out of this world, entirely without a recipe. In other words, I didn’t write it down and so have nothing to offer you. But seriously, it was so easy you could make it just by reading this. I sautéed some onions, added some white beans chicken stock, cooked sausage and chopped up celery root (you could use potato, turnip or whatever starch you have lying around), add some salt and pepper and smoked paprika and let it simmer for an hour or so. Just keep tasting. You’ll know when it’s done. To my shock I had oversalted the white beans while cooking them (I rarely use canned, the dried are SO much better, and cheaper), but no matter, I chucked in a hunk of celery root and let it simmer 20 minutes more. In the last 10 minutes I swirled in some chopped up kale. Perfection.
Here is another experimental soup from this winter. I’m just going to list the ingredients. Call it a half cupboard/half recipe meal. It’s so easy to make, seriously. You don’t even need directions. Because with soup, as with pizza and sometimes pasta, everything good starts with sautéed onions. Sauté the onions first, then add everything else, letting it simmer until it’s done. Maybe half an hour? 20 minutes? Taste and adjust as you go. Hit it with the immersion blender to whatever consistency you desire. For extra luxury swirl in some heavy cream at the end. Enjoy! Any questions, ask away in the comments.
Sweet Potato Soup with Apple
(all produce from Horse & Buggy)
1 onion (chopped & sautéed)
4-5 sweet potatoes, chopped and roasted
Serve warm in bowls topped with Feta cheese. Mmmmmmm…