Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Waste Not

Our kitchen is big, but awkward: a walrus of kitchens. The sink is a good ten paces from the oven, and counter space is a series of squares about the size of cutting boards. We stack our coffee mugs and juice glasses to fit the cabinets. And our single window lets in limited light because of the way Chicago houses are sandwiched into their lots. We could hand a cup of sugar across the gangway if we had to. But we work with what we have.

This is fitting, because cooking, for me, has its roots in conservation. My maternal grandmother ran a French restaurant for decades. French chefs, for all their extravagance, are masters of thrift. They believe in using everything that can be used. The lowly garden snail is a culinary treasure.

My mother worked for a Head Start program in Cincinnati. I remember visiting those sites as a kid, watching as she hoisted giant bags of rice or rolled oats out of the trunk of our car and into the facility kitchens. She still talks about teaching a group of struggling women how to make a fruit salad out of a single apple, orange, and banana (a recipe that often made it to our table as well).

It's no surprise, then, that I lean toward what I call the "empty larder syndrome": having very little in the pantry, but concocting something lovely from what's there.

Last week it was an apple crisp, made from 11 mealy Braeburns that'd been sitting in our fruit bowl for several weeks. We combined it with a scoop of French vanilla ice cream, and I was in the ether.

This past weekend, as John slept off a nasty flu, I rummaged through our refrigerator and found 6 individual bags of bread ends. Nothing fancy: just garden-variety supermarket whole-wheat. I also had a box of frozen spinach squirreled away-- left behind when my folks moved from Chicago to Maine--and a container of mushrooms. Cracked a few eggs and broke out the hand mixer. Voila: the savory bread pudding we ate for Sunday dinner:

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