Charlotte Muru-Lanning sets a lockdown challenge that everyone can get behind.
Those slightly spooky vegetables tucked away in your fridge. Those glinting jarred pickles you bought on a whim years ago, but have guiltily barely made a dent in. The jewel-coloured towers of jams and marmalades peeking out at you from the pantry. We all have foods that sit neglected in our kitchen, hoping one day to be used, eaten, enjoyed. It’s time to embrace them.
There’s never been a more perfect time than now to start chipping away at those forgotten ingredients loitering in your kitchen. While we’re still able to nominate one household shopper to go to the supermarket under level four, it’s still safest to stay home if you’re able to. Supermarkets in Aotearoa, as we all know, are also very expensive.
The first part of this challenge is to get acquainted with the items you want to use up. Scour every corner of your kitchen from the fridge to the freezer, from pantry to fruit bowl. What are they? Why did you buy them? When did you buy them? What can you do with them?
For the more maximalist among us, this might seem like an overwhelming task. The key is to not overcommit. Pick a few items that you want to see gone and trust that, as Nigella Lawson herself once said, “cooking with leftovers is always inspiring”. It might mean a diversion from your normal eating habits, but what does normal even mean in a lockdown?
Some ingredients might look more like a culinary memento mori than something you actually want to cook with, but fear not. Everything from ageing vegetables to slightly stale biscuit and squishy fruit are all capable of being revived with just a little thought. Here are some tips to help get the ball rolling.
If you’ve got an overload of citrus, even some that have seen better days, the easiest thing is to whisk their juice into a salad dressing. Or, if you have a jar of olives tucked away that needs using, warm a glug of olive oil with whatever aromatics you have (herbs, whole spices, chilli), lay a wedge or two of citrus in the oil and warm over a low heat. After 10 minutes, strain the olives, add them to the warm oil and serve. If you’re a baker, there are plenty of beautiful recipes online that call for whole boiled and blended citrus in place of ingredients like butter and milk. If you’ve got any frozen fruit, make a crumble – as long as you’ve got flour, butter and sugar, you’re away laughing.
Scrappy ends of jars of olives, pickles and preserves
Add to a sandwich, Mediterranean dishes, pizza or noodle soup for a little salty, sour crunchiness. My favourite solution is to round up all those mischievous jars of olives, pickles and dips. Track down that opened box of crackers and any cheeses getting too comfortable in the fridge and if you’ve got them, smoked seafood, fresh vegetables or jammy boiled eggs. Arrange everything on a nice big plate and enjoy leisurely. If you consider yourself hardcore, drink the brine at the end – or add to a bloody Mary.
If you have tahini lurking in your fridge, the most obvious suggestion is to use it as a dip as is, or add a dollop to other dip recipes. There are also a bunch of cakes and biscuits that call for tahini. It’s not perfect, but tahini can make for a passable substitution for Chinese toasted sesame paste – Shanghainese ma jiang mian (cold sesame noodles) make a great lunch. The flavour will be a lot milder if you only have tahini, so you might want to add extra chilli or peanut to make up for that.
Jam, marmalade, conserves
A lot of us have collected an array of jams, marmalades and conserves. Using them up on pikelets and scones is a classic option, but there are also plenty of cakes that call for a bold jam or marmalade, whether as a sticky topping, sandwiched between layers or mixed into the batter. If you’d prefer to consume them in liquid form, jams and marmalades can be turned into syrups and added directly to cocktails.
There’s a place for jams in the savoury realm too. Most will be delicious in whatever sandwich you’re making – especially of the toasted variety. If you’ve got some cherry or plum jam, they make a beautiful glaze on roast chicken or pork.
When it comes to ageing greens like watercress, rocket, spring onions and fresh herbs, I love to whizz them up into a delicious dip that can also be stirred through soups, salads or roasted veges. Put your greens in the food processor and add sour cream or hummus, or even plain yoghurt, alongside a bit of garlic, olive oil, salt and vinegar or lemon juice. Add an anchovy if you’re that way inclined.
And please, use the stems. They tend to be more fibrous so it’s best to boil them in well-salted water and blanch them before carrying on.
Stale flat breads, tortillas and naan
If you’re running low on chips, cut whatever type of flatbread you have into wedges and douse them in olive oil. Add a sprinkle of MSG or garlic salt (or any form of salt you have), and a confident sprinkle of chilli. Then, bake on a tray till their colour deepens slightly. They should crisp up once they cool down. It feels like the perfect weather for tortilla soup, so that’s always an option.
The humble cabbage is one of the most inspiring and adaptable vegetables in the world. Its uses go across most cuisines, and it’s just as worthy cooked as it is raw. If your cabbage is in reasonably good nick, use it in coleslaws with whatever other crunchy fruits, veges and herbs are hanging out in your kitchen. Buttered boiled white cabbage is a delightful lunch, as is white cabbage simmered in a miso broth.
If it’s looking a little sad and shrivelled, don’t despair. Grill it in wedges either with olive oil, salt, pepper and some form of acid. Or, make a cabbage poriyal.
You could throw it in a stock bag in your freezer for future soups, or you could slice it into stews, soups, pasta sauces, coleslaws and bean salads. Don’t forget about the leaves – they have a deeper, slightly bitter flavour and are lovely used in salads as you would fresh herbs. If you only have a smidge of celery left, I have a soft spot for this sandwich recipe from Sophia Loren’s iconic 1970s cookbook In Cucina Con Amore. “Make a paste of chopped celery, chopped almonds, and mayonnaise. Spread and cover.”