Real talk: I live in food-delivery central. Thanks to all the tech folks around here, we’ve got a thriving on-demand economy, including multiple services that will bring a restaurant order straight to your door. I don’t even have to step outside my apartment to get my favorite Thai fried rice, delivered warm and spicy and exactly how I like it. And unfortunately, that makes it really easy to fall off the cooking wagon.
Lately, with work ramping up its stress levels and the summer drought-heat sapping my energy, I’ve been spending way too much money on greasy takeout. It’s not like there’s no food in the house; the freezer is stocked with my favorite meal building-blocks, like sweet potato filling and tomato sauce and egg rolls. But it’s the instant gratification that gets me, the siren song of something filling and unhealthy that requires no effort on my part. No chopping, no stirring, no dishes–just a delivery fee and some wasted plastic containers. It’s a terrible habit to fall into, and a terribly easy one too.
This week, I’ve committed to breaking the habit. I’ve been allowing myself to cook stuff on a whim, to run to the grocery store every day if I want to. I’ve also been leaving myself with leftover ingredients, so that I’m forced to find ways to put them to use.
This is my latest leftover use-up, and a really delicious one. It started with some smoked mozzarella, which I bought because it was the cheapest mozzarella option at Trader Joe’s. I snacked on some of it, crumbled some of it onto pizza, and then was left with a nubbin of cheese and no plan for it. I had an unused bell pepper, along with some leftover steamed rice (from, uh, Thai takeout). Mixed up with a few pantry staples and some scallions, the rice and cheese became a rich, smoky, slightly spicy stuffing for the bell peppers. It was indulgent without being greasy, which was exactly what I was craving. Suddenly I had a Sunday night dinner that was fresh, nourishing, and totally impossible to call up through an app.
It’s high tomato season, and I’m conflicted. This is the time of year when the raw tomato is king, when every shape and size of tomato is juicy and soft, when the heat rolls through in waves and the stove sits neglected. But I just can’t do it. I can’t enjoy tomatoes raw. To me, the texture is unpleasant, the taste sickly. Unless they’re exquisitely soft and heirloom, or cherry-sized and picked straight off the vine, I can barely choke them down.
So if I’m eating tomatoes–even height-of-summer tomatoes–they’ve got to be cooked. And for me, there’s no better way than the oven. Baked or roasted, tomatoes suddenly go from can’t-do to can’t-get-enough. The dry heat-bath of the oven takes them from watery to wrinkled, from tart to saucy-sweet. Even less-than-stellar tomatoes become summery treats when handled this way. So on the Fourth of July, when my neighborhood itself felt like the inside of an oven, I decided to suck it up, turn on the beast, and stuff some tomatoes.
The filling here is Moroccan-inspired: almost-caramelized onions, grated zucchini, fresh parsley, a pinprick of chili and thyme, fragrant nubs of toasted pistachio. It makes for a gorgeous contrast, these crayon-red tomatoes and their green-on-green filling. Where many stuffed tomatoes are bready and dense, these are light and fall-apart tender. In the oven, the filling relaxes and settles into the tomatoes; the tomatoes themselves slump but stay deceptively whole, until you touch them and realize the walls have turned to jelly. Oh, and fresh parsley on top is definitely not optional–the contrast between roasted and fresh herb flavor kind of makes the dish.
I brought these tomatoes to a potluck, nestled snugly in a Pyrex dish. They sat tucked away in a corner, all homely and humble next to peanut noodles and berry shortcake and good French bread and several different kinds of pie. I was sure they’d be completely outshined. And yet, fifteen minutes into the party, they were the first thing to disappear. Not bad for a vegetable-on-vegetable.
Creativity in the kitchen is an oddly stodgy thing. There are twists and meanderings and the occasional hairpin turn, but for the most part, my creative process follows a predictable path.
Case in point: my dear friend Isabel hosted an Iron Chef party last weekend. The secret ingredient was pumpkin pie spice–cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and/or cloves. I was told to bring a vegetarian entree. Something in a pumpkin. Maybe with rice.
When a challenge like this comes along, I attack it in stages. They are, approximately:
- Panic. I don’t know what to do. I have no ideas. Anything can be stuffed in a pumpkin. Mushrooms. Nuts. Bread. Pasta. Quinoa. Soup. Potatoes. Tofu. No, not tofu. TOO MANY OPTIONS.
- Fixation. Wait, she said ginger. What if it was candied ginger? CANDIED GINGER. I love candied ginger. Candied ginger is sweet. Candied ginger is spicy. Nobody expects candied ginger in an entree. People will think I am a great kitchen god if I use candied ginger. This is brilliant. Candied ginger will be my ticket to Iron Chef glory. I can think of nothing but candied ginger for two days.
- Free Association. Hmm. Candied ginger. Ginger fried rice. Rice. Coconut rice. Coconut. Coconut and cardamom. Cardamom. Cardamom pistachio cake. Pistachio. I bet pistachios would be good in coconut rice. What if I stuffed the pumpkin with coconut rice? I’m going to stuff the pumpkin with coconut rice.
- Research. Google “coconut rice.” Google “coconut milk.” Google “white rice.” Google “brown rice.” Google “stuffed pumpkin.” Google “stuffed pumpkin recipe.” Google “toasting nuts.” Google “toasting spices.” Google “is candied ginger vegan.”
- Testing. Write out a recipe, in excruciating detail. Test the recipe. Be mildly disappointed that the real thing doesn’t measure up to the orgy of flavor perfection I’d concocted in my head (see steps 1-5).
I will say, though, this time I came awfully close to my perfectionist vision. The rice turned out fragrant and light, with bursts of toasty crunch from the nuts and pockets of sweetness from the ginger. The pumpkin slumped and browned obligingly in the oven, creating a gorgeous caramel-edged spectacle when it came out. The filling held together in pert wedges when the pumpkin was sliced, and then collapsed into a pile of fluffy grains at the touch of a fork.
It’s the kind of thing I just might make again–and that’s high praise.
It’s the Monday after Thanksgiving. Chances are, you’re expecting one of two things from this post: a clever use-up for leftovers, or an antidote to last week’s indulgence.
Sorry. Not today.
Today, I’m all about stuffing vegetables with meat. And when I say vegetables, I mean mushrooms. And when I say meat, I mean sausage.