Back to Basics

When blizzards closed down cities on the East Coast this past winter, the media reported on some strange meals people were eating. Empty supermarket shelves and slim pickings at home led to creative but stomach-churning experiments: deep-fried marshmallows on soda crackers, popcorn and pickled beets, beef tongue.

It doesn't necessarily take a snowstorm to put on a desperate meal. The other night, hungry, grumpy, and too tired to cook, all I could come up with for supper was a boiled sweet potato and a can of pork 'n' beans. ("And this woman writes about feasts?" I could hear my husband thinking.) State of mind and the state of the kitchen cupboards strongly influence either how much fun, or how frustrating, it is to get a meal on the table.

I have learned to milk my in-love-with-food days for all they are worth, madly scribbling ideas and hints, clipping recipes, folding down page corners in cookbooks in preparation for the inevitable days when the kitchen is the last place I want to be. (Those times come more frequently as summer heats up, the days get longer, and working outside in the garden seems much more appealing than being inside the house.) The scribblings also come in handy when company arrives unexpectedly and I want to cook something worthy of the honor of their visit. With little time or quiet to think clearly, I can rely on the lists I made when alone with plenty of energy to think creatively.

One sheet of notes is titled "Mainstays." It lists all the tried-and-true dishes I can make with one hand tied behind my back...meals I know people will like whether they are vegetarian, carnivorous, on a diet, or timid about spicy ethnic foods. Most of the items take about 30 minutes to make, so I also use this list to prod my memory when I can't think of what to cook on an ordinary night.

Another list has the heading "New, Weird, or High Calorie." On that piece of paper I have written down all the foods and recipes I've not yet tried but want to. They tend to be dishes that need to be slipped onto the table when I know the eaters wil be in a mellow mood and I can experiment with hoi sin sauce, curries, quinoa, mole, fennel bulb, pumpkin soup, juniper berries, dim sum "hairy eggs" get the idea.

A third piece of paper is labeled "Big Meal Ideas." Whereas the other lists are mostly one-pot meals, this list is my chance to plan out multicourse extravaganzas following themes such as Chinese Dinner, Easter Lamb Feast, South African Meal. These are fantasy meals I rarely get the chance to cook, but I'm ready for them if the occasions ever arise!

On the back of that page are smaller categories where I've jotted down 1) all the soups I could think of; 2) breakfast ideas; 3) desserts and sweets, both old favorites and new recipes I want to try; and 4) breads. Thus, even when suffering the most severe mental block, I can be off and sailing if I need to.

Now, lists are to no avail if the food is not in the cupboard. Because years of good intentions have yet to result in one weekly menu plan, I've resigned myself to keeping a well-stocked basic larder and just taking it day by day. The following foods are always in my kitchen (your basics may be similar, or quite different): Fresh - potatoes, onions, celery, garlic, a lemon, eggs, milk, cheese; staples - flour (whole wheat and white), corn meal, sugar, black-eyed peas, navy beans, lentils, rolled oats, rice, millet, nuts, pasta, tortillas; prepared foods - canned broths, macaroni 'n' cheese, canned beans (refried, garbanzo, kidney, pork 'n' beans); baking things - yeast, baking soda and powder, vanilla, raisins, chocolate chips, shortening; spices - onion powder, basil, oregano, chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mustard powder; miscellaneous - mayonnaise, olive oil, canola oil, canned tomato products (paste, sauce, whole, ketchup), soy and worcestershire sauces, Louisiana hot sauce, powdered milk.

I think I could make it through a five-day snowstorm. A likely first supper would be:

Oatmeal Burgers

3 eggs
1-1 1/2 cups raw oatmeal
1 onion, chopped and sauteed
seasonings: salt, pepper, thyme, basil, oregano, mustard powder, worcestershire sauce, horseradish, etc., to taste

Mix all ingredients together, allow time for it to soak. Form patties and brown them in 1/4 inch of hot oil, turning carefully.

Ideally, serve with fresh slices of tomato and lettuce leaves, and all the usual hamburger trimmings, with homemade buns. Makes six burgers.

CAREY BURKETT is an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas.


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