There are two things lurking in my pantry that have become staples in the last two weeks. I always cooked and ate them separately--quinoa as a kind of hot grain salad, and kidney beans as a thick soup. Today I decided to make a meal of combining the two.
This being a "pantry cleanse" (a term I've lifted from "life, in recipes"), all of the ingredients are incidental. Each has a particular history of how it ended up in the kitchen. Because my father has a tendency to buy food as if we are preparing for the end times, we have an entire case of canned kidney beans, and a giant bag of quinoa. There are those things that I habitually buy and see as necessities: onions, cooking oil, salt, chili powder. I bought the green onions because they were on sale and I thought they might encourage me to improvise. My brother and I got a yellow beet and carrots for a salad some time ago. I don’t remember why we had mushrooms and jalapenos--for some other meal. Inexplicably we have what to me is an enormous quantity of saffron. I really don’t know what to do with it. I put it in all sorts of things, thinking that I’ll taste it, but I don’t. Its subtle flavor eludes me. In imitation of some kind of aromatic rice dish, I used it in the quinoa, along with some cloves.
Incidental food is a topic that I have talked too much about, but I think insufficiently. Sure, there are recipes, like this one, that come about incidentally. But what I want to talk about is how it’s a deceiving accident of idiom that one makes food. What I want to say amounts, basically, to an “in Soviet Russia” joke: food makes you! There are several reasons for this. As much as the ingredient lists of some recipes would have us believe supermarkets are infinities of choice, there are in fact items that are not available. Foods are varying levels of affordable in different places. We are habituated to certain kinds of foods and preparation methods. And most importantly, food is woven into our social lives, our families, and our psychology. Maybe your mother tries to dictate what you eat. You may not necessary follow all or even any of her commands, but nonetheless your gustatory life becomes defined by them, by her. Maybe you live with your grandmother, and she only has certain scare items in the kitchen. Maybe your crazy landlord lives and sleeps in the kitchen, and you want to limit your time there as much as possible. Maybe you live at home with your father who impulsively buys an assortment of food that you feel compelled to use before it perishes. And maybe you’re a cheapskate and want to eat as much of the odd items laying around the kitchen as possible, buying only very little.
Nigella Lawson talks about culinary agency with a turn of phrase that I like, “greedy opportunism.” Of course there’s more than a little contrivance in her usage. Greedy opportunism is the process of gadding about in her shining kitchen picking out gourmet goodies that just happened to find their way there, and relishing some new use for them. It is as if she has an infestation of pantry-stocking gremlins. But while it is a class-charged way to frame her show, it’s also one way that improvisation in cooking happens: things you don’t necessarily have a planned use for will end up in your kitchen; use them somehow. At least half of what I cook is through greedy opportunism. Although I must admit that only rarely is it greedy.
2 12oz cans kidney beans
2/3 cup water
1/4 yellow beet
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Chop onion 1cm square. Cut mushrooms in half and then slice finely. Julienne carrot into 1/2 inch long pieces. Chop beet, garlic, and jalapeno half finely. Fry all vegetables in cooking oil in a large saucepan on medium heat. Add salt and chili powder. Sautee for about twenty minutes, stirring every few minutes. Don't stir more often because the mushrooms won't brown. Stir in kidney beans and water. Bring to a boil and then remove from heat.
1 cup quinoa
2 cups water 1/4 lemon
1/3 cup chopped green onions
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon powdered cloves or 4 whole cloves
Combine quinoa and water in a medium pot and and bring to a boil, covered. Remove from heat and add lemon quarter, green onions, saffron threads, salt, and cloves. Cover and simmer on medium-low heat until all the quinoa has absorbed all the water. Remove from heat, add salt, and mix to disperse seasonings.